There's a kid in the apartment across the street from my west-facing house. She comes out to their balcony at about 5pm. It's a delight to see her play and I have often tried to capture her smile, but to no avail.

The problem is that at 5pm (this time of year in Bangalore, India) the sun is in west sky and my balcony is quite well lit. In contrast the balcony that she is in, is quite dim. I have tried using a Canon 1000d with a 75-300 lens at 300mm with f5.6 but the meter reading for perfect exposure is in 2s even in ISO 200. I have a tripod and can keep the shot steady for >1s, but my subject is not!

Moving to higher ISO in my camera just adds too much noise and max aperture of my lens at 300mm is f5.6. My question is how to capture images in such conditions? The options seem to be:

  • make your subject stay still for longer, which is not an option in a scenario like this
  • go for higher ISO camera (I am eyeing a 60D anyways)
  • rent a fast lens; something like f2.8-ish should be fine I guess
  • use a flash; the street is too wide for this solution to work

What do you guys think?

PS: The scenario is just an example. Lets not go into "how to make sure the kid is still" or "you should ask permissions" or any other non-camera-equipment angle.

  • 9
    Ask her parents, you can run into problems taking pictures of a kid from far away like a stalker...
    – fortran
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:13
  • 3
    Her parents are supportive. But somehow whenever I try to take pics at close ranges, the effect is not as good as what I see from my balcony. The reason for trying to shoot from my balcony is just to capture the natural smile.
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 13:22
  • There are actually laws in many countries to do with "right to privacy". If she is on non public property it may be illegal to take her photograph. This has an interesting concept behind the question, but an awkward uncomfortable context. But if the parents are cool with it, shoot away!
    – James
    Aug 2 '13 at 5:31

Although I would normally say just crank up the ISO a little, shoot RAW and deal with the noise in post processing, in your case I think you need to think about a better lens.

Your Canon 1000D should be able to handle ISO values well above ISO 200 before noise becomes a serious problem. I think something else is going on here: lens flare combined with chromatic aberration (CA). See this link for an example of the EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III at 300mm shooting towards the sun. Even if the sun is a little further out of the frame, you are losing a lot of contrast when shooting into the sun with that lens. If you have the optional hood attached, you still have potential flare issues as the hood allows for the wider angle of view when the lens is zoomed out to 75mm and you are zoomed all the way in at 300mm. Combine that with the relatively poor resolution of that lens, which is softest at 300mm, and most of your image quality problems can be explained. Here's a screen shot grab from DxO Mark comparing the CA of the 75-300 with the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS and the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS.

DxO Mark CA

  • He's talking about compensating for ~7-10 stops though. It's just not going to happen without serious investment. Aug 1 '13 at 12:49
  • Thanks for your answer. Sun is not in my scene, in fact at 300mm zoom there is nothing much except my subject. But thanks for pointing out the lens being softest at 300mm. I should have considered shortcomings of my lens.
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:58
  • 2
    What part of my answer says a better lens won't be expensive? It depends on what acceptable quality is in this case. The 1000D should be able to go to about ISO 1600-3200 with decent noise control. That's 3-4 stops. An f/2.8 lens is another 2 stops faster than f/5.6 (yes, that is an expensive lens - nothing in my answer said it wouldn't be). Six stops from 2 sec. is 1/30 sec. Assuming the camera is on a stable mount, 1/30 sec is feasible for some shots to be timed when the child isn't moving too fast, especially at that distance.
    – Michael C
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:58
  • 1
    @BiGYaN Even if the sun isn't in the frame, the off axis light from the Sun in the same general direction will cause a pretty severe flare problem with that lens. Flare doesn't always manifest itself as the neat little dots shaped like the aperture opening. Sometimes causes a loss of contrast in the entire scene.
    – Michael C
    Aug 1 '13 at 13:01
  • 1
    @MichaelClark I tried shooting a picture of a well lit object in 1000d at ISO 1600 with a 50mm f1.8 lens at f2.5 and observed that the noise does not manifest itself even viewing in my 13" laptop monitor. Guess the problem is more to do with the lens than my camera.
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 13:10

With the parents permission, you are going to get the best results by putting a remotely triggered flash unit on her balcony. Then you expose for the ambient and adjust flash power to light her properly -- at dusk this could be a really cool shot.

This is much cheaper than a 300mm f/2.8 and will greatly expand your capabilities as a photographer. Pick up a cheap hot shoe flash, and radio triggers. You can use a goby, gaffer tape or a super clamp to position the flash on the balcony -- if shooting at dusk you may want to put a 1/2 CTO gel to better color match the evening sun. Take a guess at flash power (I would probably go ~1/4) and position it above her. If there is a roof on the balcony aim the flash up and let it bounce down, otherwise you can aim more or less where you expect her to be.

Now setup your exposure shoot either wide open or stop it down a bit to sharpen your lens, a reasonable ISO (say 400) and pick a shutter speed 1/60 -- take a test shot is the balcony well exposed? Use your Aperture/ISO (or adjust flash power) to get the correct exposure on the balcony. Now adjust your shutter speed to get a good ambient feel.

