Another blog post so soon? I know exciting! We’ve gotten a few requests lately for some assistance with low-light photography from fans on our Facebook page. So I thought it would be a good idea to do another blog post about it, since it can be a difficult topic. And what better way to learn then with a little help from some childhood friends!
This past April I had the opportunity to spend some time visiting the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA. It’s quite an amazing facility providing education, history and entertainment all relating to various forms of puppetry from across the globe. They have interactive displays, informative workshops, and also really awesome puppet performances, if you’re ever in the Atlanta area I highly suggest you pay them a visit.
Now I’ll admit I do love all kinds of puppets, but the main draw for me visiting the center was to see the display of some very special friends.
It’s Big Bird!!!!!
That’s right…I went to the Center for Puppetry Arts to visit THE MUPPETS!!!! In 2007 the Center for Puppetry Arts was named the proposed repository for much of Jim Henson’s collection of puppets. However, they have to raise money to build a space to house the collection. In the meantime, they do have a limited amount of Muppets on display and let me tell you it’s quite an experience being mere inches away from these amazing characters.
So how can the Muppets help us to learn about low-light photography? Well in the photo above Big Bird was actually behind glass, and no flash photos were allowed because flash can cause them to deteriorate. So I had to employ a number of low-light photography techniques in order to get some great photos of these guys.
Before we dive right into photo technique, let’s take a minute to talk about proper etiquette when taking these photos at a museum, aquarium or any public place. These institutions put on exhibits for the public to come and learn, view and enjoy, they are not there specifically for you to photograph. So you must understand that when you decide you’d like to get a great shot of something you may be inconveniencing others around you.
How do I get such great shots? Well bribing the manager doesn’t hurt….kidding! It takes a lot of patience, sometimes I’ll wait by a display for a long time until the crowds to disperse before I move in with my big lens to get the shot, but as you can see it’s worth it as you get much better shots and you won’t be rushed or upset others who are there to view the exhibit. There have even been times that I’ll see an exhibit with my friends or family and then go back again by myself to take photos so that I don’t bother them by making them wait around for me while I get the shot.
But Scott, you say, “I went to the Louvre to photograph the Mona Lisa, and the people never left…I’d still be there today waiting to take her photo”. Yeah she’s pretty popular, so what do you do if the item you want to photograph has a continuous line of people? You get in the line and wait your turn. When you get to the front, take your shots quickly since there are many people behind you waiting to see the exhibit.
I know you’re thinking now…”Scott, I understand that I need to get my shot fast, but how can I do that? Once I get there I have to check my settings, make sure the photo is properly exposed..these things take time!” Very true…so you need to be prepared BEFORE you get up there. While you’re waiting on line, start taking photos. Play with your settings until you’re exposure is perfect and you’re all ready to go. This way when you get up to the front and only have a few seconds to make it count all you need to do is take the shot and move on.
Set your camera settings ahead of time for a perfectly exposed quick shot
I do this all the time when I shoot. Yeah I know The Lorax is not the Mona Lisa, but he’s close. There’s a very long line to see him and you have little time to get the shot once you do. My wife thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world when I start taking photos of the characters with other people’s children, but that’s how I test my settings while waiting in line so that once I get to meet the head mouse himself, all it takes is a click or two of the shutter and we’re on our way.
Now that we’ve discussed proper etiquette when trying to get great photos, let’s talk about some techniques we can use to make them a reality. Basically it all comes down to getting more light into the camera so we can get a nicely exposed shot without using a flash. There are many ways we can do this.
The first is by raising the ISO setting. We’ve discussed ISO before in previous blog posts. The ISO setting on our cameras controls how sensitive our digital camera’s sensor is to light or how sensitive the film is to light on a traditional camera. Increasing ISO makes better exposed photos when shooting in low light levels. Great..problem solved, end of blog post!
Not quite…yes raising the ISO will increase the exposure of our photo, however, there is a side effect that we must take into account, each of the three camera settings that control exposure, ISO, aperture and shutter speed, all have a side effect as well. The more we increase ISO the more grain or noise our photo will have.
Most modern digital cameras can handle up to ISO 1600 reasonably well. Some high-end Digital SLR’s can even go as high as ISO 6400 without showing too much noise. For example in the photo I took below of the very hip and funky Dr. Teeth, of the famous band the Electric Mayhem, I used an ISO setting of 1000 which allowed for a nice properly exposed photo without a flash and very little noise.
Dr Teeth properly exposed using an increased ISO and slow shutter speed. ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8
However, my twinkle-toed piano playing friend Dr. Teeth was in such a darkly lit area that increasing the ISO alone would not have been enough. So what else can we do to take better photos in low-light?
