A shot in the dark

Yesterday’s post about the Paris Catacombs prompted an email from my co-author and collaborator, Des:

I watched you take your photographs in the catacombs and I still don’t understand how you manage to take such good pictures in near complete darkness! We must talk about that some time.

Well, Des, there’s no time like the present.

But before I describe my workflow, let me say this: I’m a hack. I have no formal training in photography, and only basic Photoshop skills. The techniques I describe here are probably pretty ham-handed, but hey — they’re free (for what that’s worth).

So … first, I’ll explain how I expose and record images in dark, creepy places. And then I’ll offer some more general tips for avoiding blurry images when you’re shooting in low light. Ready?

My low-light workflow

Step 1: I set my camera to record RAW files. Most consumer cameras save your images as JPEG files by default, which is fine for everyday purposes. But to get the greatest possible detail in the dark and bright areas of your photo (the greatest “dynamic range”), see if your camera will record RAW files.

Step 2: I meter for the brightest spot(s) in the frame. In other words, I deliberately waaaay underexpose my image to preserve highlight detail. In this image, for example, I made sure the brightest spot on the skulls and the light were properly exposed.

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Step 3: Open the RAW file. I recommend using a dedicated photo-editing program such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, or Aperture. Here’s how the RAW image opens in Photoshop:

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Step 4: Adjust the levels. For this image, I brought up the overall exposure, boosted the shadows, and brought down the highlights. The resulting image appears a little “flat,” but there’s much more detail in the shadows — yet we’ve also kept the detail in the highlights:

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Step 5: Tweak the curves. Once you’ve set your shadow and highlight levels, use the “curves” tool to lighten up your midtones a bit, if you’d like.

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Step 6: Open and save the image. If you’re a perfectionist you may want to try to reduce the noise, adjust the color, or even work a bit more on the dynamic balance of your image. But I usually just save it and move on. Here’s the image, as it appeared in yesterday’s post:

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Get real!

The workflow I describe above takes only a minute (literally) once you’ve mastered it. But what if you don’t have a minute to spare, or if your camera can’t shoot RAW, or you don’t have Photoshop?

You could set up a tripod, I suppose. Or — if you’re lazy like me — try one of the following techniques. They don’t work in every situation, but they may at least help you reduce the blur in your low-light images.

Technique 1: Raise your ISO. ISO adjusts the sensitivity of your camera’s digital light sensor (or film); the higher the ISO number, the less light you need to achieve correct exposure. Raising your ISO to 800 or even 1600 can help you get better photos in low light. One caveat: Your images may look progressively splotchier at higher ISOs, so don’t get carried away.

Technique 2: Open up the lens. The wider your camera’s lens can open, the more light it can let in. If your camera has an “aperture priority” setting that allows you to adjust the aperture of your lens, choose the lowest number possible (for example, f/1.7). This will result in a faster shutter speed, which will in turn reduce the risk of a blurry image.

Technique 3: Speed up the shutter. Most cameras have a “shutter priority” setting. Choose a setting — 1/30th of a second, perhaps — at which you’re comfortable hand-holding the camera. The image may be a little underexposed in some cases, but at least it won’t be blurry.

Technique 4: Deliberately underexpose the image. If your camera allows you to manually adjust the exposure, deliberately shoot a slightly darker picture than the camera recommends. This will automatically result in a faster shutter speed, which may again help reduce or prevent blur.

Technique 5: Lean against something. If none of the above is feasible, you may still be able to avoid blur by leaning on something solid (like a railing or a wall). I don’t recommend this, however, if the walls are made of skulls.

Technique 6: Set the self-timer. Sometimes the very act of pushing the shutter button can trigger motion blur. Try setting the self-timer for two or five seconds instead, and hold your breath. Literally! Hold your breath until the shutter is done releasing, and you’ll (probably) get a less-blurry photo.

Technique 7: Pull a Rambo. If you’ve exhausted all of the above options, here’s one last weapon for your dark-shot arsenal: Set your camera to “burst” mode, so it takes a bunch of shots back-to-back, and fire away. You’ll likely end up with 50 blurry shots — but maybe one or two will be passable.

Good luck, and have fun.