  • Thanks for the answer. The kid's parents are supportive, so setting up a flash should not be that hard. Earlier I have tried picturing her with their balcony light on, but with not much improvement. The reason for shooting from my balcony is to get kind a of a natural smile.
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 13:18

In general, changing camera isn't going to get you a significant change in low-light ability; a 60D may be half a stop better than your 1000D. Going full-frame would of course make a bigger difference. Going to a f/2.8 lens rather than f/5.6 would get you two stops of improvement - but that's not going to fix your issue as that'll still be a 0.5s exposure.

Realistically, I think you're probably being too critical of the high ISO abilities of your camera. What are you intending to do with this picture once you've taken it?

However... the best solution to this problem is almost certainly just to go and ask the child's parents if you can take a photo of her - then you can get as close as you like and do it in better light as well.

  • Thanks for the answer. I was under the impression that moving to higher ISO => higher sensitivity => faster shutter speeds. Doubling ISO values will reduce the shutter speed to half, right? ... or am I completely wrong on my understanding of ISO?
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:33
  • You're right - but you said you weren't willing to a higher ISO.
    – Philip Kendall
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:39
  • Oho, sorry, I meant no higher ISO for my Canon 1000d. I have observed too much noise ISO 800 onwards. But what about better cameras, like 60D for example?
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:44
  • 2
    What he is saying is that your camera should be able to go several stops higher than ISO 200 before it starts getting noisy. The 60D you're looking for an excuse to buy isn't going to make much difference in terms of high ISO/low noise performance compared to the 1000D. DxO puts it as less than 1/3 stop (ISO 813 vs ISO 719 to produce a 30dB S/N, 9EVs, 18-bit image.)
    – Michael C
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:45
  • 1
    I guess, I should think about Philip's point "What are you intending to do with this picture once you've taken it?"
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:47

You'll probably have to do a bit of both. f/5.6 to f/2.8 is 2 stops, which means that your 2 second exposure will come down to 0.5 seconds, still not enough to freeze motion. I'd expect that you need at least 1/60 (and probably higher) to freeze motion sufficiently to get the shot, so you're talking about a minimum of around 7 stops.

Since you can get 2 stops with the wider aperture, you're left with 5 or more stops to compensate for. You will have to do this by increasing ISO. You state in the question that you are using ISO 200, so 5 stops up from that means ISO 6400.

Sadly, I have yet to come across a consumer-level Canon APS-C camera that delivers acceptable results at ISO 6400. At this point, your options are to use a full-frame camera with a longer f/2.8 lens (such as the 5D Mark III or the 6D with an EF 400mm f/2.8 IS lens) or to change brands entirely to Nikon/Pentax/Sony, who currently appear to be leading the high ISO stakes.

Even then, since ISO 6400 is marginal (i.e. you need a higher shutter speed), I think you'll find that no current APS-C camera will suffice for your needs.

Basically, what I'm saying is that assuming that you can't move and that the lighting conditions can't be improved, the shot you want is basically impossible to achieve (with the same or similar framing) without the use of insanely expensive gear. To get this shot under those conditions, you are looking at a 5D Mark III with a Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 APO EX DG, which will cost you the better part of $30000.

  • Thanks for the answer. The first 2 paragraphs are along the same lines as what I was thinking. I was under the impression that 60D (or 7D) would work on ISO 6400; thanks for pointing out that they do not.
    – BiGYaN
    Aug 1 '13 at 12:42
  • I would suggest that a Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 II with a 1.4x teleconverter would be a much cheaper option. It would be f/4 rather than f/2.8, but would be under 2 grand if you didn't bother with the IS version. The total package if you went with a 5d3 would still be around $5000, but it's pretty close in performance to the $30,000 setup you described for 1/6 the price. Still probably not practically possible in this case though.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 1 '13 at 14:13
  • That shot with that framing just wouldn't happen though. If he's shooting at ~300mm on APS-C, he'd require a ~480mm lens to get the same framing. Plus, you're still talking about 7-10 stops just to be able to freeze motion. Losing 1 stop is quite significant in that kind of situation. Anyway, the idea was to illustrate that it's basically impossible to sensibly get a shot under those conditions. Aug 2 '13 at 3:49

You can certainly shoot much higher ISO on your camera before noise becomes a problem, and that's a free step you can do right away. A faster lens could help, but gets expensive quickly, even for primes at those focal lengths.

I see someone suggested a remove flash, but remotely triggering the camera might also work well. This would allow for you to use a relatively cheap remote and you could setup the camera in advance with a short, very fast prime lens in close. You'd have to wait for the timing to be just right, but would let you get the shot if you are patient.


If the guy has the parents permission, why not just go over to their house or a public place. Guy sounds like a stalker/pedophile making excuses, far too common on the internet. Nobody goes to such lengths like this. The guy is shooting at equiv 450mm on his crop sensor. You can just about capture a baseball batter from the left field stands at that length...smh

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