What do you do when you have two low-light kings, the Nikon D4s and the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4? You take them for a night shoot of course! After receiving both for some testing / reviews, I took off to photograph Denver downtown at night. It was way past the sunset time, so I knew that I would only have street lights to illuminate my subjects. Since the Zeiss Otus is an insanely sharp lens wide open, I set its aperture to f/1.4 and only changed it a couple of times during the night in order to increase depth of field and ISO. Interestingly, at such a large aperture, I found myself often shooting at pretty low ISO levels – generally under ISO 3200. So it was nice to be able to push my shutter speeds as high as 1/400 for freezing motion:
When photographing in artificial light, one has to always watch out for the potential light frequency issue. Due to the different intensities and wavelengths of light emitted by fluorescent and other sources of man-made light, there might be severe variations in exposure when photographing at fast shutter speeds. This is a similar “flickering” issue that you see when photographing or video-recording a TV screen – different light frequencies cause the flicker that is recorded by the camera. This can happen both when taking an image and when recording videos. Take a look at the following image, which I captured in a low-light situation using the Nikon Df:
Fast prime lenses offer a number of advantages. They are great tools in many situations – whether you need discretion, low-light performance, portability or aesthetics, there’s a lens for every taste. However, these strong advantages also come with certain issues. When used wide-open (meaning at maximum aperture), many prime lenses render extremely shallow depth of field. In normal lighting conditions modern AF systems are capable of focusing accurately. In low-light environments, our DSLRs start to suffer, which reduces our chances of capturing sharp images. Because of this, missed focus is often mistaken for lack of general lens sharpness by beginner photographers. In this article, I will introduce you to several tips on how to use fast lenses in low-light environments, which hopefully will make you feel a little more confident when using them for your photography needs.
Tips on Shooting in Low-Light Conditions
1) Calibrate Your Lenses
The first step you need to take in order to focus accurately in any light, is to make sure that your lens(es) can focus accurately in general. Front and back-focusing has become a very known issue recently. It has become especially visible with higher resolution sensors – they are most unforgiving if you miss focus even slightly. If you want to know why these issues happen, please read our How Phase Detection Autofocus Works article where we explain everything thoroughly. If you want to identify whether your gear has any of these problems, read our How to Quickly Test Your DSLR for Autofocus Issues article.
One of the requests we have been getting lately from some of our readers has been to provide more simple and easy to understand photography techniques. So far this year we have covered a lot of complex topics that are for more advanced users, thanks to such new fine tools as the Nikon D800. So for the remainder of the year, we decided to focus on photography basics again, covering simple and basic techniques and tips for beginners. In this article, I will go over the focus and recompose technique, which can be quite useful when photographing in various environments – whether shooting in low-light situations, or composing your shots with the subject in the corner of the frame. I personally use this technique quite a bit in event photography and it saved me a number of times when the light conditions were extremely poor and my camera could not properly focus.
1) What Recomposing Means
Before I talk about this technique, let me first explain what the word “recompose” stands for in photography. When you take a picture, you carefully frame your shot and place your subject somewhere in the frame before you take a picture. In other words, you compose the shot. Recomposing simply means framing your shot first (for example to acquire focus), then moving your camera to re-position your subject somewhere else in the frame.
In this fifth issue of the Photography FAQ series, I will answer some of the interesting questions from our readers that I thought would be beneficial for others. Big thanks to our readers for continuously sending questions to us and participating in the comments section of our blog. We truly value your feedback and we do our best to respond to your queries as soon as we can.
- How can I get sharp images of moving people?
Use a faster shutter speed! If you do not understand the relationship of motion blur to shutter speed, check out my “understanding shutter speed” article, where I explain what shutter speed does and how you can freeze motion.
- Is it worth buying UV/protection filters for Nikon 35mm f/1.8G and Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lenses? Isn’t using a lens hood good enough to protect the front lens?
I would definitely recommend to buy UV filters for both lenses, for one simple reason – it is easier to clean these lenses with filters! If you look at the front part of both lenses, you will see that these lenses have “layers” or threads of black plastic around the front lens element:
One of our readers, Steven Ross, was kind enough to send an image to me as a Case Study. He is wondering why his image did not come out sharp, with some light spill and overexposure. Here is what he sent me:
And his comments:
I used the camera on aperture priority mode and on a tripod but it appears that since the monument was being lit by spotlights the shutter speed was too long and the monument seems much brighter/overexposed compared to the rest of the scene.
Our first case study was submitted by our regular visitor Dennis, who lives in Singapore. Here is the description of his problem:
Hi Nasim, I have tried night shots using 35mm f/1.8G. It is a landscape shot with river reflecting street lamps. I do it handheld, aperture mode, f1.8, shutter 1/5sec, ISO 1600. Strangely despite a dark black sky, the shot came out reddish sky and the center focus point have some reflected light that shouldn’t be there. I tried to shoot other night shots on sky, it appeared to have this reflected light. The pattern is random, depends on what I shoot. I don’t understand why. Do I have to take out the UV filter attached on it? I have read through these tips, but couldn’t understand what causes this to happen. Yours look sharp!
Dennis sent me the following picture as an example, which was taken in a public park in Singapore:
Here are my comments on the photo, along with the solution to the problem: