Shooting In Low-Light Situations

by William Lulow

When you need to make images where there is very little light, you need to think about “under-exposures.” Even though modern digital sensors are much more sensitive to light than film ever was, there is still some “give and take” to the process. By this I mean that the more you underexpose your images, the more you have to give up on the clarity of them. They will contain more “noise” and “grain” than normally exposed images. So, you need to think about your ISO settings and how far you can “push” them in order to get acceptable exposures. You need to remember that there are basically three elements to making digital images (your ISO setting, the lens aperture and the shutter speed). Once you figure out what settings work with your given light levels, you are on your way to making great images. And you have to do this with experimentation.

I do a lot of concert photography, mostly in intimate clubs and other musical venues and have found that a good place to begin is with an ISO setting of around 2000. This is roughly equivalent to a 10 f/stop underexposure! I have been able to make very good 8×10 prints from images shot with this setting. Sometimes I may need to slow the shutter speed down to 1/30th of 1/60th of a second, which creates some blur if the performer’s hands are moving, but most everything else is sharp. I also shoot with the aid of a monopod to help give some extra stability.

Here are a couple of examples:

This is an image of guitarist Eric Gales, shot at ISO 2500, f/4.5 at 1/60th of a second. There is some movement with the hands, but the image is fairly sharp overall and made a decent 8×10 print.

Here is another image of singer/songwriter Karla Bonoff. At this venue, the piano is never in the middle of the stage. So, the light on it is minimal. I think this exposure was ISO2500, f/4 at 1/30th of a second. It also made a decent print.

My last assignment was photographing singer/songwriter Patty Larkin. Here are a couple of images from that shoot:

These were shot at ISO 2500, f/5.0 @ 1/80th of a second. I did a little retouching on the first one, but they are both fairly sharp, even when enlarged quite a bit. They were also adjusted a little for contrast and further exposure

Once you realize that you will be underexposing these images, you can then take the steps to ensure that you get printable quality pictures.