Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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About once a year, at my school we have this event called "Humans versus Zombies", whereby there are these "missons" that occur in the dark at night. I've been trying to capture what goes on there:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/billyoneal/6633509775/in/set-72157627882622756/

Example Shot

This event only happens once a year; so I'm more than willing to rent some equipment if that would be helpful in making the shot better. The problem is that the following typical means of working on low light don't work:

  • Flash - This gives a shot with extremely bright grass right in front of me, with dark players behind that. Granted, I'm using the Nikon D7000's pop-up flash, so I'm sure it's a bit wanting in terms of "big boy flash power", but I seriously doubt any flash will produce reasonable looking shots outside with no nearby surfaces from which to bounce the light.
    Even if there was some flash that would work here, players would want to shoot me (and not with a camera) for ruining their night vision with bright flashes.
  • Tripod - I've got to be running around constantly in order to follow the players around campus in order to get anything decent.
  • High(er) ISO - The camera's already maxed out at ISO 6400 -- any higher and the shots are unusuable, even after substantial toughup in Lightroom. (Yes, the camera goes higher than that, but beyond that is unusuable)

That to me seems to leave only "body", "lens", and "luck". I'm already using a pretty decent DSLR for low light scenarios, Nikon's D7000. My lens could probably be better; mostly I've been using the 18-100mm f/3.6-5.6 kit lens it came with. I'm willing to rent better versions of either or both. I'd also be looking to consider anything I can do in terms of using the camera I've got to make the shots better.

Any ideas?

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1  
Use your exposure compensation, most metering modes are not perfectly suited for low light situation, they will try to expose things too much. Slightly underexposed will give you a more natural shot and a faster shutter speed. You could also use a noise reduction software and adjust exposure in POST. –  Aki Feb 29 '12 at 8:53
    
@Aki You will get better noise performance if you expose higher and reduce brightness in post (even if you up the ISO to exposure higher whilst keeping the shutter speed fast!) –  Matt Grum Feb 29 '12 at 17:25
    
@MattGrum: I've heard so, but I wonder, if I get the exposure I want with exp. comp and lower ISO, isn't it better than reducing brightness in post to get the same result? I mean, exposing more is maybe good to get more details in the shadows/dark areas, but getting a higher shutter speed and exposing perfectly while shooting seems a better option?? Correct me if I'm wrong please. –  Aki Mar 1 '12 at 17:38

6 Answers 6

You need a 'faster' lens. A lens that can go in the 2.8 range like a 70-200mm f/2.8 or a 35/50/80mm f/1.4 that goes down to 1.4. Renting is definitely an option for these if you just need them. But the 35mm f/1.8 should help dramtically and is quite cheap - so is the 50mm f/1.8.

These will let in more light, resulting in better exposure.

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  • Body - you can get better high ISO performance from a full frame body, if you're willing to rent one. That's worth a couple of stops.

  • Lens - another couple of stops if you buy/hire an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens, especially if you're shooting at the long end of your zoom at f/5.6

  • Light - in the picture you've given as an example, you seem to be standing in the dark. There are streetlights and light from the lobby of a building. Stand near those lights and let the zombies come to you. But remember Rule 15: always know your way out, and Rule 17: Don't be a Hero.

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5  
+1 for Zombieland reference :) –  ElendilTheTall Feb 29 '12 at 10:59

The cheap option: create monochrome images. (some may even look great in monochrome)

The image you have shown there is mostly lit by tungsten light. This light contains very little blue light, and therefore the blue channel in the image will have a very poor signal to noise ratio. When you perform white balance correction, the blue channel will be amplified quite significantly, which also amplifies the noise.

If you on the other hand select a more neutral white balance, and by neutral I mean a white balance that returns the image as the image sensor saw it (I don't know exactly what to set here, but I guess that daylight will be a good choice), and then create a monochrome image based on primarily the red and green channels in the image, you should be able to get an image with lesser noise.

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I wish it was tungsten light :( Sodium lighting sucks! +1 –  Billy ONeal Feb 29 '12 at 18:58
  • Use a faster lens (f/2.0 for example)
  • Use a monopod, these are more portable and still provide some more steadiness
  • Hold your camera against a wall, put it on a fence or other steady object (serving like a tripod). Be aware of scratches to the body.
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1  
Monopod won't help; it has the same problem the tripod does (even if the camera isn't moving, the players are) –  Billy ONeal Feb 29 '12 at 18:38
    
I upvoted because this is true ... but it depends how long ... a small factor can be gained, but not like 10 seconds (or maybe even 1). –  Michel Keijzers Feb 29 '12 at 20:13

The following detailed article describes some specific techniques for holding your camera steady in low light situations.

http://www.pentaxforums.com/reviews/long-exposure-handhelds/introduction.html

The author compares taking pictures with the military approach to shooting a riffle, that involve the following components:

"Steady Position, Breathing Control, Aiming and Sight Picture, and Trigger (Shutter) Squeeze"

He describes each in great detail and provded me with a lot of helpful ideas on things to try when you don't have the luxury of a tripod, flash, or even a fast prime lens.

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There are techniques that can help you stabilize the camera without a tripod - but they wouldn't help much because you are photographing running people - you will just replace camera shake blur with motion blur.

You already set you ISO to the max acceptable value and you have to keep your shutter speed fast to stop motion, so your options are to either add light or get more of teh light into the camera, as I see it you have a few options:

  1. Use the ambient light more effectively: look for street lights and light from buildings and try photograph people when they enter a lighted are - this is mostly in the "luck" category but you can reduce the luck factor by doing some preliminary work, go to the school a few nights before with a friend and photograph that friend in any existing light you can find (have your friend move and try to simulate the conditions of the actual shoot) this will tell you what lights are better, what to look for and how to set up you camera.

  2. Rent a faster lens: this will let you get more light into the camera but at the same time will reduce depth of field and will make focusing more tricky (especially with moving subjects), also, always test the lens before the actual shoot, some fast lenses are slow to auto-focus making them close to useless for your situation - also, almost all lenses are not best optically when fully open so you should experiment to find the most wide open setting you find acceptable.

  3. Rent a full frame body: larger sensors are typically better in low light. I don't have experience with full frame digital cameras so I don't know the tradeoffs here.

  4. Rent a flash: an external flash, especially the high end ones, have a really nice range. they also help capture motion and if you're close you can bounce the flash on a nearby wall to get more even lighting that is less distracting for the players (I think this is your most practical option).

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