Low Light Photography (Part 1)

Low Light (Pilings) D-07-08-25-0028Moon over Abandoned Pilings, Marquette, Wisconsin

Recently, I was asked by a local camera club to give a presentation on “Low Light Photography” and I thought perhaps an abbreviated version might be worthwhile on my blog.

Because the majority of my photography involves landscape scenes and urban architecture, I decided to concentrate on that area, even though low light scenarios can occur in many other situations such as when you are indoors and cannot use a flash.

Low Light (Shuttle) D-07-07-02-0057Night at the Museum, NASA Shuttle Enterprise in the Udvar-Hazy Center  

The above image is not typical of what I do, but when an opportunity arises to get inside a major museum after closing, you don’t pass it up.  Especially if it’s authorized.

For me, however, twilight is a classic example of how a low light situation can present opportunities for especially dramatic images that are not possible during daylight hours.

Low Light (Mid-Hudson 01) 2137-33Mid-Hudson Bridge, Afternoon Scouting Image

Low Light (Mid-Hudson AM) 2138-02Mid-Hudson Bridge at Dawn, (the next morning)

We all know we that twilight is a relatively short period of time after the sun has gone below the horizon.  Even though the sun has disappeared,  scattered sunlight from the atmosphere continues to provide illumination.

Low Light GraphicTransition from Day to Night

But there are three different categories of twilight, based on how far the sun is below the horizon as shown in the chart above.  Understanding those three categories is important because the quality of the light and therefore one’s photograph changes significantly depending on how long it’s been since sunset. It also depends on whether you are pointing your camera away from the location of the sunset/sunrise or toward it.

So let’s look at some examples.

Low Light (WW I MEM) D-14-06-28-1750 WW I Memorial at Twilight, Washington, DC

(Tech Data: 19 Minutes after Sunset, Civil Twilight, looking Northwest 1.6 sec., @ f/16, ISO 400, Nikon D800E)

Here, during the first phase of twilight, there is still a fair amount of ambient light to show detail in the subject and the sky is taking on the classic blue of the “Magic Hour.”



Low Light (Kennedy Center) D-13-03-17-6064_70Kennedy Center at Twilight, Washington, DC

(Tech Data:  40 Minutes after Sunset, beginning of nautical twilight, looking Southeast, 1.3 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400, Nikon D800E)

Here, the sky is much darker, in part because it is a bit later than the previous image and also because the camera is pointing away from the western horizon.  The image also demonstrates another technique that can porduce a more dramatic look at night: the use of a reflection in a body of water, be it river, pond, or rain puddle.

Low Light (WW II Mem) D-11-04-30 7062_63 WWW II and Washington Monument at Night

  (Tech Data: 51 Minutes after Sunset, near the end of nautical twilight, looking East, 6 sec. @ f/16, ISO 400, Nikon D800E)

 Low Light (Ferris Wheel) D-13-07-19-044County Fair with Moon, Madison, Wisconsin

(Tech Data: 1 hour 51 minutes after Sunset, after end of Astronomical Twilight, looking generally East, 5 sec. @ f/16, ISO 100, Nikon D800E)

The glare (a typical problem for night shooting) was managed by using a small aperture to get the star effect which is more attractive than a blown-out spotlight or street lamp. It’s also good idea to use the lens shade when shooting cityscapes at night, to minimize glare from bright lights just outside the composition .

There are many possible subjects for night-time shooting, including cityscapes, landscapes, a staged scenario, and astronomical phenomena.  We’ll go into that in Part 2 of this series.

In the meantime, I would be interested in comments from readers about low light situations you have encountered and how you resolved them.  I expect to be speaking on this subject again and it would be great to bring in some additional ideas .

Until, then…Keep Shooting


After-Before Friday Forum Week 20

Robin Kent After 02 Week 20

The Kennedy Center “After” Image

I am happy to once again submit an image to the After-Before Friday Forum sponsored by Stacy Fischer of Visual Ventures.  The Forum allows photographers an opportunity to compare examples of how they process their images to accomplish their creative vision .  Sometimes the changes are substantial; other times they can be minimal.   My submission for this week’s Forum is somewhere in between.  The fountain is in the Georgetown section of Washington DC but the Kennedy Center in the distance is the subject of the photograph.   The image below, the “Before” image is the original RAW file before any adjustments have been made. (Technical data: Nikon D700 on tripod with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 70mm; exposure: 2.0 secs @ f/13, ISO 200)

Robin Kent Before 20

Original RAW Image Before Adjustments

 A number of issues are apparent when comparing the RAW image to the scene as I originally saw it.  Most importantly, the sky is too bright and does not have the actual twilight blue of that evening.  The screen capture below shows the adjustments that were made in the ACR window (red arrows).

Robin Kent Before 02 Week 20

Adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW

The most important change was in the white balance.  As always, I had used Auto White Balance which usually does an excellent job.  In this case, the color temperature was moved from 4850 down to 4150 to obtain a “cooler” look, and the tint increase from -23 to -7.  The other adjustments were:  decreasing the Highlights to -57; increasing the Shadows to +12; setting the white by increasing the Whites to +13; adjusting the black point by decreasing the Blacks to -23; increasing the Clarity a substantial amount to +53; and increasing the Vibrance to +37.  These brought the image close to what the scene looked like on that evening.  It was then opened in Photoshop CC.

Robin Kent Before 03 Week 20

Curves Adjustment Layer

Not much more was needed.  First, as shown in the screen capture above, was an overall curves adjustment layer (red arrows) for a slight increase in contrast.  One of the optional presets, “Linear Contrast” seemed to work best.  The next step was to add a little more punch to the colors with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (red arrows) shown in the screen capture below.

Robin Kent Before 04 Week 20Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer

The final step was to decide whether to remove some or all of the figures standing or sitting along the water’s edge.  Some had moved during the 2-second exposure and the lack of sharpness was distracting.  A combination of the Edit>Fill> Content-Aware tool and the Clone tool removed the blurred figures while leaving those that had kindly remained still during the exposure.    The “After” image is shown again below.

 Robin Kent After 02 Week 20The Kennedy Center at Twilight

Once again, thanks to Stacy Fischer for sponsoring the Forum.  Please check out the other submissions at her Visual Venturing.  And if you aren’t following Visual Venturing already, you might want to click that “Follow” button now, because I understand she is planning to announce a special feature for the Forum in the next week or so.