We can use a slower shutter-speed. We’ve talked about shutter-speed before too. Shutter speed controls how long the camera’s shutter remains open to let light in when taking a photo. The longer it stays open the more light comes in, and the brighter your photo will be. But we mustn’t forget about the exposure side effects. What happens if I leave my shutter open too long?
We get blur. You know how sometimes those photos you take in low-light come out blurry? That’s because you’re using a shutter speed that’s too slow. Just how slow is too slow? It varies depending on the focal length of the lens you are using and also whether or not your lens has some form of Vibration Reduction built-in. As a general rule of thumb most people shooting with a “normal” length lens can hand-hold a camera with shutter speeds down to about 1/30.
Again this is a general estimation…please don’t send me messages showing me your heroic hand-held photos taken at 1/8s. Sure, there are people out there who can do this, maybe one of their distant relatives was a hydraulic tripod, perhaps their hands are fused together in one giant solid camera cradle that has no vibration, but for the most part 1/30 is a good approximate number to use.
When taking this photo of my good friend Sherlock Hemlock the world’s greatest detective, I used a shutter speed of 1/30. This, combined with an ISO of 1000 allowed me to get a nicely exposed photo in very dark lighting conditions.
Properly exposed photo of Sherlock Hemlock, ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8
Those of you readers with keen observation skills might notice something a little odd about this photo of Sherlock Hemlock. Do you see it? Take a look at the angle I shot this from. Why did I photograph Sherlock Hemlock from the side and not from the front like you would expect?
Anyone know? Well it all has to do with the fact that these exhibits are behind glass. When you think about it all of these exhibits are lit from above outside the glass. This means that there’s going to be light reflections and most importantly glare on the glass. If I had photographed Sherlock Hemlock from the front he’d be a washed out mess because of all the lights being reflected back off the glass. This can easily be corrected by taking the time to move around a little bit and noticing how the reflections change depending on where you’re viewing them from.
You’ll notice that there are particular angles that you can view the glass where there are no lights reflecting back at all. Usually you find these angles by looking at the exhibit through the side of the display case. Once you’ve found the “sweet spot” with no glare then go ahead and take your photo, you’ll be glad you spent the extra few moments to make sure you’re standing in the right spot. I’m sure Mokey Fraggle appreciated how I was able to capture her likeness in the photo below without being obscured by glare.
Photographing exhibits behind glass from an angle helps to eliminate glare
Speaking of angles, what happens on the rare occasion that you happen to be in a place that actually allows you to take flash photos?
First a disclaimer…99% of the museums and public places you visit will not allow you to use a flash. Why? Because flash can destroy antiquities and cause paint and pigments to fade. Now of course one flash burst probably won’t do it, but imagine hundreds of people a day passing by a painting photographing it with flash. That painting won’t last very long without fading.
So before you use a flash, please, please, PLEASE make 100% sure that you are allowed to use one!
Now having said that, if you happen to be at a place that does allow flash such as say an aquarium and you want to take a photo of one of the lovely fish through the glass, what do you think happens when you try to take a photo straight on?
That’s right…it flashes right back in your face and you get horrible glare.
Glare from the flash on a fish tank
Well this is a disappointing turn of events you say. Fear not! There is a way around the dreaded flash glare, and surprisingly it is very similar to eliminating glare when we’re not using flash. Anybody care to venture a guess? I’ll wait………….
Yes! That’s right if we take our photo from an angle instead of strait on it allows the flash to go through the glass without having it bounce back in our face. Glare eliminated. Of course when shooting with flash this requires a bit of trial and error to get it right as opposed to when shooting with ambient light which you can see all the time.
Shooting a photo with flash at an angle to the glass eliminates the glare
Well there you have it, you’re now armed with all the tools you need to get out there and start taking some awesome photos in low-light levels. As always, I’d love to see your results, please feel free to post some, and if you have the time feel free to leave a comment or two.
And if you ever find yourself in the Atlanta area do yourself a favor and visit the Center for Puppetry Arts we’ve barely scratched the surface here of what they have to offer, and I promise you’ve never been in a more creepy room than their puppet “attic”, you’ll see 😉
All characters depicted in this blog are copyright of their respective owners including all Muppet characters ©The Muppets Studio, Sesame Street characters ©Sesame Workshop and Fraggle characters ©The Jim Henson Company.
Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 2 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut and a traveling exhibit entitled “America: Coast to Coast”. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dengrovestudios