low-light photography

Low-light photography is like many other areas of human experience: if you have to ask why people do it, you'll never understand the answers you get. The mere fact that you have decided to buy this module argues pretty strongly that we don't have to persuade you of its merits. Like us, you don't want to stop shooting just because light levels are starting to fall, and you don't like the harsh shadows, sharp fall-off and unnatural effects that you get with flash. So what do you do?

Well, there are many possibilities. You can give longer exposures; you can switch to a faster film, or turn up the ISO sensitivity of your digital camera. You can buy faster lenses, with more light-gathering power. You may well find -- many do -- that some cameras are easier to hold steady than others. All of these approaches are canvassed below, together with the pros and cons of each (including cost) and the most useful techniques for getting a good image when light levels are low, including the often vexed question of metering.

Dogoromilovskaya Market, Moscow

Low-light candid photography, where the subject is not aware of your presence, is about as demanding as it gets. You need fast lenses AND fast film AND a quiet camera that can be focus quickly and unobtrusively AND hand-held with confidence at long-ish shutter speeds. Leica M-series cameras are ideal, which is why Roger has been using them for over 30 years. This was an M4-P with a 35/1.4 Summilux loaded with Ferrania/Scotch 1000D.

One thing, however, must be paramount. It doesn't matter how technically difficult or clever a shot is: it must still succeed as a picture. This doesn't mean it must be free from blur or grain, or that it must meet any other technical requirements: it merely means that if the picture is boring, it is a failure, not a success. Rather too many people forget this, and hold up the most dismal snapshots as examples of their prowess as low-light photographers.

Our Low Light and Night Photography (David & Charles, 1989) is long out of print and a bit out of date too. Even so, you may find it interesting to look for a copy.

longer exposures

This is obviously the cheapest and easiest approach, and even the box cameras of yore often had two shutter speeds, Instantaneous (typically around 1/30 second) and Bulb, Brief or Time, where the shutter stayed open for as long as the shutter release was held down. Most modern mechanical cameras offer shutter speeds to 1 second, and electronic cameras often go a lot longer, especially on auto-exposure.

There are however three significant drawbacks to ever-lengthening exposures: camera movement (camera shake), subject movement and reciprocity failure. The first can be rendered negligible with a suitable camera support, and considerably reduced even for hand-held photography via a number of techniques as described below; the second depends very much on the nature of the subject; and the third is much less important than it used to be, though still significant with really long exposures (several seconds or more).

Yellow House, Arles

A straightforward example of a longer shutter speed. Frances loaded her Voigtländer Bessa-T with Ilford Delta 3200 and shot through a 28/1.9 Voigtländer Ultron. A maximum aperture of f/1.9 is pretty fast for a 28mm lens and the shorter focal length makes it easier to hand-hold steady, even with Frances's 'benign essential tremor (medicalese for 'shaky hands, but don't worry about it'). This is the 'Yellow House' painted by Vincent van Gogh.

camera movement

There is more in a later part of the module about both camera supports and the techniques of hand-holding, so the main points to make here are first, that a very great deal depends on focal length; second, that arguably even more depends on format and final image size; and third, there is never a 'one size fits all' safe figure for shutter speeds.

The longer the focal length, the more sensitive the whole system is to vibration. Mount a camera with a long lens -- 300mm, say -- on a tripod; focus on something; tap the lens; and watch the vibration. This is a simple consequence of magnification: any tremor or vibration is magnified along with the image size. With a 'standard' lens (equal in focal length to the diagonal of the film or sensor) any angular movement of the camera is reproduced 1:1 on the film.

With a wide-angle, the angular movement on the film is less than the angular movement on the camera; with a longer lens, the angular movement on the film is greater. This is why, for a given shooting distance, camera movement is always less of a problem with wide-angle lenses than with longer ones.


Drummer, New York City

The wider the angle of coverage of the lens, the easier it is to hand-hold the camera at long shutter-speeds; and as fish-eyes are widest of all, with (in this case) a diagonal coverage of 180 degrees, they are correspondingly easiest to hold. Frances used a 15/2,8 Sigma on a Nikkormat for this picture, shooting on Kodak TMZ P3200 rated as 12,500.

Magnification also explains the importance of format and final image size. The sensor on a Nikon D70 is approximately 16x24mm, so an A4 (210x297mm, 8-1/4 x 11-3/4) enlargement is just over 13x: any unsharpness in the original image is also magnified 13x. Make the same size print from a 4x5 inch original, and you are looking at approximately a 2.5x enlargement. This is how the pressmen of old used to get away with exposures of 1/5 second and longer with their 5x4 inch Speed Graphics and 9x12cm VNs, not just occasionally, but on a regular basis. It is also a matter of common experience that a snapshot that looks good as 10x15cm/4x6 inches may turn out to be unsharp when blown up to 20x30cm/8x12 inch. In the first case the blur is too small to see; in the second, it isn't.

The degree of blur that comes with a particular shutter speed will also depend on the person holding the camera, if it is hand held: some people are much steadier than others, to the tune of a couple of steps on the shutter speed dial or more -- Frances's 'benign essential tremor' again. But it is not constant, even for one person: if they have been running, or are frightened, or maybe just hungry or tired, they will shake more. Nor are all tripods created equal. This is why there is never a single 'safe' speed for avoiding camera movement.

subject movement

If the exposure is long enough -- several seconds -- even a strolling passer-by can blur into nothingness; whereas a dancer, or a musician in the middle of a particularly vigorous routine, can blur even at 1/30 second or faster. Often, such blur can be used creatively, but sometimes it can't; and almost invariably, there comes a point where the movement is so great that the subject is no longer recognizable.

There used to be wonderful and comprehensive tables for the shutter speeds necessary to stop various kinds of movement, with three columns according to whether the subject was at 90 degrees to you, 45 degrees, or coming straight at you -- the prospect of an express locomotive coming straight at you at 60 mph (call it 100 km/h) was always one of the more alarming -- but quite honestly there seems little advantage in them, not least because no-one has time to look them up.



Camera shake can be 'submerged' to a considerable extent in subject movement, as here. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 pushed to EI 1600 (it was before Kodak TMZ and Ilford Delta 3200 had made their appearance) using a 58/1.4 Nikkor on a Nikon F.

reciprocity failure

The reciprocity law says that you can always compensate for a reduced aperture by increasing exposure time, or vice versa, but it ceases to hold good at very long exposure times. This is because of some fairly straightforward subatomic physics. Photography works because one wavicle, the photon, affects another wavicle, the electron, knocking it from a lower-energy orbit to a higher-energy and therefore more reactive orbit. After a while, some of these excited electrons fall back into lower-energy orbits. This is the cause both of latent image regression (as described in the free Glossary) and reciprocity failure, where you have to give extra exposure in order to achieve the same density. In other words, where you might expect to have to give 5 seconds exposure, you might need 7 or 10 or more.

A great deal depends on the emulsion design, and most modern emulsions suffer far less from reciprocity than older ones. Many have an entirely linear response from 1/10,000 second to 1 minute or more, but some others may require 50 per cent extra exposure at as little as one second. The only way to find out is by experiment or (better still) by looking at the manufacturers' specification sheets for individual films. Colour films may also require some filtration to bring colours back to normal if you give them very long exposures.

faster films

Film speeds are constantly changing and improving. When 35mm Kodachrome was introduced in 1936 it was a slow-to-medium speed film at roughly the equivalent of ISO 10 (ISO and indeed ASA speeds were still far in the future), and the super-speed films of the period were things like Kodak Super-XX at the equivalent of ISO 200 or so. It is no exaggeration to say that a modern ISO 400 black and white film has superior performance (grain and sharpness) to an ISO 125 film of the 1950s, while the very idea of slide films that could be exposed at ISO 400 and above was unimaginable when High Speed Ektachrome (ASA 160) was introduced in 1956/57.

Despite the excellence of modern fast films, they do have their drawbacks. To begin with, they are more expensive than their slower brethren: often twice as expensive, or even more. They are grainier than slower films; and less sharp; and beyond a certain speed (which is constantly rising) slide films deliver weak, desaturated colours and blacks that reproduce as deep purple or green or magenta rather than true black. A similar problem can arise with negative films but this is often a matter of bad exposure at the taking stage or incompetent printing.

There's not much to say about grain: either you put up with it (or even actually like it), or you don't. Likewise, personal standards about what is 'sharp enough' are, well, personal. Cost may be important if you shoot a lot of film: there comes a point where it is cheaper to buy a faster lens, and use it with a slower film, than to buy faster films. The last point about desaturated colours is surmountable if the slides are scanned and treated in Adobe Photoshop or a similar program, and by decent printing with negatives.

Of course, as with longer shutter speeds, there comes a point where even the fastest film you can get is not fast enough, and you need to look at faster lenses too; but before that, we need to take a look at first 'pushing' and then digital capture.


Passion play, Guadalupe, California

True high-speed slide films, which deliver a high ISO when processed for the standard times in Kodak E-6 or compatible chemistry, have been replaced by 'push' films (see below) that give comparable (and sometimes better) quality if the time in the first developer is extended. Even so, there are plenty of photographers, including ourselves, who mourn the passing of such films as Scotch/Ferrania/3M 650T (tungsten) and 1000D (daylight) films, as used here, or Agfa's Agfachrome 1000. The sad truth is that the market just wasn't big enough. Besides, if you are after the same look, it can to a great extend be re-created with digital sensors at their highest speeds, as shown below.


All films can be 'pushed', that is, made to give a higher apparent speed, via extended development. This is most usual with black and white but it can also be done with colour slide and even colour negative. The advantages of pushing are obvious but the disadvantages can be significant too: increased contrast, bigger grain (or coarser dye-clouds), degraded colour and weak blacks. Also, there rapidly comes a point where no further shadow detail can be extracted and the dark areas of the final image are empty black holes.

None of this need matter; as with any 'fault' in photography, it can all be used creatively. Everything depends on the subject, the composition, and the intention (and skill) of the photographer. But, as noted near the beginning of the module, it is important not to try to fool yourself by pretending that an inferior result is actually what you wanted.

This is why we now rarely push Ilford Delta 3200 beyond 3200: we prefer the tonality and shadow detail we get this way. But in the days when we used Kodak TMZ P3200, we commonly rated it at 12,500. This was because the results at 12,500 were not significantly worse than at 3200 -- though in our eyes, the results at 3200 were so inferior to those delivered by Delta 3200 that as soon as the latter appeared, we switched to it without hesitation. It is however important to point out that this all refers to the kind of pictures we take, not the kind that others take. For pictures of musicians in dim-lit jazz clubs, for example, Delta 3200 at 12,500 would still be our choice.

Interior, Hagia Sofia

Frances shot this on TMZ P3200 at 12,500 before Delta 3200 came out, using a 15/2.8 Sigma fisheye on a Nikkormat. Now, unless we REALLY needed the speed, we would use Delta 3200 at 3200. You can of course get much more speed out of black and white than you can out of colour, as witness the next picture.

You will always get technically better results if you start out with a fast film and (in black and white) a speed increasing developer. Let's take Ilford HP5 Plus and Ilford Delta 3200 as examples. In Ilford DD-X developer their respective ISO speeds are around 650 and 1250; in Ilford Perceptol, maybe 250 and 650. Push to 1600. HP5 in DD-X is about 1-1/3 stops; in Perceptol, 2-2/3 stops. The contrast in the latter must therefore be much higher, because the film is over-developed far more. With the Delta 3200, you are looking at 1/3 stop push in DD-X and 1-1/3 stops in Perceptol. Now move up to 3200 and you can add a stop to all those values. Of course there are pictures where pushes of 3 stops or more are going to be successful -- but there are a lot of lousy pictures taken with 'mega-pushes' where the photographer would have done a lot better to start with a fast film in the first place.

Some films push much more gracefully than others and indeed there are films that are designed to be pushed: Delta 3200 (true maximum ISO 1250), Kodak TMZ (true maximum ISO 1000) and Fuji Neopan 1600 (true maximum ISO about 650) are the classic examples in black and white, while there are several ISO 400 slide films that deliver better results with one- and two-stop pushes (800 to 1600) than they do at their rated speed: Fuji RSP is one of the best-known (and best).


Hagia Sofia, Constantinople

Fuji's excellent RSP (base speed ISO 400) was pushed a little too far here: a nominal 3-stop push (EI 3200) though the film was actually rated at EI 2500. We started to adopt this approach for ourselves but more and more films now recognize its advantage: one ISO 200 film we used to use said that push 1 would give 320 instead of 400; push 2, 640 instead of 800; and push 3, 1000 instead of 1600. These 'push' times refer to standardized increases in the time in the first developer in Kodak E6 and compatible baths.

Here, we'd have done better to rate the film at 1250 with a 2-stop nominal push, though we'd have had to make up the 1-stop loss with a longer shutter speed. As far as we recall, Frances shot this with a 28/1.9 Vivitar Series 1 on a Nikkormat.

higher sensor sensitivity

Most modern digital sensors have a basic 'film speed' equivalent to ISO 100 or 200, and the sensitivity can be increased to higher speeds, as much as ISO 1600 or even 3200 equivalent.

As with film, more speed brings about a degradation of image quality, mostly in the shape of 'noise' which looks very like grain. The point at which noise becomes excessive for a particular application is a question of subject matter and personal preference, but it generally makes itself rather more apparent after ISO 400 than is the case with film.

The main reasons why effective ISO speeds for digital image capture are not higher are cost, quality and lack of demand. If cost were no object, they could be a lot higher; if people would put up with lower quality, they could perhaps be doubled; and the simple truth is that ISO 1600 is enough for most people. If it isn't, there's always film.

Found still life, Atelier du Buissonier, Moncontour

A combination of the maximum possible ISO setting (1600) and a soft-focus lens (Dreamagon 90/4) gave this painterly, pointilliste image which we find much reminiscent of the unsharp, grainy Ferrania/3M/Scotch ultra-fast films (640T and 1000D) of beloved memory. Roger used the Nikon D70 for this shot in the dim-lit workshop one morning.

faster lenses

All but the best cameras nowadays are usually supplied with a woefully slow 'standard zoom', typically in the f/3.5 to f/4.5 range. Most people need nothing faster, especially if they are prepared to use fast films or high digital sensor speeds; the lenses are reasonably light and compact; and they deliver amazingly good quality for the price. It is also worth reflecting than an f/4 lens with Ilford Delta 3200 rated at EI 3200 is the equivalent of an f/1.4 lens with ISO 400, the classic photojournalist's Tri-X or HP5. With the fastest lenses available, 50/1 from Leica and Canon, you could use FP4 in Microphen, which is around ISO 200. Combine a 50/1 with Delta 3200 and your main problem is going to be finding enough light to focus by.

Although ultra-fasts are real 'glamour bottles' and make photography possible under far poorer light than their slower brethren, they suffer from four big disadvantages: size, weight, price and limited depth of field. They are rarely quite as sharp or contrasty as the next slower lens in the line-up: although the 75/1.4 Summilux for the Leica is surprisingly good, the 75/2 Summicron is simply stunning. Similar considerations apply to the 50/1 Noctilux and 50/1.4 Summilux. or the 35/1.2 Nokton and 35/1.7 Ultron from Voigtländer.

Kelvinhall Circus

Roger shot this in the early 1970s, using a 1936 Leica IIIa and an even older uncoated 'fat barrel' 9cm f/4 Elmar -- at full aperture, of course. What is more remarkable is the film stock: Barfen (honestly!) ISO 50, made by Ferrania and processed in unique proprietary colour chemistry. The exposure was probably 1/20 second or less. Although the sharpness is nothing near what could be achieved with a 90/2 Summicron and modern film, it is still pretty remarkable.

size and weight

Obviously these two are closely related, and it is worth adding that the size of fast lenses has been going up over the years. At one time, people were content with significantly inferior performance from fast lenses, plus quite heavy vignetting. Today this is less acceptable. This normally means more glasses, and bigger elements. Although lenses for rangefinder cameras are usually a good deal more compact than those for SLRs, excess bulk may have the additional disadvantage of blocking more of the viewfinder.


There is an old saying in motor racing: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" It is quite usual for an f/1.4 lens to cost 50 to 100 per cent more than an f/2 (or f/1.8 or even f/1.7) and then for an f/1.2 to cost 50 to 100 per cent more again. In other words, the fastest lens you can buy at any given focal length is likely to cost several times as much as a more conventional speed.

depth of field

This is the real bugbear. First, you have to focus with extreme accuracy: you can't let depth of field cover inaccuracies in focusing, because there isn't any. Second, even if you have focused perfectly, the depth of field may not be adequate. At one metre/40 inches, if the pupil of someone's eye is in focus with a 50/1, their nose and ears will be well out of focus and you may see the end of their eyelashes going out of focus.



You can see how depth of field can be a problem at full aperture, even with the f/1.7 Voigtländer Ultron (on a Bessa-R2) that Roger used here. He focused on the man on the right; the man on the left is less than sharp.

Of course it would have been possible to use a faster film than the Paterson Acupan 200 that this was shot on, but the rest of the vendage (grape harvest and wine-making) was shot on this film and staying with it allowed a more consistent tonality.

choosing and using fast lenses

We are great devotees of fast lenses, but we rarely have the very fastest available. In particular, with our favourite focal lengths (35, 50 and 75mm on 35mm), we have 35/1.4 and 35/1.7 instead of 35/1.2; 50/1.2 and 50/1.5 instead of 50/1; and 75/2 instead of 75/1.4.

Only with the 50mm is this solely down to price: we would buy a 50/1 in a moment if we could afford it, but instead we have one very good reasonably fast lens, the 50/1.5 Nokton (f/1.5 is effectively indistinguishable from f/1.4) and an old, old 50/1.2 Canon from the early 1960s which Roger bought many years ago on a Canon 7 and then kept when he sold the camera for very nearly what he paid for the camera and lens together. It's very fast, and although the quality is lousy wide open it has a certain charm that is usually described as 'character'.

We have tried both the 35/1.2 Voigtländer Nokton and the current aspheric 35/1.4 Leica Summilux, but the old pre-aspheric Summilux is so much smaller and lighter than either that we cannot bring ourselves to find the extra money, whether for a mere half-stop of extra speed or for the undoubtedly superior performance of the newer Summilux.

As for the 75/2, we have enough trouble with depth of field at f/2, quite apart from the bulk, weight, price and significantly inferior performance of the f/1.4.

Your mileage may of course vary: you may find an f/1.7 or f/2 fast enough with 35mm, or you may be unable to live without the f/1,2, and so, mutatis mutandis, for 50mm and 75mm. The 75/2.5 Voigtlander is certainly very good, but 2/3 stop slower; and of course, the performance of the 75/2 Summicron defies belief. All we are saying is that while fast lenses are wonderful, they have their drawbacks too.


Volunteer, Draper's Mill

Draper's Mill is a windmill near the Kent coast that is undergoing restoration; the volunteers who are doing the work are charming, friendly people. Roger shot this with the 35/1.7 Ultron when it first came out, as part of a magazine test; the camera was a Voigtländer Bessa-R and the film Kodak EBX ISO 100. To be honest, he did not really miss the extra 1/2 stop that his Summilux gives him, but equally, we sold our 35/2 Summicron because although it gave significantly better results than the Summilux at f/2 to f/4, there was very little difference at f/5.6 and below and at f/1.4 there was no contest. We find that we use most fast lenses either wide open (as here) or at f/5.6 and below -- and even our old Canon 50/1.2 is surprisingly good at anything from f/5.6 to f/11, though it deteriorates badly at f/22 and is marginal at f/16.

cameras for low-light photography

Some cameras are better than others for low-light photography. The main considerations are the availability of fast lenses; ease of focusing; and holding the camera steady. Fast lenses have already been discussed: this is a matter of perusing the catalogues. Remember too that other manufacturers' fast lenses may be available for a particular system, e.g. 35/1.2 Nokton (Voigtländer) for Leica and Zeiss Ikon and 50/1 Noctilux (Leica) for Voigtländer and Zeiss Ikon. Most people find it faster and easier to focus a rangefinder manually in poor light, but two important considerations are rangefinder base and (with M-series Leicas) viewfinder magnification.

The short Voigtländer base is not really up to focusing ultra-fast lenses, or even moderately fast lenses such as 90/2 instead of 90/3.5, though the R3A (1:1 viewfinder) and Bessa-T (1.5x magnified rangefinder) are better than the other models. With the Leica, the 0.85x viewfinder is significantly easier than the 0,72x and very much easier than the 0.58x.

Frances shooting with Voigtlander Bessa-R and 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar

With Delta 3200 rated at 12,500, as here, and an f/3.5 Apo-Langthar, the Voigtländer's rangefinder is entirely adequate. Remember, an f/3.5 lens with EI 12,500 is like an f/1.4 with EI 2000 or so.

Autofocus is another matter but all too many autofocus cameras require a flash of supplementary light in order to focus in poor light. Not only does this slow things down: it can also lead to interesting reactions when you are photographing the President of the United States and it takes some of the guards a fraction of a second to work out that this is neither a laser gunsight nor a death ray. This actually happened to a friend of ours in the White House Press Corps.

Many people believe that a Leica M-series is uniquely easier to hold steady than a reflex, and certainly it is common to find that people can achieve the same sharpness with a Leica at one or even two shutter-speed steps longer than with a reflex. Our own view is that this is partly down to the shape and weight of the Leica -- neither so light it jiggles around nor so heavy it makes your arms tired and increases shake -- but also partly down to continuous viewing. Put a separate viewfinder on top of your reflex and you may find you can hold it steadier too.

It is also worth mentioning roll-film cameras for low-light. True, a 38/4.5 Biogon on an Alpa is slow, but you can afford to use very fast film: at a given enlargement size, Delta 3200 gives smaller grain than you would get from blowing up ISO 400 35mm. The reduced magnification (see above) means you can hand-hold the camera for longer, and to help still more, the Alpa is wonderfully ergonomic. Another roll-film camera we use for low-light is a Graflex XL with 80/2.8 Rodenstock lens and 6x7cm back. Other possibilities include f/2.4 lenses (Pentax 67), f/2 (Hasselblad) and even f/1.9 (Mamiya 645), but these are reflexes and harder to focus.

Miller, Himalayas

Frances rated Delta 3200 at 3200 when she exposed it in a 6x9cm back on her Alpa 12S/WA fitted with a 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon. Because this is the equivalent of about a 15mm lens on 35mm, and because the Alpa is very easy to hold steady, she was able to shoot hand-held at 1/30 second despite her 'benign essential tremor'. The only thing she is less than happy about is the splash of sunlight behind him: as she said, "It's as if the sun shines out of his bum."

low-light techniques

With equipment and materials out of the way, we can now go back to techniques. There are three main concerns: avoiding subject movement, metering and (above all) holding the camera steady, whether hand-held or on a tripod.

It is also is worth pointing out that very often you will be shooting 'for the percentages': enough pictures will be spoiled by camera movement, or poor focus, or subject movement, that you are likely to have to discard a good number of them as failures. Be ruthless with this. If a picture is good despite technical shortcomings, keep it; but if its technical shortcomings spoil it, throw it out. Don't try to fool yourself that pictures in the latter category are really in the former.

avoiding subject movement

This is usually a matter of anticipation. In many kinds of movement there is a 'dead point' where the subject reverses direction: the classic example is a high jumper, who is moving at his (or her) slowest at the moment of crossing the bar, but if you closely watch a musician, dancer, tennis player or anyone else you should begin to be able to guess when they will be moving relatively slowly and will therefore be easier to 'freeze' -- though of course, you may well decide that some blur, at least in part of the image, will add to its impact.

In fact, people watching is an invaluable skill here. One thing you can see quite easily in pubs and bars is that most people are tranquillized to some degree by alcohol, and move more slowly; a lawyer after a good dinner with plenty of wine may well move, if at all, with reptilian slowness. But then you remember how suddenly some reptiles can move -- think of lizards -- and that is a cue to keep your wits about you.


Pool players

Small children are notoriously fast-moving subjects -- unless you can catch them absorbed in something. Here, the boy on the right is setting up his shot and the other two are watching rapt: an ideal situation for avoiding subject movement.

Because of her 'benign essential tremor' Frances needs faster shutter speeds than most people to avoid camera shake, so (as far as we recall) she rated the Delta 3200 in her Voigtländer Bessa R at 6400 and shot wide open with her 28/1.9 Voigtländer Ultron. You can see that even the nearer boy isn't all that sharp, but how much does it matter? The composition 'carries' the technical shortcomings, which arguably even contribute to the immediacy of the picture.


Very often with low-light scenes there is an enormous contrast range where you cannot hope to capture both highlight and shadow detail and still have a convincing-looking picture. Oh, to be sure, you can capture it, especially in black and white; but the key word is 'convincing'.

Fortunately, quite a wide range of exposures is often entirely acceptable -- a range of as much as two or three stops. This is just as well, both from a metering point of view and because of the maximum dynamic range the film can capture. In the picture below, for example, there are areas that are completely 'blown' to a featureless white, normally anathema in a slide, but because the shot captures the literal dazzle of New York at night, it doesn't matter. With a slightly different composition, a darker exposure might work better, but as the cyclist is the focus of the picture and would be lost at a stop less, this was the exposure we chose from a series of brackets (there is a free module on bracketing).

Cyclist, Times Square, New York

We do like to make life difficult for ourselves... This would be a lot easier with negative film, where all that is important is to avoid under-exposure, but Roger much prefers slide film. This was Fuji RSP, rated at EI 1250 and processed as EI 1600 (push 2). Exposure determination was by repeated incident light readings: as we were wandering about, he took repeated readings and mentally averaged them. Then he bracketed +/- 1 stop -- there is rarely much sense in smaller brackets at night. This was the light bracket. The mid bracket would have worked with a different composition, as noted in the text, but the dark bracket was just too dark. Leica M4P, 35/1.4 Summilux.

The question is, how do you establish your base exposure? There are several ways of doing it. The least reliable is uncritical acceptance of a through-lens meter reading. You may get lucky and find that the balance of light and dark is just about perfect to give you the optimum exposure: in fact, the shot above probably falls into this class, though as it was shot with a non-metered camera, we don't know. Normally, though, we find that the meter is overly influenced by the dark areas and grossly over-exposes the light areas, anything from 1 stop to 3 or even 4 stops. Once you have enough experience you can compensate for this but by that time you don't need our advice anyway.

The three most reliable approaches we have found, in ascending order of both difficulty and reliability, are incident-light metering; limited-area metering of a 'typical' area; and spot metering. There are paid modules on exposure determination for negatives and exposure determination for slides and digital, but they do not really deal very much with low-light.

incident light metering

This is easiest of all. Take a reading of the light falling on your subject. If you can't get close enough to the subject, try to take an equivalent reading. Look hard at the lighting on the subject: the kind of light, and how far the subject is from the light. Make an incident light reading at a similar distance from a similar light source (or indeed, at a similar distance from the very same light source).

Tibetan dancers

Fortunately we were able to take an incident light reading before the performance started. Unfortunately we had only slow film with us -- but the blur resulting from an exposure of maybe half a second results in a rather intriguing and dynamic shot. We have forgotten the technical details (this dates from the early 80s) but have a sneaking suspicion that it was Kodak Ektachrome 64 exposed in a 6x7cm back on a Linhof Technika 70 with a 100/2.8 Zeiss Planar.

limited area metering of a 'typical' area

The main reason to do this is if you don't have an incident light meter: it is similar to incident light metering. Take a reading off the palm of your hand and open up half a stop to a stop. Again, if you can't use the light source illuminating the subject, look for a nearby area, reasonably uniformly illuminated, that corresponds to the sort of area that you want to photograph. The human eye is a superb comparator, so this is quite easy. Take a reading of your hand or for that matter of this area. Use that as your exposure.

spot metering

This is the scientific way to do it. Use the I.R.E. scale on your spot meter -- the illustration shows Frances's Pentax Digital meter, where the I.R.E. scale is on the bottom below the EV figures --or the 'highlight' and 'shadow' indices. Measure the brightest highlight in which you want detail, and the darkest shadow in which you want detail. If the brightness range is inside I.R.E. 1 to 10, or inside the range covered by the 'highlight' and 'shadow' indices, you should be able to capture the whole scene, even on slide film or with digital. If the range is greater, what you do next will depend on whether you are shooting negative (colour or mono) or slide/digital.

For negative, choose the darkest area in which you want detail in the final print. This need not be the darkest detail you can see: you may prefer to discard some shadow detail in the interests of keeping the overall brightness range as short as possible. Take a reading from this area and set it against I.R.E. 1 or use the 'shadow' index. This is your exposure.

For slides or digital, choose the lightest area in which you want detail in the final print. This is usually the lightest area that covers any appreciable part of the image area: you can disregard light sources but big washed-out areas will normally spoil a picture. Take a reading from this area and set it against I.R.E. 10 or use the 'highlight' index. This is your exposure.

guesswork/shoot and hope

There is a surprising amount to be said for this, as soon as you have even a modicum of experience. Open the lens up to full aperture; take a guess at the shutter speed you need, and the shutter speed you can get away with. For a great deal of low-light photography, even with colour slide, 1/30 to 1/60 second at f/1.4 will suffice even with ISO 100 film. With negative film, as long as you err on the side of over-exposure, even a couple of stops extra will have very minor adverse effects as compared with ease and speed of shooting.

It is worth forcing yourself to shoot this way sometimes, checking the exposure afterwards with a meter if feasible. At a guess, about half our low-light shots are exposed this way.

hand held low light

Most importantly of all, learn to squeeze the shutter release, rather than stabbing at it. After that, don't get excited; don't run; get plenty of sleep; slouch against the wall or use any other support you can get; relax; and press the shutter while exhaling.

Getting excited and running make your heart beat faster and you have to breathe more deeply; you may also build up an adrenaline debt which increases the shakes. Keeping calm -- which is usually easier if you have had enough sleep -- also enables you to hold the camera steadier.

Slouching against a wall (or in a doorway, which many find curiously effective) reduced the 'pendulum effect' of your body. Everyone is constantly making tiny muscular adjustments just to stay upright -- that's part of what learning to walk is about -- and this induces a slight sway which is at its greatest at eye level. Use a wall or something similar as a brake and this sway is reduced.

If you can't slouch, take a leaf from the pistol-shooters book. Stand with your feet slightly apart (about a shoulders'-breadth) with one foot slightly forward and the other slightly back. Which foot is forward will depend on what you find most comfortable. Then relax as much as you can.

Making a conscious effort to relax is something you can practice while you are falling asleep at night. Get it right and you will fall asleep faster, too. As with staying upright, we all unconsciously tense ourselves here and there during the day. Make a habit of getting rid of that tension. This is sometimes described as 'relaxing all your muscles' but this is clearly an overstatement: if you did that, you'd drop the camera. Learn to relax the ones that don't need to be overly tensed.

Finally, learning to press the shutter while exhaling is not something that comes naturally, but it is a skill which, once acquired, becomes second nature. Novices almost invariably hold their breath when on the point of taking a picture, but most people are much more stable when exhaling gently.

Bicycles, Paris

This shot also appears in the paid module on negative exposure determination, where Roger (who took it) confesses that the exposure was simply guessed. With reasonably fast film (Ilford HP5 Plus rated at 500 in Ilford DD-X) and a reasonably fast lens (35/1.7 Voigtländer Ultron on a Bessa-R) you can often get all you need, and to spare, at 1/30 wide open under normal street lighting if you use the techniques described above.

What we particularly like about this is that it is very easy to see the louche male bicycle as leaning rakishly against the tree, handlebars turned casually towards the lady bicycle, trying to chat her up. She is very upright and prim: staring straight ahead, she disapproves of the improper suggestions that the other bicycle is making. By this point, a young woman would be holding her hand bag defensively in front of her with both hands.

camera supports

The classic camera support is of course the tripod, and these come in many forms. The basic advice is always to use the biggest, heaviest and most stable tripod that is practical for a given situation, though all too often, people ignore the second half of that sentence and therefore fail to use a tripod altogether, because their tripod is so big, heavy and solid that they take one look at it and think, "Nah, I'll leave it home." Yes, there are a few (a very few) occasions when a big tripod is desirable, but generally a mid-weight or even lightweight tripod is preferable. Anything weighing much over 2Kg (4.4 lb) is rarely necessary with 35mm or digital and we cheerfully use both a Slik Snapman and a Velbon Maxi343i which weigh a kilo each.


Nowrojee's, Dharamsala

Even with medium format cameras, you don't need big, heavy tripods. Our standard medium format tripod is a mid-sized Gitzo Reporter with a ball and socket head. It weighs about 2 Kg and supports everything up to light 4x5 inch cameras easily -- though you don't want the centre column extended much when you are using heavier cameras. Frances put her Alpa 12 S/WA on it to shoot the interior of the oldest surviving shop in northern India, exposing 6x9cm Kodak Portra NC400 through a 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon. Exposure determination was via a spot meter reading of the area behind the boxes on the lower right: the floor, not the deepest shadows under the display case.


If you buy a lightweight tripod, though, make sure it is a good one. Ours are several times the price of the cheapest -- maybe $100 instead of $20 or so -- but they are also much more durable and much more 'dead' (better at suppressing vibrations). A cheap tripod will often transmit or at worst amplify vibration and indeed 'ring' like a bell, especially around a narrow, badly designed joint in the tripod head. We much prefer ball and socket heads on lightweight tripods, for speed of action, solidity and 'deadness'.

Do not neglect 'table-top' tripods either. As well as their obvious use on tables, walls, car roofs and the like, there are at least three other equally useful techniques. The first is with the tripod pressed sideways against a wall; the second, as a 'chest pod', which is especially useful if you are yourself leaning against something; and the third for shooting through windows, when you press the tripod against the glass and shoot between two of its legs. We know of no better table-top tripods than UltraPod: light, solid, 'dead', beautifully made and amazingly inexpensive. You can often use table-top tripods in places where full-size tripods are forbidden.

The same is true of monopods, though there have been times when we have been told we could not use even these: in Old Goa in India, for example. Monopods typically give you one or two steps longer on the shutter-speed dial than you could get with plain hand-holding and again they can be combined with other techniques such as slouching and exhaling. Another monopod trick is to wedge the monopod against a wall with your knee; at this point, it can be nearly as solid as a tripod. They are also very useful indeed when you are waiting for something to happen: you can let the monopod take the weight of the camera, rather than having to hold it in one position for a long time which is very tiring and soon leads to the shakes and quivers.

Bean bags -- literally, small bags filled with beans or anything similar -- are essentially emergency measures where you can't even use a monopod or table-top tripod; a classic example might be shooting from a theatre balcony, though we'd prefer an UltraPod for this and we'd be surprised if it were any less welcome than a bean bag. The advantage of a bean bag (or even a pair of gloves, a rolled up coat or a scarf) is that the camera can be positioned reasonably comfortably without much risk of scratching or being forced to pivot about an awkward point. A handy little trick with both table-top tripods and bean-bags is to fit a small loop or ring so that they can be secured with a lanyard. That way, if they do fall, they won't fall on anyone (especially important in a theatre balcony) and you won't lose them in an inaccessible hole.

the bottom line

Low-light shooting is a complex cocktail of equipment, materials, technique and attitude, but it is very much one of those things that has acquired a false mystique. It really isn't difficult. You can produce enjoyable pictures with almost any equipment -- pictures, in other words, that will make you smile and remind you of happy times -- and you can produce pictures to be proud of with the vast majority of half-decent equipment.

Hill and crescent moon, Wales

This is one of Roger's favourite low-light shots (and indeed favourite shots) that he has ever taken. It is not particularly sharp, and this is a third-generation shot scanned from a Cibachrome print made from the original (now lost) transparency, which was probably on Kodak Ektachrome 64. The camera was a Leica IIIa; the lens, an uncoated 1936 5cm f/3.5 Elmar. But he still loves the colour and the composition. Compare it with the shot of Kelvinhall Circus, taken with the same camera and an even slower, older lens, and you can see that low-light photography is more a state of mind than anything else.

The most important thing of all, as with most of photography, is not to pine over the equipment or indeed materials that you don't have, or to fantasize about what you would do if you had them, but to get out and take pictures with the equipment you do have. You'll get better anyway -- that is the nature of practice -- but you'll also become better and better able to judge exactly where you should concentrate your budget and efforts on improving still more, be it faster film, a faster lens, a different camera or some form of camera support.

Prints of several of the pictures in this module are available from http://www.fotolibra.com

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© 2005 Roger W. Hicks