Low Light Photography: Post-Production

Welcome to my third and final post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available light. This post addresses the low light post-production practices I use to get great shots in extremely low light without using flash or strobes.  

Get the whole series here in a cool PDF download. All the kids are doing it. Just enter your info below.

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Be sure to read the first post for an introduction to the benefits of available light photography and a review of the type of gear I use to get great shots in low light.  Then read the second post about the low light techniques I use while shooting. 

Keep it Real

This is my tag line for commercial photography, so you’ll need to get your own. My first priority when editing photos is to make the scene appear as it did when I took the image.  I don’t use filters or Lightroom presets and I definitely don’t photoshop as a verb.  I am a photojournalist by training and I use the same principles as the photojournalism community in maintaining honesty and accuracy.  My images are intended to be a part of the historical record, documenting a time and place in the world.

“As I Saw It”

When I say I want the scene to appear as it did when I took the image, I mean I want the scene to appear as I saw it, not exactly how the camera captured it. I always keep that in mind for low light post-production. A camera isn’t the same as the human eye. We can see a greater spectrum of tones than the camera can capture in one frame. So when I photograph a performance and expose for the stage, the audience is very dark, but that’s not how my eye perceived it in the moment. I could see the crowd as well. So I’ll bring some of the crowd detail out of the shadows to better represent what I saw with my eyes.

The two images below are a good representation of what I’m describing. The image on the top is completely unedited, the way it came out of the camera. The image on the bottom is edited to my standard of “how I saw it.”

Color VS. Black & White

Everything I shoot is in color.  I’d rather have the option of converting to black & white later than making that decision in the moment.  I don’t have a general rule about what ends up color or B&W; it’s more of a gut feeling.  The easiest consideration for me when making this decision is if I find the color distracting from the essence of the image.  When a nice moment is muddled by green fluorescent light (see image below), I switch it to B&W.  If a bold color in the background draws the eye away from the focus of an image rather than adding to it, I switch to B&W.

When I’m going to use color, I want it to convey the ambiance of a place or add to the story in some respect. When the color doesn’t accomplish that, I’ll convert to B&W. 

Lightroom

I do 98% of my post-production work in Lightroom.  It’s great software for tagging, marking, organizing and editing images.  I could do a whole series of posts on Lightroom, and maybe someday I will.  For today, I’ll focus on some of the Lightroom features I use when editing my low light photos.  Most of these low light post-production principles will work with whatever editing software you’re using, even if it’s not Lightroom.  I’m sure some specifics will differ though.

As a reminder from the second post, I’m always working with RAW image files.  They offer the most latitude in tone and color adjustments, which is especially important when using images that were shot in extremely low light.

Tone

First, I make sure the brightness on my screen is all the way up.  It’s basic, but an easy thing to forget!  As previously stated, I want the scene to look as I saw it in the moment. 

The Histogram

I watch the histogram to make sure I have the full range of tones in the photo.  The right side is whites and the left is blacks.  To the right you’ll see sample histograms from two images. The top is a color image and the bottom is B&W.

Clipping

“Clipping” is when some of the whites are so bright, or the blacks are so dark, that there is no visible detail in them.  When the histogram goes off the right or left side of the image, you have clipping.  The histogram on top has clipping for both blacks and whites. The bottom histogram has no clipping. Sometimes clipping is unavoidable.  If you have a bright spotlight, of course you’re not going to have any detail in that.  And definitely when you’re in a very dark room, some of the shadows are going to be too dark to contain any detail. 

If the histogram doesn’t have the full range of black and white, it won’t have much contrast to it.  So, when I’m shooting in low light, it is usually weighted more towards the blacks.  I look to increase the exposure until some of the histogram reaches closer to the white side.

For my style, I like the image to have contrast, but not too much.  I work to bring out some detail in the shadows, but just slightly.  Mostly, I go by feel to get it where I want it, which is how my eye saw it in the moment.  I don’t want my images to look HDR (High Dynamic Range.  I will NOT get into that.  Google it if you’re curious.)

Luminance

When editing in Lightroom in the “develop” module, on of the boxes is “HSL/Color”.  HSL is for hue, saturation and luminance.  I find luminance most helpful.  I can make the individual colors brighter or darker by using the sliders.

For example, skin tones often contain a lot of orange in them (regardless of ethnicity), so when I slide the orange up and down, it will take those tones up and down.  I pay close attention to anything else in the photo that’s orange-ish because it will change brightness as well.  Also, it’s easy to slide it too far, so just watch that everything still looks balanced.  I typically don’t go more than +/- 20.  This also works with colored light sources.  So if a person was lit by blue light, I need to slide the blue slider to adjust the brightness.

B&W Mix

A breakthrough for me in low light post-production for B&W images in Lightroom was discovering the “Black & White Mix” functionality.  When shooting an image in color and converting to B&W in Lightroom, it retains the color information underneath.  Use the slider to adjust the brightness of certain colors. 

low light post production - lightroom

SUPER ADVANCED PRO TIP: Adjusting the mix with the tool tip.  This is very cool.  First, I click on the little circle in the upper left corner of the “Black & White Mix” box.  Then I can hover the tool tip on the part of the photo I want to adjust.  Clicking and holding then dragging the mouse up and down makes that color brighter or darker.  This works even better than adjusting the individual sliders because sections of the photo are made up of more than one color.  For example, skin tones aren’t just orange.  They can be a mix of orange and red or yellow.  So when I drag up or down on someone’s face, it will adjust each color in proportion to how much of it is present.  NOTE: This also works with color images in using luminance.

I’m not sure which other software might offer this feature.  If you know, leave a comment.

White Balance

A huge benefit of shooting RAW files is to adjust the white balance of image using a combination of color temperature and tint.  This is allows for much more subtle adjustments than working with a jpg.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the RAW image is uncompressed so adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at all.

With low light post-production, I’ll try the “auto” white balance setting in Lightroom to see what it gives me.  Sometimes I like it and keep it.  Many times it gets me close and then I can make custom adjustments from there.  Occasionally it’s just way off and I immediately “undo”.

For low light post-production, and any other editing I do, I work to keep the color as I saw it.  If I don’t like the color of the light in an image, rather than changing the white balance so much that it looks like it was shot in different lighting, I’ll make the image B&W.

Shooting in dark places using only available light often leads to very saturated colors.  When at a show or a bar, there can often be very strong colored lighting.  If the subject isn’t too close to the light source, it can make for really cool colors in the image.  However, if a colored light is especially strong, a subject close to the light source can be saturated to the point of losing detail.  In those cases, again, I’ll make the image B&W.  It’s always surprising to see the detail emerge when the color is stripped away in these cases.

Wrap Up

Low light post-production takes some practice, but once you find what works best for you, it can take your photography to another level. This concludes my series of three posts on using available light in low light situations. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something, if only that I like to talk about low light photography. As always, please share this with your photog friends if you think they could use it.  And if you’d like to have the whole series to refer back to, you can download the PDF guide through the form below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Get my gear recommendations for low light photography here. 
Learn the tips and techniques I employ while shooting in low light.

If you have something to add to the discussion, please contribute by leaving a comment below. And if you have any questions, be sure to ask in the comments and I’ll answer them soon. 

Thanks! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to checking them out!

-Zach

Other Technique/Advice Posts

Advice for student photographers

Improving Sports Photography

Trade Show Photography

Conference/Event Photography

Shooting holiday lights

Low Light Photography: Technique

Thanks for checking out my second post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available light.  For an introduction to the benefits of available light photography and a review of the type of gear I use to get great shots in low light, be sure to read the first post. This post addresses the specific low light techniques I use while shooting. You can also download the whole guide as a super-sleek, handy-dandy PDF right now by entering your info below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

For illustrative purposes, I’ve selected a series of images from the four years I photographed RIOT LA Alternative Comedy Festival because almost the entire festival happened in dark and crowded theaters without natural light.

Camera Settings

Aperture

As mentioned in the first post, I use mostly prime lenses that have a minimum aperture of f/1.4.  When shooting in low light I shoot consistently at either f/1.4 or f/2.0.  So, since I don’t change my aperture much in these situations, I rely mostly upon changing shutter speed and ISO to get the desired exposure.

