a shot in the dark

A couple of recent photography-related posts have reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write up something about working in low-light conditions. Wayne at Niches has just written two super posts on photographing the night sky — see here and here. Check out the second of these posts to see some interesting photos taken the night before last. The other post is at Snail’s Tales, where Aydin has just written about and posted some examples of macro photos shot with a newly acquired LED light ring.

I haven’t done much night sky photography other than attempting shots of the moon and the aurora borealis, but I may use Wayne’s tips to give it a whirl this winter. I don’t tend to experiment much with night photography in summer as the mosquitoes are usually wild around here, so I rarely have the patience to mess around with cameras. However, I do occasionally shoot macro or close-up photos under low light conditions, either at night, or in dark woods, or along heavily shaded streams. Those situations require different equipment and techniques. I thought I’d write a little about how I work with low light.

My earlier attempts were all shot using a Nikon Coolpix 4500. For shooting night moths, such as the above example of a Feltia subgothica-tricosa, I used a Nikon Cool-light SL1 LED ring. It does a good job for macro work, but it has a couple of shortcomings. One is that the light level isn’t adjustable, and the other is that the batteries haven’t seemed to be as long-lasting as I had expected based on what I’d read. The batteries are expensive and non-rechargeable so that was disappointing (I don’t like using disposable batteries in my equipment). Here’s another example of a night moth also shot with the same camera and LED ring.

In April 2005, I purchased a Nikon Coolpix 8800. That’s now my main camera for nature photography. It presented some very different challenges for low light photography. First, the rather large lens fully retracts into the housing, so it isn’t practical to use typical LED lamps that attach to the side of the lens as might be used on a DSLR type camera. Also, because the lens is quite large, it interferes with light from the built-in flash up top. However, I have found some work-arounds for shooting close-ups under low light. I’m still looking for a solution for very close work, but for most subjects, I can either shoot so that the subject is towards the top of my lens and then crop out the shadow of the camera lens. I do that a lot with night moths and have gotten pretty good results. Alternatively, I zoom out just a little more than I would normally do, and shoot from that distance. It’s not quite so good for really small objects, but for such creatures as salamanders (see this collection of salamander photos), it works quite well. The above rather pallid example of what is probably an Orconectes rusticus hybrid was shot this way. Click on the image see a larger version — it turned out not too badly at all considering that I was shooting in very low light into water on a streambed with a lot of mica fragments.

Regarding camera settings, I usually shoot using the fill-flash setting, although I do quite a bit of experimenting and just use whatever works well for a particular situation. Again, the only problem with shooting using the built-in flash is that it often means having to crop away some of the lower portion of the photo to get rid of the lens shadow. In the example of the land snail (below), you can see a bit of the shadow of the lens.

I do make use of a number of other gizmos and strategies for shooting. I sometimes use a flashlight – a sort gun-shaped NOMA flashlight with Xenon and LED bulbs (you can choose which to use depending on the circumstances). It works best when Don is around and can shine it in the direction of the subject for me, although I can usually stick it in the crook of my arm, position it, and then shoot my camera when on my own. I also sometimes shine a flashlight on a piece of white cardboard and use that as a reflector to light up an area that needs some softer illumination. That’s particularly good for shooting in the woods where just a little supplemental light may be needed. Okay, that’s all for now, but if any of the photographers among you want to post some comments on how you shoot in low light, please do so as it’s nice to hear how others handle certain situations.

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2 Responses to “a shot in the dark”

  1. Wayne Says:

    You’ve mentioned several things that I haven’t explored – the LED light ring, for instance. Thanks to pointing me to Aydin for that, and his observations on color corrections. As your very nice snail photo hints at, and I’ve noticed many times, a built-in flash at close distances does cut off the bottom half or two-thirds of a photograph. Framing the subject into the upper 1/3 of the frame is just begging for vignetting.

    Besides flash, the second-most effective measure I’ve found has been to up the sensivity – the ISO rating. That option may not be possible on a lot of cameras, and there’s a point where you can get into noise, but up to that point it works quite well.

    The other thing is post-photo processing. Some will call it cheating, but many low light photos benefit by increasing the brightness and contrast. Those star photos were done that way – I increased the brightness which also brought up a reddish foggy background, but increasing the contrast far beyond what I would have done for any normal photo eliminated the background without disturbing the star point sources. It worked, anyway.

    I had a series of experiments outlined on that, btw, but the clouds settled in the moment I’d done my planning.

  2. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – I’m always amazed at the ability of these digital cameras to capture “information” even if it looks dark when you first view the photos. As you have commented, when you do some post-photo processing, it’s amazing to see what is revealed. The information is all there in the photo, and is reveled with you brighten it up.