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Tuesday, 07 September 2010


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A perfect playground for getting comfortable with manual mode settings too. This type of light doesn't change unexpectedly and I imagine the lower the EV values, the less accurate in-camera metering becomes.

I created some family snaps after sunset this weekend, thinking these very thoughts, wishing I owned a D700 instead of my D300 and wondering how I could get my subject up at such early times or out after dark when people begin to wonder about your sanity!

not much more needs to be said.

then there's really low light. this was shot under starlight, 2 seconds at f2, ISO 25600 EV -7 (handheld!): http://www.photographermattmills.com/images/before_egypt1/0023.jpg


What a great insight! I probably never would have figured out without this suggestion - I will most certainly give it a try!

I shot film for over 30 years, and have been shooting digital for about 5. I average between 25 and 40 thousand exposures per year. Having said that, I cam certainly no expert, and although I am a teacher, photography is not the subject I am paid to teach.

I have always disdained shooting portraits in very low light, as it never gave me the quality of light I sought. Even now, I see no reason to purposely move into an area of less light, unless that is where my subject already is, and moving them would spoil the shot in some other way.

All of the photos in the article look like they were shot in much brighter light than they actually were, which, if I am reading the article correctly, would be the whole point to the lesson.

But it makes no sense to me to do that. If the idea is to create a shot that looks like it was shot in brighter light, then go ahead and shoot in brighter light, and drop that ISO down, speed up the shutter, and stop down the aperture, at least a little.

If a properly lit, properly exposed portrait is my goal, I am going to seek out the brightest light I can find that gives me the quality of light I want. I have to have a very compelling reason to shoot in near darkness. To do otherwise just makes no sense to me. Unfortunately, I see nothing in any of the examples in this article that makes me think differently.

Great post, lovely pics!
I sometimes make portraits for our employee magazine and my favorite lighting is in the office of the subject with lights out and just the (little) light from a window illuminating him/her. They need it in color and ISO640 is as far as I dare take my M8 for that, but at F2 it's usually just enough to do handheld.
I am of course lucky with an editor who will every now and then publish these pics instead of the usual corporate flashfilled sparkly white teeth ones the professionals make.

VERY inspiring post! My EOS 20D gets really noisy with high ISO and nearly as noisy in low light with low ISO but I'm going to be trying this out nonetheless. Thank you for the thought-provoking suggestion.

The images included in the writeup are all very lovely to look at.

Wow, coming from a film backround, looking at ISO's that high seem unnatural. I need to learn how to get into the very high ISO mindset.

Good points made here John. This makes me think more about a D700 loaner I had for a week whilst on holidays and I saw the effect you talk about right here.

I remember taking a picture of a beach in twilight and the photo as exposed by the camera was astonishing (and completely different to what I saw myself). Might have to give this a try myself...


Having done a bit of this myself I appreciate what a challenge it is. You're shooting wide open so you've got to get the focus dead-on in low light. The AF system wants to lock onto the areas of highest brightness and contrast, which aren't necessarily where you want the focus to be. And then you have to pray that either you or the subject don't move, which would change the plan of focus and induce motion blur. Finally, given the shutter speeds you used in your examples, you probably weren't using a tripod. I'm getting the jitters just thinking about it....

Thanks for the post.

I agree about the "harsh file quality" of the last one. To me that "file" looks pretty "digitized" or "HDR'd" or "unnatural" or just odd.

They are nice portraits in composition and expression, but the rendering of that last one feels like a computer made it. Somehow I feel like fast b& w film (TMZ 3200 could have been shot at 1600 with f1.4 and 1/30 if you have the lens) would have had a nicer, more human, more organic look.

No free lunch, I guess.

I have to admit that when I saw "EV 6" my thought was "bright light!".

And then that 1/125 is absurdly fast.

It occurs to me that I was routinely shooting in the middle and bottom of these light levels in the 1960s and 70s; lots of tri-x pushed to 1200 (Acu-1 developer), and a little pushed to 4000 (HC110 replenisher 1:15 10 minutes @ 75 degrees; I think I got this directly from Bill Pierce's article in the August 1976 Popular Photography). Never stopping down as far as f/2.8, or using a shutter speed as high as 1/125.

Subject motion is always the limiting factor. I try to find motion patterns and find stopped places and shoot at those instants, but mostly I just shoot a lot and delete the ones where the faces are blurred.

Matt, 2 seconds handheld is spectacularly good! Especially if, as it looks like, you were standing up.

Wow wow wow (to triply echo Alan's comment).

Just when I'm getting comfortable with my sense of knowing how to do what I want to do with the camera, something like this comes along and opens up a whole new world of ignorance (mine) to go exploring (learning) in.

I've done some playing around in low and very low and even very very low light (I do have the ISOs and the apertures for it), but so far I've never gotten anything remotely approaching the quality of Kennerdell's results.

