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Forget static photography where you've got days, in fact weeks, to set up your one perfect shot. My question is how do you take good sharp shots of a moving subject, say a train, when the light is very low/poor and certain factors are a problem, i.e.:

  1. Shutter speed (unable to set too low, say anything below 1/800, and you've almost got 100% motion blur)

  2. F-Stop (Forget anything below F5.6 you've then got lousy depth of field, something I can't stand. I like as much of the whole image in focus as I can

  3. ISO (Forget setting above 400 as noise becomes too bad and the shots not worth keeping)

So what's left to change/set to compensate for the low light?

I have been experimenting with infinity focus settings and pre-focus and yes, in good light or sun this has helped to improve my photos slightly, but as we know England is not renowned for nice weather, and when it is nice sunny weather to me a good cheap pocket camera or bridge camera can take just as good a picture as a £5000 camera in my opinion, so why do we shell out so much for expensive cameras?

Sorry about the rant.

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    With the above restrictions, your only other option is 4) get more light. Otherwise, you're going to have to compromise on your parameters. – twalberg Apr 17 '18 at 19:53
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    Short answer: you can't take the shot... But I find it very strange that my £500 camera gives virtually noiseless images at 800 ISO (with proper editing), where your £5000 camera can't even handle 400 ISO – remco Apr 17 '18 at 20:13
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If the photo you wish to take requires using 1/800 or shorter exposure times, apertures narrower than f/5.6, and ISO of no more than 400 there's only one way to take the images you want in less than very bright natural light: Add the light yourself.

Forget static photography where you've got days, in fact weeks, to set up your one perfect shot. My question is how do you take good sharp shots of a moving subject, say a train, when the light is very low/poor and certain factors are a problem...

For inspiration, perhaps you should look at the work of O. Winston Link. He shot trains, mostly at night, in the 1950s using medium and large format cameras combined with up to hundreds of single use flashbulbs and miles of wire to connect it all. Just because your subject is moving does not mean you have no time to set up and prepare for a shot. Link often spent days setting up for a single exposure.

Hotshot Eastbound, 1956 by O. Winston Link

With such images, the shutter time is much longer than 1/800 second. The exposure time is determined by the amount of time Link's flashbulbs are illuminated before they die, not by the shutter time. In the case of the image above, shutter time was probably around 1/24 second or a bit longer to guarantee the image on the movie screen was fully illuminated.¹

... when it is nice sunny weather to me a good cheap pocket camera or bridge camera can take just as good a picture as a £5000 camera in my opinion, so why do we shell out so much for expensive cameras?

Because the marketing machine tells us to? Because we think a camera, and not a photographer, takes photos?

Please understand, I'm not trying to be flippant or condescending here. But buying a better camera never made anyone a better photographer. Buying a better camera does allow a photographer who knows and understands how to get the images they want to get images that lesser cameras would not allow. But it is the photographer who must recognize how to get those images, understand what technical requirements such images require from the camera and other gear, and select appropriate equipment based on those requirements.

In your case, if you want image quality as good as what you can get in bright daylight you only have two choices:

  • Shoot only in bright daylight
  • Provide enough light on your subject that it is reflecting just as much light as it would reflect under bright daylight.

No matter how much you spend on gear, it will always perform better in good light than it will perform in bad light. Always.

¹ It turns out that Link used a different frame that he exposed much darker for the image on the movie screen, which was too bright for his exposure of everything else. The fact remains, though, that the shutter time would have been a fairly pedestrian value much slower than the duration of his flash bulbs.

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  • I think it should be noted that, if going the flash-lighting route, much slower shutter speeds can be accommodated (and in fact have to be). – Hueco Apr 17 '18 at 21:26
  • My first thought was also of O. W. L... unfortunately my second thought was of trying to explain myself to a paranoid Homeland Security squad... :/ – junkyardsparkle Apr 17 '18 at 21:30
  • @junkyardsparkle That's when you pull the business card of your friend who is the head railroad policeman for the district in which you are shooting out of your wallet and ask them to call him. – Michael C Apr 17 '18 at 21:31
  • @Corey it should be pretty self evident that the sync speed of any LF/MF camera from the 1950s is fairly slow, since the burn time of chemical flash bulbs used at the time were so long. – Michael C Apr 17 '18 at 21:33
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    One man's self-evident is another man's never woulda thought. Especially a beginner. But hey, to each their own. – Hueco Apr 17 '18 at 21:47
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Let's dig into some of your parameters...

Shutter speed (unable to set too low, say anything below 1/800, and you've almost got 100% motion blur)

How fast the shutter needs to be to reduce motion blur is very dependent on the train's speed and where it's going in relation to you. Setting a rule of no slower than 1/800 feels unnecessary. Instead, buy yourself a stop by thinking - what's the minimum speed I need to freeze the action from where I'm at.

F-Stop (Forget anything below f/5.6 you've then got lousy depth of field, something I can't stand. I like as much of the whole image in focus as I can

This is really dependent on focal length and how far away the train is from you. A 35mm lens on your D750, at f/2.8, with the train 50ft away, will have actually have everything from 25ft away on to infinity in focus. So, you can potentially buy yourself a couple of stops here as well (which you may need to increase your shutter speed!)