Shutter Speed

I usually have a minimum shutter speed in mind when shooting depending on the subject.  If a person is standing mostly still engaging in conversation, I find that 1/60 will suffice, although I’ll try to get that up to 1/125 if I can.  When the person is more animated, I consider 1/125 my target and adjust the ISO to get the shutter speed higher if needed.  Photographing a scene that’s still, I have no problem shooting at 1/15. 

Later in this post I will describe some of the techniques I use to increase my yield of sharp images when shooting at slower shutter speeds.

High ISO

Like most photographers, I try to shoot at the lowest ISO I can.  For my low light technique, I find my best-case scenario is usually around ISO 800.  I’ll regularly shoot at 1600 and even push to 3200 in some circumstances.  Occasionally I’ll even go up to 6400, but only when I feel like a grainy image can work stylistically. I recommend taking some test shots in low light at different ISO settings so you can see for yourself where your line is between good and poor image quality.

RAW files

Most pros (myself included) will always shoot RAW images.  The fact that these are uncompressed gives you a lot more latitude when making color and tone adjustments in post production (the topic of the next post).  If you’re put off by the file sizes of RAW images (which can be 5-10x the size of a JPG), you might want to at least consider switching over to RAW when you’re shooting in very low light.

I also like shooting RAW images because I don’t have to mess with white balance while shooting.  I’ll leave my camera set to auto white balance and just adjust it in post.  Since the RAW image is uncompressed, adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at all.

I address working with RAW images in my next installment in this series: post production.

Underexpose

I don’t fully rely on my light meter when shooting in low light. It’s always going to say that the image is underexposed because in low light, it’s trying to average the entire scene, which is mostly dark. So a part of my low light technique is that I’m actually more concerned with my highlights than shadows. If the highlights are blown out, I can’t get them back when editing. I prefer to shoot on the side of underexposing the highlights. Then I know they’re there for me to bring out in post-production.

The other benefit of underexposing is I can shoot at higher shutter speeds and minimize unwanted motion blur. For example, if I spot-meter on a subject and the shutter speed is coming out to 1/15, I might shoot that at 1/30. Then I don’t have to worry about motion blur or camera shake as much. However, I make sure not to underexpose too much because there will be too much noise (digital artifacts) in the shadows/blacks of an image when I adjust the exposure in post-production.

It can be a fine line to walk, but the more I shoot, the better I know where the balance is between a sharp image, good exposure and image quality.

Light Sources

No matter where you’re shooting there’s a light source of some sort.  If you’re trying to shoot in pitch black, you have bigger issues than I can address here.  The first thing I look to identify, whether I’m shooting with my low light technique or at high noon, is where my light is coming from and how I can use what’s available most effectively.

In a dark space, I like to camp out near the light source and see what kind of activity is happening nearby.  I look for people who are talking together near a light and then focus on the person whose face is most clearly lit.  If several people are in decent light, then I look to see who I can frame up in the most interesting way or who is speaking in with more facial expressions or animation.  I’ll also step away from the light source and see if there is an interesting silhouette that can be made or just a different angle I can get by changing positions.

Keep it Sharp

In order for me to consider an image a “keeper”, SOMETHING in it needs to be in focus.  On some occasions a moment may have really cool action or life and it’s not 100% sharp, but for my work that’s the exception rather than the rule. 

Here are a few pointers on how I get a higher number of sharp photos utilizing my low light technique.

Camera Shake

There’s a photography rule of thumb for avoiding blur from camera shake (caused by the way your body/hands move naturally when you’re just standing still): Keep your shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of your lens. 

Huh?

That just means if you’re shooting a 100mm lens, you want to keep your shutter speed at or above 1/100.  For a 50mm lens, keep it at or above 1/50.  At any slower speed you risk getting blurry images from camera shake (this differs from motion blur, which refers to the movement of the subject).  A lens with image stabilization has more latitude, but typically prime lenses don’t have stabilization.

Brace yourself

A simple, yet highly effective technique is to just find something nearby to steady yourself and/or brace your camera against: a wall, chair, table, post, floor, bar top, etc.  If I need a little bit of stability (like shooting a wider lens around 1/15), I’ll do something like lean against a wall or doorway.  When I’m shooting slower than that, I’ll look for something I can wedge the camera itself against like a post, chair or tabletop.

