Low Light Shooting

The horrible 3 week long cold has finally had its last gasp, and I got my Swing Dancing Festival weekend out of the way, and now hopefully some regular blogging can resume.  So, apologies Internets, I haven’t been deliberately neglecting you, but I had a bit of an overdose of life getting in the way of things recently 🙂

The good thing about the life intrusion is that I have had two entirely separate new photography experiences, one which was low light inside photography with added flash, and the other which was low light inside photography with added movement.

Today I am going to post about the second one – I have been learning Swing Dancing for the last 6 months, and Labour Weekend here in NZ happens to be the 3 day weekend our Swing club have their annual event.  It coincides with the Big Band Festival – so we have lots of Big Bands in town, so we have lots of live music to dance to, which (in a large enough venue) is a pretty cool experience.  And we had two fabulous international teaching couples come over for workshops.

I was still dealing with my cold and not certain initially that I would be well enough for the dancing, so I decided to do the sensible thing and take the camera along, and have that as my plan.  However I have already shot two belly dance shows with my old S3IS so I had a fairly good idea of the challenges of this kind of photography, however I was hoping that some more advanced technology might help overcome some of them.

Challenges of low light dance photography I have already experienced:

– its usually quite dark
– what lighting there is is usually quite strongly coloured
– dancers are moving objects
– dancers are randomly moving objects

So to combat the above this was my plan:

– get a 50mm prime lens with widest open aperture possible – for maximum light intake and fastest possible shooting options
– put the lens on my 40D – crank up the ISO to about 800
– shoot in RAW so I could edit out (hopefully) the worst of the lighting issues
– being a dancer, hopefully being able to anticpate the moves and get the better shot as a result
– shoot burst shots to maximise potential for one good shot

The key thing here is I wanted the photography to be as unintrusive as possible ( ie no flash) and yet as good quality as I could manage without.  That was the ultimate goal.

Overall, given this was my first time shooting with this lens, and in these kind of conditions, and this kind of subject, Im really happy with my output.  I took 3 times as many pix as I ended up keeping, and I got some excellent shots, not just of the dancing, but general people interaction and communication.

Here is what I learned from the experience:

– spotlights are hell and yet they are everywhere!

– coloured spotlights are hell with icing on!

– a 50mm F1.8 is a pretty awesome lens for this kind of thing but it still has its limitations re light levels

– the 50mm had a really long working distance but its Depth of Field was about one person deep.  It took a couple of days and an experiment with an obliging volunteer to fully figure this out for myself.  When you are photographing couples dancing in 3D this is suboptimal

– the lens being fixed and having limited space to work in meant I had to keep chopping people in half to get them in the frame, so I have lots of top half shots of people, or just faces

– lots of halls/dance spaces had overwhelming yellow coloured light

– ask people nicely and they usually pose for you – a tip I picked up (I think from the Scott Kelby book) was showing them the image right after on the camera (and making sure they looked good ) meant they were more receptive to photos during the evening

– stalking people with a camera is fun – and without a flash is quite doable

– ballroom dancers are a moving hazard who will happily dance in the path of a photographer, ruining a shot

– shooting action on a crowded dancefloor is difficult, I very quickly figured out I had to circle the edges

– our Demo Swing Troupe move too fast for the camera to catch easily!

– RAW is awesome for cleaning up these kind of images – you cant make it 100% perfect but even 80% looks pretty good


Well I got LOTS of really positive feedback, and the woman who runs and teaches our club said lots of nice things, was appreciative of the fact I got dancers in action but looking like they were dancing, which is hard to do. My previous experience really helped there, and you *have* to be a dancer and know the moves to anticipate the next one and frame up a good shot. I imagine the same rules apply for sport.

I had a great time shooting, and most people were really good about it, no one got aggro at me, and most were very obliging for portrait shots. By the second night I was being asked if I was “the event photographer” because as well as having the biggest camera (everyone else was P&S that I saw) I was the one all over the place with it, and lots of people wanted to see what I had taken. I was trying to both record the event, get some cool shots, and learn a new skill, and I hope I managed to achieve something on all three.

I loved the lens, it made it all happen (and it was loaned to me by the kind people at Photo and Video International ), but I was very frustrated with the shallow DOF. I am not sure if the F1.2 lens has the same problem, I imagine it does, and its even shallower?