Could be the eye, not the equipment — oy, isn't that almost always the case!

Hmmmmm … this is really interesting — thanks for a great post!

Would concur.

Since I began shooting musicians in small ill-lit clubs (with no-flash policies) years ago, I have lived long in the land of wide apertures, double-digit shutter speeds,and ridiculously high ISOs.

But the results have been worth it--dramatic color and lighting, not just the low-key, black and white, single-bulb look most people associate with "low-light photography."

As a result, I avoid using a flash whenever possible, and would rather struggle with difficult lighting, slow shutter speeds, and shallow depth of field. The results are worth it.

Yes, I'm a devotee of the David Douglas Duncan "Available Light" school...

I once did archaeological photography in the Jordan River Valley in the summer, with bright sun every minute of the day. Because we were shooting fairly low-contrast things (mostly dirt), we used sun shades to mute the sunlight and reduce harsh shadows. Areas that were too big to shade, we tried to shoot before the sun came over the mountains. Unfortunately, shooting film (both color and black and white) and later digital, there was never enough time between the lowest usable light and sun-up. We pushed it back as far as we could using long exposures and tripods, and looking at all those shots later, there was a qualitative difference between the early, low-light shots and the later shots, even though technically the amount of light coming through the lens was the same (as regulated by shutter speed and aperture.) I never knew why that should be so; but the early shots seemed softer and more tonal. Maybe Ctein could figure it out, but I wonder if in real low-light, long exposure situations there's some difference in sensor/film response that results in a slightly different "feel" than full light, short exposure shots; or if there's a lower percentage of light scatter in low-light situations; or if there's always some very subtle movement in low-light, long-exposuse shots that gives you a micro-blur, below the level of intellectually observable blur, but still there. Or whatever.

Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, the British photography writers, have written about "Leica glow," and Schultz has suggested that Roger gets Leica glow where she doesn't because he shoots more rapidly (and less carefully) on the street, and so his shots are often under-exposed, and that slightly under-exposed shots, when printed to look "normal," may show this glow...I wonder if that's related to all of this.


Wonderful Post! Some photographers seem to have an ingrained aversion to using high ISO settings. Maybe it's because older digital cameras performed poorly at high ISO, or maybe it's because of habits developed while shooting film. Either way, it's time to get over our high ISO fears and start experimenting in this new frontier.

I owned my Canon 5D for over a year before I realized I could shoot at ISO 1600 and still have results that I was proud to display. Now, I shoot ISO 1600 a lot. I am also much quicker to crank my ISO up to 400 for action photos taken out in the sun. I wasted my camera's abilities for a year because of my aversion to high ISO.

Is this the earliest (in terms of workflow) photo manipulation? The shots aren't over exposed in the usual sense but they are a lot brighter and balanced than the reality of the scene when taken. As Don Risi touched on this isn't natural, but you can't argue with the examples given. Beautiful.

If nothing else this may remind people of the various uses of the ev comp knob. You can tune it up to exploit the available light as we see here, or turn it down in a dark scene to compensate for the eagerness of modern cameras to "see in the dark".

Dear Jeff,

You can't reliably "peep" the illustrations on TOP. The publishing software does its own massaging and recompression of image files, and the results are not always predictable (or attractive).

I would not trust any perception of "harshness" you get from looking at the illustration to be reflective of what John is talking about in the originals. Maybe it is ... or maybe not.

pax / Ctein

Would you tell us what the camera or (since I assume that you did not mention the camera on purpose) at least the size of the sensor was?

There's a t-shirt they sell in German Gothic style boutiques. It says "Sonne macht albern" - sunlight makes you silly.

One day, I'll get one and wear it while doing my night or bad weather shots when people are constantly asking why of all times I'm out with my camera right then and there. :-)


Mr. Risi might be missing the point Mr. Kennerdell is suggesting...let the subject be comfortable, not the photographer. Perhaps that explains the peaceful quality of his portraits. There is more to a fine portrait than fine grain and having everything in focus.

Jeff: I agree about the "harsh file quality" of the last one. To me that "file" looks pretty "digitized" or "HDR'd" or "unnatural" or just odd.

They are nice portraits in composition and expression, but the rendering of that last one feels like a computer made it. Somehow I feel like fast b& w film (TMZ 3200 could have been shot at 1600 with f1.4 and 1/30 if you have the lens) would have had a nicer, more human, more organic look.

No free lunch, I guess.

For me, there are two issues raised by the last picture. The first is the "HDR look" and second is the look of much greater brightness than seen by the eye.

On HDR, Kennerdell may not have used any HDR techniques here but I agree with Jeff that fast color film would have rendered this in a more interesting way, but so could processing of this digital file by darkening the part of the face closer to the viewer or by compressing somewhat the three-quarter tones. In landscape shots HDR is often considering as kitsch, most likely because it's usually overdone, but my feeling is that HDR can be a useful technique if used in moderation with good aesthetic judgment, the way burning and dodging are used.

The second issue of this image being much brighter than seen by the eye, again, to me, is only an issue because of degree: if the whole shot were darker, but still somewhat lighter than seen by the eye, we might not have the reaction expressed by Jeff.

On the other hand, it may also be a question of what we are used to seeing: portraits with very dark tones and dramatic light — think of Yousuf Karsh — are a common technique, like this one, which is shot in much brighter light than seen in the picture. Do such pictures seem less objectionable in their "unrealistic look" than ones that are much lighter than reality simply because we are used seeing them and thereby have been conditioned to accept this look, or is it that the darker than reality look, in an objective way, is more aesthetically pleasing than the lighter than reality look of Kennerdell last portrait above?


Image stabilization is a big help as well. I live in low double digit shutterspeedland.

One comment seen from many posters on the internet is that they claim they don't need above a certain ISO or use base ISO as often as possible. If that is the case, then the use of a digital camera doesn't afford a dramatic change in the way pictures look. Up until now, photographers were on a quest to get their digital pictures to look good as their film counterparts.

Most will agree that digital capture has now met or exceeded the quality of photos that of film capture, well at least in color.

So rather than now trying to recreate pictures from the film era, sensor sensitives allow the modern picture taker to take pictures normally not possible such as wild life pictures in near dark light without the need for IR or flashes.

A whole new world of picture taking opportunities exist, stopping action in high speed sports, to taking pictures of nocturnal animals are couple of examples where our understanding of the world can change.

This is one of my favorite and, for me, thought provoking posts in awhile. Thank you for making it available. This is what makes TOP different.

To Steve Willard: I think you misread the purpose of Mr Kennerdell's approach. It's not about "let the subject be comfortable, not the photographer." He often asks his subjects for cooperation: "I often try moving them from the shade into deep shadow". It's all about the light.

"It's all about the light." Well, a lot of it is, anyway. Matching the light and the subject -- which means it's about the subject, too. One travels to Yosemite or wherever -- and then waits for the light (or else the clouds).

I don't understand why it's upsetting that one of the pictures looks "lighter" than it should.

Suppose I set up a tripod shot at night in traffic and get the streaky car lights. Is that also an upsetting manipulation of reality?

(Incidentally, there is a shot like this under the Arc De Triumph in Paris in the pedestrian tunnel. I recall being down there once and having a fellow tourist complain to me that the view from the top of the Arc looked NOTHING like the photo).

Photographs don't always represent a literal rendition of what was in front of the photographer at the time the picture was shot. If they did, they'd be a lot less interesting IMHO.

For me there is an intimacy conveyed by this light. By eliminating the "harsh realties of daylight" the underlying subtleties can be seen. It is like getting a new windshield installed in your car or having your cataracts removed (I'm due). I photograph landscapes, not people, but I believe the same thing is happening in low light. Pre sunup and post sundown light is some of the most interesting for landscapes, quite aside from the rosy bias caused by the scattering of the shorter (blue) wavelengths. It is soft, shapes are themselves, revealed, and intimate. I have often wondered what it would be like to see through the eyes of nocturnal creatures.

I am amazed at how well my 5D2 handles light that is almost not there. I photograph until it is too dark to see well enough to walk safely (ISO 100, tripod, and anywhere between ƒ8 and ƒ16), then stumble back across the fields to home. I can't see nearly as well as this camera can in low light!

John Kennerdell,
Thank you for writing this. You have opened up new possibilities to me. We live a lot of our lives at EV 6 or less, and it is wonderful to see what the light there really is like.

I've been coming back to this entry again and again since the hour you posted it, trying to figure out how to respond to it. Thank you.

Good work and yes it is great to explore
low light fronteers.

Regardless other (good) processing from what I see all three files are treated with some tone remapping or local contrast tool
(at least "over the top" clarity has been used)

I think its contrasty appearance help is specially attractive with looks of most High ISO files - still I guess it is a bit too harsh on the faces
( as pointed mostly visible in 3rd file )

See in my example (800 ASA only ..sorrry)


I think you went with slightly overcooked
version close to "C" - I would be careful going above version B - otherwise images goes much more into "illustrated" areas.

"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." (Shklovsky, "Art as Technique", 12)

Viktor Shklovsky wrote about estrangement. It can be done in several ways, by making things bigger, smaller or deformed, by the use of repetition or unusual materials, etc. I would say that the power of these images in low light has to do with this effect. One sees it - so to say - in a new light.

The same effect goes for the possibilies with wide angles, tele and bokeh. If done properly the alienation makes the object (photo) stronger.

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