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