ISO (Forget setting above 400 as noise becomes too bad and the shots not worth keeping)

You need to explain why anything over 400 is not worth keeping. This is actually really low for a modern digital camera, especially if you're applying some noise reduction in post. Given your hard limits and your other post - I'm wondering if you are underexposing your shots and trying to rescue them in post. A properly exposed shot at even 1600 will have less noise than an underexposed and rescued shot at 400.


Given the above - how do you shoot moving subjects in low light? Outside of adding more light or panning, as Michael and Alan have noted - the only other option is to increase ISO. The key, though, is in knowing exactly what aperture you can get away with to balance depth of field with need for speed, and exactly what shutter speed you need for stop-action.

And finally - you need to make absolutely certain that you are not underexposing your shots, shoot RAW, and do some noise reduction in post. I think you'll find that you can actually milk much more ISO out of your camera than you currently believe.

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  • thanks for your feed back Corey. I'm particuly interested in your last bit about under exposing and trying to rescue in post "that is deffinetley me" could you explain how to up my exposure and yes I do shoot in raw but I do try and keep my exposure meter +/- at 0 as I thought that was the correct method . – JOHN BOY M Apr 18 '18 at 6:18
  • @JOHNBOYM - How to get the exposure right for fast moving subjects (in any light): 1. Set your camera to "sports" auto mode. 2. Take a photo. 3. Look at the exposure settings it uses. 4. If you like the result - all good, use those settings. If not, for any setting you move "up" one stop you need to move another setting "down" one stop. – AndyT Apr 18 '18 at 8:43
  • @JOHNBOYM - check out this answer on how to use a histogram: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/450/… ... exposing at 0 in the meter is a good start. Cameras meter toward middle grey however, which can lead to over/under exposures in certain situations. So, look at the histogram and determine if your exposure is on or if you need to actually increase it a bit. I live in Portland and find that I'm often shooting at +1 what the meter thinks (constant overcast/shade here and I like to really flirt with strong highlights). – Hueco Apr 18 '18 at 15:47
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    It should probably be noted that the histogram of a properly exposed black cat in a coal mine will look far different than a histogram of a properly exposed white cat in a blizzard. The idea that all histograms should be in the middle is a bad myth. – Michael C Apr 18 '18 at 17:57
4

It is possible to take pictures of fast moving object using a lowered shutter speed. The “PAN” is the mainstay of this technique. Usually the still camera is hand-held. You compose the moving subject and swing it so that the position of the subject is steady. We are taking about the placement of the subject in the viewfinder. The swing is maintained as you press the shutter release. If executed properly, the subject appears mostly stationary however the background appears blurred. This enhances the feeling of motion that the photograph conveys. It takes a little practice to perfect the “PAN”.

There are additional skills that help when a slow shutter is the only way to get the shot. The angle of approach of departure is important. A high speed object moving directly across (90° angle from your viewpoint), is most likely to be blurred. Reduce this angle by changing the viewpoint so the subject cuts your path at a 45° angle or less helps. A high-speed object coming towards you or away from you allows for the use of a slower shutter. Sports photographers, when forced to use a slow shutter look for breaks in the activity. Lots of tricks to the trade, practice makes it better. Sometimes subject motion or background motion blurs add artistic flare to an otherwise mundane or static vista.

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2

I'm going to disagree with some other folks here. If your camera costs 3x what my 5D Mark IV costs and can't provide decent noise levels past ISO 400, might I suggest that you got ripped off? I routinely shoot at ISO 12,800, and with a little noise reduction, the quality is, IMO, acceptable even at that level of gain. That's a full five stops better than you're getting.

What the folks who say "A good woodworker never blames the tools" miss is that a good woodworker buys the right tools for the job, and thus never needs to blame the tools.

Technology has come a long way in the past couple of decades, with modern sensors having dramatically lower thermal/amplifier/fixed-pattern noise. And full-frame bodies make a big difference compared with crop bodies in terms of shot noise. (Larger pixels translate into more light hitting each pixel, which means your signal level is higher, making the shot noise threshold lower relative to the signal.)

Low-light is definitely one of the few cases where the answer is quite frequently "Get a better camera." Yes, there are ways you can sort-of compensate for having poor low-light performance, such as panning (which smears everything but the subject), or adding more light, or adding image stabilization to compensate for hand-holding, but at some point, nothing beats having a bigger, newer sensor with higher efficiency, paired with bigger glass that has a bigger objective lens.

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  • +1 to this. I'm absolutely blown away by the 5d4's high ISO (lack of) noise. – Hueco Apr 18 '18 at 22:38
  • The 6D and 6D Mark II are also on about the same level, IMO. – dgatwood Apr 19 '18 at 17:58
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If you were to use an extreme wide-angle lens such as a 16mm on a full-frame (35mm) camera, then at f/2.8 the hyperfocal distance is roughly three meters. This means that everything from 1.5 meters to infinity will be acceptably sharp for an 8 by 10 inch print viewed at one meter.

If 16mm is too wide, a 24mm lens using the same parameters would allow you to have everything acceptably sharp from about 4m to infinity at f/2.8.

There's a variety of depth-of-field calculators online that you can play around with to find a lens, aperture, and print-size combination that perhaps would suit your needs.

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