Low light photography

The setting is a dark church.  It’s well into the evening - night outside - so no light is coming in through the windows. For ‘ambience’ most of the main church lights aren’t on either - a few giving some pools of light around some musicians, a small number of very select other lights scattered around.  People are seated at tables throughout the church with various activities - some music, a short talk or two, a small drama - taking place during the evening to publicise a charity working in Africa and to raise money for it.  It’s a very friendly atmosphere - but not so great for a photographer!

How to take photos well in this situation? Not so easy. I still want to aim, as much as possible, for nice images. For me, that’s about still making sure I think about composition, and looking at how light is falling.  And trying as much as possible still to get sharp images, without motion blur. Oh, and I’m trying not to use flash - just because it disturbs people, draws attention to itself, and isn’t great when people are giving talks or doing drama.

So what do I do? I’m sure others will have their own methods, but here’s my recipe!

- Fix the ISO setting on the camera.  It’s going to be quite high - 1600 or maybe even 3200.  But for me, the key thing is to fix it and not let it run wild on auto - that way lies potentially very noisy images.

- I then tend to shoot in shutter priority mode.  I want to control the shutter speed, because if it goes too low I’ll struggle to get sharp images with either me or the people I’m photographing moving.  I find that, using my 70-200mm lines, I fix my shutter speed at around 1/100th of a second.  I might sometimes see if I can get away with 1/80th or even 1/60th, but I’ll need to prop myself against a pillar in these cases, try to take shots when the subject isn’t moving too much, and make sure I’ve got several shots under my belt so I can pick the best one sharpness-wise.

- I let the camera pick the aperture. I could be in full manual mode, but might not have time to adjust things when taking candid pics.  Very often the camera will default to the widest aperture - and so be it!  That can produce nice depth of field effects anyway.

- I’m fortunate in that my 70-200 lens has a widest aperture of f2.8, so lets in a reasonable amount of light.  I like this lens as I can stand a little way back and not disturb people.  But if I need to, I’ll use a ‘faster’ lens which can let in even more light through having a bigger aperture still (I’m fortunate enough to have an f1.4 85mm lens - but Canon do a very good and inexpensive 50mm f1.8 lens). Oh, and image stabilisation on, if your lens or camera has it.

- and then finally, take care in processing not to sharpen images so much that the noise comes out.  Ideally, you don’t want to brighten too much either, as this will also bring out the noise, but it sometimes can’t be avoided.

Well - that’s what I do.  Any thoughts on this? - what works for you?

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