Shortest day of the year. Tips for low-light shooting
21st of December is the shortest day of the year. This is the official beginning of astronomical winter.
Winter days are short and pretty dark. This doesn’t mean we stop creating images outdoors even when light isn’t enough.
Actually the best images in the city are at dusk (also known as blue hour – it happens after sunset and before total darkness in the night sky).
As the cities are full of lights during winter (Christmas decorations adds to that) it’s an amazing opportunity for us to get out and shoot portraits for the amazing Bokeh effects you can get in this low-light situation.
Pick up your favourite “bokeh” lens, the one that renders the out of focus region most pleasing to your eyes and go shoot. I’ve chosen to combine my Sony A9 (see review) camera with the Sony 100 STF G Master lens for its amazing performance both in sharpness and on how it’s rendering the Bokeh: the most pleasing and creamy to the eye that I’ve ever seen in a lens (at least from the ones I got my hands on, and there are plenty of…).
Here are some tips to get more out of your low-light photography:
#1. Forget flash!
Forget flash! When you are in a busy location in the city, flash photography may disturb others and also attract attention to yourself. It’s better to use a video LED light, one that permits adjusting the Colour Temperature (like this one) so you can match your light with the city lights. Plus the fact the flash (if not used properly and that is manual mode) tends to expose correctly only the subject and not the ambient.
#2. Use artificial lights at your own advantage!
Place your subject near a light post (not completely under it because you’ll get racoon eyes) or near a big storefront and with some busy background. The busiest, the better bokeh lights in the final image. The different lights used by stores gets you nice colours on your subject. Neons, light bulbs, street lights etc. all have different colour temperature and playing with your white balance can give you different results. That’s the main reason I shoot RAW.
#3. Get in the mood
If you want an image with a mood, use the LED light to light up your subject a stop or two over the ambient so it separates better. This way you’ll under expose your background and your subject will pop out of the image. A more 3D look.
#4. Station point
Change your station point. Use a balcony that gets to the street or, if accessible, a rooftop terrace can get you an amazing view over the city.
#5. Capture the street pulse
Try to get the street pulse and mood in your images. Make the most of the available light. A good separation light are the car lights coming towards your subject. Positioning yourself near a busy street and see how it goes.
#6. Christmas markets
Christmas markets are a great source of beautiful backgrounds. If you are shooting in December (the darkest day of the year is 21st of December, so very close to Christmas) it’s almost impossible not to find decorations in the city. Use that to your advantage
#7. Fairy lights
Speaking of Christmas an easily available light source (and also source for beautiful bokeh) are the little Christmas lights we all have in our house. For my subject’s safety I’ve used the LED ones that gets power from 1.5 Volt batteries and not the plug ones. Place them both in front and back of the subject for more depth.
#8. Candles and sparkles
Candles or sparklers looks also nice and can be very moody placed close to your subject. The light is warm and combined with high ISO and fast apertures can be your only light.
#9. Your phone’s torch
Even if you don’t have access to LED video lights (very cheap nowadays and a must-have in your photography kit in my honest opinion), little hacks like a phone’s torch can help you in your adventure. Here I’ve placed the phone in a selfie stick and had my model strike a pose like for a selfie. Just so you know, the screen of the phone is towards me and the back light is illuminating the subject. Again, we’ve chosen a busy street location, a bridge with a tram stop so we could be in the middle of the “action”.
#10. Light painting
Light painting is something I love most but it is so difficult with animate subjects. First you need long exposure so you have time to paint with the light. So, this means either a steady hand with great stabilised equipment (IBIS of the Sony A9 + lens OSS in my case) and a patient model, ready to strike a pose for a second or so without moving (hold breath after exhaling gives you best results). Then, place your camera on continuous shooting and keep shutter pressed for more than 3-4 images in a burst, this way making sure you’ll get at least one shake free image. You’ll need an assistant to move the light in the frame, or set the camera on a tripod and do it yourself. But be careful when leaving the camera unattended in a busy street!
The conclusion is that the more you play, the better you get at this low-light game. Thanks very much to my models: Andreea, my 8 y.o daughter and Elena who bared with me in the cold with great professionalism.
Sony 100mm STF G Master lens
I’ll let you at the end with a small gallery of images taken with this amazing performer which is the Sony 100 STF G Master lens: