By John Kennerdell
Used photographers tend to get recycled into new teachers, and through no plan of my own I now appear to be one of them. My qualifications? Well, I’ve already developed a teacher-like knack for hammering on the same favorite points again and again. Some of them ("Are you sure you need to carry around all that gear?") my students would just as soon not hear. Others, they like. One of these is that very low light is often very good light.
Low light: ƒ/2.8, 1/125 sec., ISO 1600 (EV6). Early morning under a low pavilion, considerably darker than it looks here. When shooting film we used to get subjects out of the sunlight and into open shade. Now I often try moving them from the shade into deep shadow, preferably in places like this, where faint light coming in from different directions can be used as ready-made main, fill, and back light.
I call them "near-dark experiences," and in the film era we learned about their beauty the first time we put a camera on a tripod and shot in the half light of dawn or dusk. These days, thanks to digital, they're available even at handheld shutter speeds. To my eye now, just about everything looks more intriguing in really marginal light. Above all, I like what near-darkness does for portraits, both posed and candid.
Lower light: ƒ/2.0, 1/60 sec., ISO 1600 (EV4). Very diffuse pre-dawn light (the eye catchlights are the clouds in the eastern sky before sunrise). For low-light portraiture with the current generation of 35mm DSLRs, this feels like about the sweet spot: dark enough to begin to do interesting things to color and tonality, but still sufficient light for good image quality.
No doubt there are countless photographers exploring this new high-ISO frontier in available-light portraits. But search for words like "low-light portraiture" and you’ll see that many people still seem to think only in terms of the classic low-key look: candlelight or a single bulb illuminating a face against a murky background, that sort of thing. I'd suggest that the real potential begins when shooting an even dimmer, lower-contrast scene and then lifting the whole exposure to the point where it no longer appears dark. Color and tonality subtly transform. Backgrounds blow out, or retain just a hint of color and shape. Sometimes the result is more muted than an ordinary open-shade or window-light portrait would be. Sometimes, curiously, it's more dramatic.
Lowest light: ƒ/2.0, 1/60 sec., ISO 6400 (EV2). A gloomy day, inside a dark market. This is about the limit, at least for me: hard to see, harder to focus, and rather harsh file quality. But the results are often a pleasant surprise, with all kinds of unexpected interplay between diffuse and directional light, mixed-color sources, and background blur. (And, honestly, no dodging of the eyes. That’s how the camera sees them when in a dark place with large distant light sources on various sides.)
The three levels of darkness I’ve tried to illustrate here are of course pretty arbitrary. They’re also a moving target, given the way the technology keeps advancing. The point—see how it is with teachers?—is that every additional stop of darkness offers its own discoveries even in color portraiture, a photographic genre traditionally associated with fairly ample light. Of all the possibilities that digital capture has brought us, maybe it’s time this one gets a little more attention.
John Kennerdell's website is Studio Hatyai.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Joe Cameron: "Beautifully put, John. Simple and elegant like your photographs.
There's too much obsessive chatter about lenses this and cameras that. We all know, but mostly forget, that photography is largely about relating to the world as it is given to us, not as we want it to be. We walk out the door with camera in hand expecting the sun and the landscape and the people we meet to conform to some limited notion in our heads of what constitutes a 'good picture,' and in the process, we miss so much of what is offered that day...especially what lies in the softer, quieter, dimmer, less demanding pockets of existence.
"A favorite quote: 'A man smiles by himself in the dark, perhaps because he can see in the dark, perhaps because he can see the dark.' (Yannis Ritsos)
"And a short, sweet book (not a photography book): In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki.
"P.S. You’ll make a fine teacher...."