Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Low Light Photography and Digital Noise

When Daniel and I first decided to author this blog, we really didn't anticipate the amount of work that would be involved. Mind you, this work would be in addition to our full time jobs, our part time jobs (both photographers), and our duties as husbands and fathers.

Something had to give. I think we were a bit ambitious in our early planning by trying to post two times a month.

So, from here on out, Daniel and I will post when we can!

A topic that I've been thinking a lot about lately is shooting in low light and dealing with digital noise in images. I have been a member of several internet forums over the years (that's how I learned photography) and have long read about how to minimize digital noise or grain when shooting in low light. Noise is often the result of one of two things: 1) shooting at high ISO values (ie, 1600, 3200, 6400) or 2) underexposing an image and trying to 'push' the exposure in post processing.

Many people advise to avoid setting their ISO values to such high numbers for fear of 'your photo will be all grainy'. You'll read that you should use your flash to avoid the grain. And while this is true, you can shoot at lower ISO values with a flash (because you are forcing more light onto the scene), you will often change WHAT THE SCENE ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE.

As a photojournalist, I strive to maintain the authenticity of a scene, moment, expression, etc. I WANT the scene to look as it did when I took the photo. For example, if the room is dark and only the TV is on, I WANT my photo to be dark. So if you want to keep your low light scenes 'real', you really only need a fast lens (ie, a prime lens that has a wide aperture such as the Canon 35L f/1.4 or Canon 50mm f/1.4) and the vision to shoot with your ISO above 1600!

Another thing to consider when shooting in low light is your shutter speed. Again, if the scene is dark AND you already have your ISO cranked up, you might be forced to use a slower shutter speed (ie, 1/10th, 1/25th). If you are shooting a wide lens and your subject is static, you shouldnt have a hard time keeping the camera only takes a bit of practice.

The following examples were shot in extremely low light with slower shutter speeds. Notice, there is a decent amount of 'noise' or grain in them. In fact, I even ADDED some grain in photoshop :)

Movie Night: The only light in the room was the TV. 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 3200

Movie Night II: Again, just the TV, in our very dark basement. 1/25th, f/1.4, ISO4000

Homework: Only light was the small lamp in the photo. 1/60th, f/2.8, ISO3200

Wii: Only the TV as a light source. 1/40th, f/2, ISO3200

Book Time: One of my all time favorites. Taken with just the light from under the bunkbed. 1/80th, f/1.6, ISO 3200

I really feel like the use of flash would have DESTROYED these images. So, turn your flash off and crank your ISO up! Preserve the authenticity!