You might think I’m a real dummy here, because I could just use a tripod. Nope! Can’t do it. Tripods slow me down significantly, are difficult to carry around and take up a lot of space. It is important to me to be able to work in low light in the same manner I approach any of my shoots, which is why I started using these techniques.

Shoot in bursts

When I used to shoot film (pre-2004), I was very precious with it.  I didn’t have much money and only had a certain amount of film to shoot, so I didn’t shoot a lot of frames.  Even after switching totally to digital, it took a bit of prodding from an early photo editor of mine to start shooting more frames.  As a result, no matter what I shoot, in any level of light, I take 2-3 frames in a burst each time I press the shutter.  This greatly increases my number of usable images.

I think this is especially important in low light, because when I’m shooting at slower shutter speeds, the natural movements of subjects can easily blur an image.  The higher I feel the risk is going to be of getting motion blur I don’t want, the more images I’ll take in a burst.  If I’m at 1/15 taking photos of a person talking animatedly, I’ll take 7-8 consecutive shots.  When I’m taking a wide angle of a scene with many people moving around, and I have the camera resting on the ground, I’ll shoot 10-12 frames in a row.  That gives me a lot to work with when I’m editing.  I only need one of those frames to turn out.

Using Live View

When I first bought a DSLR that could shoot in live view (using the LCD screen as a viewfinder), I thought, I was NEVER going to use it; it’s amateur stuff.  Wrong!  Shooting in live view in low light situations took my available light photography to another level. 

Exposure Preview

Live view has two main features that I use: exposure preview and electronic zoom.  Prior to having exposure preview, in low light I would use spot-metering to get a light reading of the subject, take a photo, and then review the resulting image.  Now I can just see immediately on the screen how the exposure changes as I adjust the camera settings and know I’m getting the result I want before even pressing the shutter release.  When using my mirrorless Fujifilm camera, I’m always shooting in “live view” because even the viewfinder is an LCD screen.  I’m not looking physically through the lens like on my Canon DSLR.

Improve Focus

When using autofocus on a DSLR, if the light gets too low, it just can’t get a read on anything.  I learned to combat this by using live view to improve focus.  By using the exposure preview feature, I can essentially see in the dark.  I would set the exposure much brighter than I wanted, giving the autofocus something to grab onto, and then return the exposure to the desired level and start shooting.  Camera manufacturers got wise to this practice and now many cameras do this automatically.  When shooting in live view in the dark, if the camera can’t focus, the screen will brighten, the camera will focus, and the exposure on screen will return to normal, all automatically.  Pretty cool.

Digital Zoom

Many cameras also give the option to digitally zoom when in live view mode.  To be clear, this doesn’t zoom the final image; it just allows you to see a section of the frame closer up in live view.  I frequently use this feature in my low light technique to make sure the focus is exactly where I want it to be.  Sometimes the method described in the previous paragraph isn’t perfect, so I’ll digitally zoom in live view mode and try autofocus again. If autofocus isn’t exactly where I want it to be at that point, I focus manually and zoom back out to get the image.  When I need to act quickly, I can shoot a burst of images even while zoomed in on the LCD screen because it’s actually taking the full frame image.

Wrap Up

This concludes the post on my low light technique I employ while shooting.  Check out the first post for an introduction to the topic and gear info.  The next post is about post-production. Get the whole series in one download, here. Have anything to add to this discussion? I’d love to hear it! And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them soon. You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Thanks! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to checking them out!

-Zach

RIOTLA 2016

RIOT LA 2016 is currently underway in downtown Los Angeles and this is my 3rd time documenting the festival.  It’s always one of my favorite events to photograph each year.  With standup, improv, podcasts, music and more, RIOT artists are always pushing boundaries and experimenting, and as the festival’s lead photographer, I’ve always been afforded the freedom to do the same.

So thank you to the performers and organizers (particularly the festival’s creator, Abbey Londer) for the privilege of telling your story.  I hope that my photos bring back the excitement of the weekend long after it has passed.

Below are some of my current favorites from Friday & Saturday.  Check out my twitter and instagram feeds for more photos soon.01_zfri_7551 03_zfri_7699 04_zfri_7724 05_zfri_0470 03_zsat_8227 05_zsat_8402 06_zsat_0661 12_zsat_8677 15_zsat_8884 16_zsat_7637 17_zsat_8996  19_zsat_9368

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