Sunday, August 4, 2013

Basics of Night Shooting

Canon EOS Rebel T3i, Jupiter-9 M42 Manual Lens @f2

There are of course many different ways to take photos at night. I covered one approach almost a year ago here. Now we're going to get just a bit more complex. The approach you choose depends solely on the look you want to achieve. For these random shots of the crowd at Sackville's summer outdoor Rock Festival known as Sappyfest,  I wanted a basic street photography look, and I wanted to leave no doubt that the shots were taken at night. Another thing I was trying to accomplish was to teach myself how to make exactly the same kind of shots using a film camera, if I had to.

The underlying criteria here is that I wanted to move through the crowd undetected, and so the use of flash was out of the question, and also, I knew that I could not rely on my camera's auto-focus system. I also didn't want to be conspicuous by shooting with the camera up to my face, and so I opted to use the Live View function, taking advantage of the T3i's articulated viewfinder. I was left with a relatively film-like "spec" of not using an ISO above 800, as well as keeping the Exposure Compensation at -2, together with the ISO setting of 800, should simulate a typical film speed of 400, whilst providing a holdable shutter speed of 1/15 or better. Typically, no-flash night shots with a digital camera are very easy, because with the now common ISO's of 6400 and even higher, you can make a DSLR "see in the dark" very readily, at quite high shutter speeds. My only real problem was to achieve a hand-held shutter speed better than 1/15 sec without the benefit of shake reduction, and so I had to use a fast aperture and long focal length combination, which the Jupiter-9 provides. I shot it wide open at f2, and on the T3i, it's focal length translates to 85mm X 1.6, or 136mm.

All of these were taken at ISO 800 with a shutter of 1/20 sec at f2, with -2 EV. I also set up with RAW + JPEG, which was a good idea it turned out,because with the -2 compensation, the JPEGs turned out too dark, with no means of getting them brighter without a lot of noise. But I did it with live-view with the JPG set to Monochrome, focussing the Jupiter-9 manually, which didn't prove too difficult - the articulated viewfinder allowed me to shoot from waist level, and to see what was going on with focus, because the VF gained up very nicely. Normally, the T3i's live-view is hopelessly slow with auto-focus, and requires the stupidity of Canon's flash-burst to find it's way - this would've made it impossible to shoot with nobody noticing me. The results? I had a few that didn't turn out because of bad focus, but generally, I came back with some pretty decent stuff. In post-processing, I had to re-comp the EV of the RAW files back up by 1.5 stops, but this was not just done with a simple increase in Exposure Value (EV) only - that would've defeated the purpose, making two problems - 1) shutter speeds would've dropped below 1/15, making hand-held shooting impossible and 2) the pictures would've ended up looking like they weren't shot after dark. What I ended up doing instead was increasing the EV by only +1, and then playing around with tweaks in lightness and gamma, before converting to B&W, and then increasing the very highest values a bit with "Curves" and the Contrast slider after converting to B&W. Using these methods, I was able to add selective brightness while keeping the noise down, and maintaining a classic B&W after dark look. You may be questioning how I could've achieved similar post-processing flexibility with film scans. Easy. The most basic RAW file specification s based on the old TIFF file format, and so when you scan in 16-bit TIFF, you are doing pretty much the same thing as your digital camera is doing in RAW. You'll need to be set up to do your own scans however, because photo-finishing places will not do 16-bit TIFF scans for you, even though they're probably able to.

Here are a few others that turned out OK:

In the end, I did use a fairly complex set up using live-view, a fast manual prime lens, a low ISO value, RAW files, and selective exposure compensation in post-processing to make this work out. Basically, only one thing matters - if you're shooting at night, and if you want pictures that look like they were taken at night, don't let your camera "see in the dark". If you're using a digital camera, this means, regardless of the ISO you're using, you should either use the camera's "night scene" mode, or dial down the Exposure Compensation by at least -2 EV's. If you're shooting film, it becomes much simpler - use a relatively fast film, like ISO 400 or 800, set the lens aperture as wide as it will go, and shoot with a shutter speed that's as low as you're comfortable with - like 1/30 or 1/15. Common colour negative film isn't nearly as fussy as digital cameras are, so things will turn out by simply setting your film camera this way.

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