Capturing Photos in the Dark

Lighting Strike In the Pasture

What about shooting photography in the dark? Now that we are clearly off Daylight Savings Time we have plenty of opportunities to shoot in the dark. I’ve talked about this a few times on my site in the past, most recently I’ve updated my Low Light Portfolio for some night photography examples, but photography in the dark is such a fascinating subject. Shooting at night takes away certain aspects of contrast and color, leaving you with points of light to emphasize and eliminate.

One of my favorite places to shoot at night is at Jordan-Hare Stadium. A night game in Auburn seems to have endless opportunities to get unique shots, and even if I’m shooting from the same location I’ve shot from many times before, they still turn out unique.

Jordan-Hare Stadium at Night in the Rain
Jordan-Hare Stadium at Night in the Rain
Jordan-Hare Stadium at Night
Jordan-Hare Stadium at Night
Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn Alabama
Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn Alabama

Until a few years ago getting ISO’s and shutter speeds high enough for a photo to be very useable was difficult at best. Fast forward to 2022 and camera sensors today are more than capable, sorta.

The First Recorded Photograph

Photography is about “capturing light.” The word itself literally means ‘drawing with light‘, derived from the Greek, meaning light and graph, to draw. Even in our modern day digital Photography world the process of recording an image – a photograph – is still the same today as it was in 1827 when the first image in history was recorded. Today we record via a digital electronic “sensor” and memory, but it is still drawing with light.

The lower light (the more darkness) the more difficult drawing with light becomes. It is of course drawing with light, not drawing with darkness.

How a Camera Sees Light

The total range in contrast from complete light to complete dark in photography is called “stops” of light. Think of them as steps from white to black.

Cameras today range greatly in the number of “stops” they can “see.” Software advancements give more stops of light to the iPhone in Night Mode, and IBIS (stabilization) gives a whopping 7 stops of light to the new Fujifilm X-T5, but typically, digital cameras can see around 10 stops of light.

That means cameras can see a range from complete white brightness to complete black darkness of about 10 steps, or stops as we say (give or take sensors and various other factors).

How Much Light the Human Eye Can See

Think about how much light there is in a room at night when your eyes have adjusted to the darkness. You can actually see an amazing amount of light. Those LED beacons of light from every electronic appliance in the house are barely visible during the day. But at night we can see the smallest amount of light. It truly is amazing how much light we can see in the “darkness.”

The human eye can see around 30 stops of light from complete white to complete black. In fact I would say few of us actually experience a total and complete black darkness, it is just really hard to do with electricity burning. So the contrast range of the human eye is incredible.

Camera Sensor Advancements

The difference between 10 stops and 30 stops of light is where the ability to “draw with light” becomes difficult in photography, and why digital sensors have always been catching up to what the human eye can see. Yet, digital sensors have come a reallylong way.

My first digital camera was a 1.5mp HP digital point-n-shoot camera I got for free from some loyalty rewards program. It took terrible photos by today’s standards, but I still have every image, because they were digital.

Self-Portrait Shooting with a Nikon D100 in Las Vegas
Self-Portrait Shooting with a Nikon D100 in Las Vegas

I moved from film to shooting serious digital photography with the very first generation of Nikon’s DSLR, the D100, at the airport in Las Vegas. Shooting in low light with that camera was nearly impossible. The Nikon D100 (specs) was extremely expensive at the time, had a 6mp 23.7 x 15.6mm sensor (just smaller than today’s APS-C sensors) and capable of around maybe 4-5 stops of light. It went to a max ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) of 1600, and was completely useless at 1600.

In contrast, Fuji’s new X-T5 (APS-C sensor size) released this week has a 40mp sensor and goes to ISO 51,200, though nobody would ever shoot it that high.

Of course there are a lot more factors that go into the ability to photograph things in low light. The physical size of the sensor is especially important, but no matter what camera you have, you can still get decent results in lower light situations in 2022.

How to Shoot in the Dark

Twirling Sparklers in the Dark
Twirling Sparklers in the Dark

Getting decent results at night with any current camera is more than possible today. Here are a few things I try to do when shooting in the dark or at night.

  • Stabilize the camera: this is the single most important thing. Do nothing else but this and result will be better. Use a tripod, concrete, countertop, anything, just don’t hold it with your hand, any micro movements with your hands affect the image. This is especially true on a cell phone camera.
  • Don’t shoot in P-mode (automatic): shoot in A, S, or M, anything but P automatic. On an iPhone, tap the center of the brightest area of the screen and pull down the exposure until it looks dark around the source of light.
  • Use a fast lens: typically f/2.8 or faster would be great, on an iPhone, the wider the lens typically the more light it will let in, so using your “zoom” lens in the dark will yield the worst results.
  • Use manual focus: focus hunting as it’s called won’t happen in manual focus. On an iPhone, tap and hold on the point of focus and it will lock exposure and focus.
  • Shoot in RAW: if you don’t know what this is or why it’s important then don’t really worry about it, but if you can, you will capture a ton more “information” in RAW than a typical JPG can do but it will require more post-processing afterwards. iPhones can shoot in RAW now, and the results can be far better than a JPG image, but if you don’t post-process images stick with JPG’s.

Low light photography has always been a favorite of mine. Check out my Low Light Portfolio for some examples, I used the same techniques I describe above to shoot each of those shots. The images range from my old Nikon film camera (pre-digital), to my Nikon D100, all the way to the iPhone and a Sony full frame camera. So you can shoot in low light with any camera you have, it just takes a bit of practice.

What Cameras Can See that Human Eyes Can’t

Celebrating the 4th of July with Fireworks in the Back Yard
Celebrating the 4th of July with Fireworks in the Back Yard

My absolute favorite part about low light photography is the ability to capture things the eyes can’t see. What is something the human eye can’t see that a camera can see? The passage of time in one single frame. A camera can capture lengths of time (called a shutter speed); fractions of seconds, full seconds, minutes, hours. The eye is only capable of see current time passing second by second. Think about that for a while.

There are several ways you can make this happen, and they always make for some fantastic images. Some examples would be streaks of light coming from:

And the great part about most of those examples is they are relatively easy to capture. It’s slow photography. You set your camera to take long exposures and just let it do it’s thing.

From my Lightroom Archives

Interstate 30 Bridge Overlooking Dallas Skyline
Interstate 30 Bridge Overlooking Dallas Skyline

When I was in Dallas several years ago I did this set of images of downtown Dallas overlooking I-30. The streaks of lights with the cars headlights and taillights are what the eye can’t see but the camera can. That is the cool part about photography. Capturing something the eye technically can’t see. Time passing in one frame. Here is the original post if you are interested. The downtown image above is from that shoot.

Go try some low light photography and don’t be disappointed if the first few attempts aren’t perfect. It does take some practice, but the rewards are great.

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