I would love to know what other people use in a similar circumstance, and what their setup was. Would a 35mm be better? Is the F1.2 better with DOF? Is there another lens option? Any recommendations for future events welcome.

And of course, here is the EVIDENCE 🙂


About lensaddiction

Mad keen photographer figuring it out as she goes!
This entry was posted in Camera Adventures, Waffle and Burbling and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Low Light Shooting

  1. Pingback: Photography in low light « the unpaid intern

  2. Alan says:

    Low light photography is a tricky subject in its own right, and event photography (with reflectors) can be a nightmare. Your approach and plan seems to have paid dividends, since your photos were very good given the environment. Only thing i would recommend perhaps is put the camera in aperture prio mode, and shoot with two stops above max aperture (its still low f-stop but with more DOF). Also i would add an external flash bouncing the light of a ceiling. Otherwise, if you use camera flash, you might use a diffuser that is mounted on the hotshoe and goes over cameras flash to soften the impact. They usually go for round $30 and are very handy.

  3. Larry says:

    You do an excellent job of detailing your experiences. I have a 50mm f/1.8 that I love because of the shallow DOF – I will use it wide open even in bright conditions just to get that lovely blurred background.

    Nikon makes a 35mm f/1.8 lens that would have been nice in your dance club situation…not sure if anyone makes a similar lens for Canon.

  4. Pingback: 2010 in review « Learning to See Light

  5. As a dance photographer and swing dancer myself, I appreciate your willingness to try shooting dances with available light. Even though some of the “pros” use flashes, using a flash at a low-lit social event (really, as a photographer, doing anything to distract from the even you are recording) is one of the most unprofessional moves one can make. I use a manual Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-S for dance, and have achieved some remarkable shots, all without disturbing my fellow dancers.

    DOF is inversely proportional to aperture (which is why landscape photographers love tiny apertures), and independent of lens construction, so the f/1.2 would indeed have shallower DOF than the f/1.8. That said, shallow depth of field is a characteristic of low-light photography to be worked with, so don’t look at it as something to be resisted or overcome.

    For available-light photography, shoot ALWAYS the highest ISO your camera gives acceptable noise levels with. This gives you a little stop-down room in slightly-brighter conditions, and much more leeway in terms of shutter speed.

    Second, use a mild tungsten-correcting filter if shooting under tungsten lighting: you’d be surprised how much better the quality is when you block the extra red light rather than trying to throw it away in post-processing. (I know, it seems painful to “throw light away” in available-light photography, but remember this is light that you would throw away by white-balancing, with an increase in blue noise.) However, do only use a mild (80C or 80B) rather than a full (80A) tungsten conversion filter: you won’t pull the light totally into the daylight spectrum, but work the added warmth into your shots. Leveraging, rather than resisting, ambient light colour is another characteristic of good available-light photography.

    Also, considering postprocessing as channel-mixed greyscale: this will not only reduce the effect of ISO noise, because the eye is more sensitive to colour noise, but it will preclude the necessity of colour-correction either by conversion filters or white balancing. (Available-light photography in film is almost exclusively a black-and-white pursuit, since colour films can’t be pushed as well.)

    Third, find things to brace yourself against: I can handhold 1/10s shots with a 50mm lens if I’m lucky, and always handhold 1/20s shots — but only if I’m braced.

    Fourth (and what I’m still working on) practice panning with moving subjects. I’ve seen amazing work done by panning with a subject over a 1/10s exposure.

    • lensaddiction says:

      Just wanted to say thanks for the detailed reply about shooting swing dancers. I wish you had told me all this two years ago, when I was trying to figure out most of it for myself 🙂 I have since upgraded to the 7D and the ISO performance from it is FAR superior to the 40D and the noise is not even noticeable at ISO1250 (I did a night shoot of a Chinese Lantern Festival and you can see no noise at all)

      Im interest by your correction filter info, but not sure if it will work as the events we have here are almost always held in damn near complete darkness for some reason. Light strips around the edge of the dancefloor and candles on the tables and thats it. And nothing to brace against (unless I try sitting down and using a table or chair back)

      Not quite sure what you mean about processing in greyscale, I have only dipped my toe in the B&W end of the pool 🙂 Have you got a link to your shots, would love to see some (I’m not on FB)

Love to hear your thoughts on my post!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s