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The Prints of Darkness


Dusk presents challenges of deep contrasts and pale colors. The 20D does well with both.
Dusk presents challenges of deep contrasts and pale colors. The 20D does well with both.
That odd moment, when the world’s not sure if it’s night or day. The 20D had no problem with that crazy mix of light.
That odd moment, when the world’s not sure if it’s night or day. The 20D had no problem with that crazy mix of light.
The 20D runs fast enough to catch exact balances of moving objects.
The 20D runs fast enough to catch exact balances of moving objects.
Tugboat at dusk.
Even at ISO 800, this took a tenth of a second. From a vibrating tugboat, of a moving tugboat, only dumb luck catches the moment when the movements cancel each other. The 20D did a dozen like this rapid-fire, yielding one winner.
Canon EOS 20D
Canon EOS 20D

A shot in the dark? Since the dawn of photography, taking them successfully has been a relentless pursuit. Certainly the manufacturers were in favor of taking pictures in low-light. Statistically, it's nighttime half the time in the world. How many folks would buy cameras, and all the consumables that go with them, if they thought they could use them only half the time? And even when the sun is up, you need a flash to shoot indoors. What does that get you? A bunch of annoyed people you've just blinded with a blast of lumens, and a picture whose colors and shadows are unlike anything in life. Yet everyone knows that the prettiest lights are found after hours, gracefully molding people and things, glinting and sparkling in their own dazzling way. You'd think the industry would be falling all over itself, touting the abilities of their systems to make pictures in low light.

And to an extent, we're beginning to see some promotional capital thrown in that direction. Olympus just announced the Stylus 800, a $449, 8-megapixel, 3x zoom point-and-shooter whose prowess with "Images that are always bright in darkness or light" (the headline of their announcement) proposes a handsomer world. "There are times when you want to photograph subjects in low light without having to use a flash," croons the release,"—such as when trying to capture the softness and warmth of a candlelit dinner, or natural skin tones in subdued lighting."

Yet for all the sheen buffed-up in the Olympus press release, the subject of low-light shooting has been generally presented by the industry more in murmurs than in shouts. That's because the industry abides by the laws of marketing, the first of which is, "Keep it simple." What complicates low-light photography systems, is that they bring trade-offs, which people have to think about—and that slows-down the pitch.

For as light-sensitivity increases in a recording system—whether film, analog electronics, or digital—picture quality declines by several measures. Color saturation typically suffers, and grain or noise increases. Together, they make the pictures flatter and blurrier. How do you put that politely?

Okay, we can always say that a flat and blurry picture is better than no picture, but as a sales message it doesn't exactly pulsate with enthusiasm. On top of all that, there's the biggest hitch: low-light photography takes more care and attention than shooting under the noontime sun. The shutter speed will still probably be slow, so we must steady-up to take the picture. Find something to lean on, take a deep breath. And then, after we've gone to all the extra effort, that same slow shutter may reproduce the subject itself as a blur, if it was moving. In other words, it's more difficult, and more prone to failure. And wouldn't that look great in the headline?

Then how about fast lenses? You can use a faster shutter at f/4 than you can at f/5.6. Yet in the 35mm realm, from which our standards for lenses have descended, a "fast" lens is an f/2. Those of us with motion-picture backgrounds are accustomed to lenses of f/1.4, f/1.2 and faster, and Leitz themselves produced an f/0.95 lens for their rangefinder cameras.

The complication about faster lenses was illustrated neatly by the Leitz rig. Such fast lenses need large diameters, and the Leitz lens actually covered about one-third of the viewfinder. You could take great pictures, but had to guess what was in or out of the right side of the picture.

It's easier to make faster lenses at shorter focal lengths, one reason for their prevalence in movies. A "normal" lens for 16mm has a 26mm focal length, for super 8 it's 13mm, compared to 50mm for a 35mm SLR. The frame being smaller, the whole lens could be smaller too, and that larger front element wouldn't be so large after all. A similar philosophy could apply to digital cameras, whose imagers approximate movie-film sizes. Yet except for the nominal 35mm, 50mm, and maybe 80mm non-zooms that most of the majors offer with an f/1.4 aperture, the majority of digital and 35mm lenses currently available are f/2.8 and slower.

As far as I'm aware, there are no interchangeable zoom lenses faster than f/2.8; if you need something faster, you must go to non-zooms. This is not a happy thought to a populace that has grown zoom-happy. Olympus awhile back produced a non-interchangeable f/1.8 3x zoom, which was certainly a good step—though in a market studded with lenses of 6x, 8x, 10x, and 12x, a 3x range could easily be seen as another restriction in exchange for low-light capability.

Oh, Give Up Already!
With so many complications, it becomes so much simpler to ask, "Would you like to buy a flash to go with that fine camera?" Indeed the notion is that "available light" shooting is so ponderous and iffy that built-in flash units are practically universal fixtures among today's cameras. And, used with slow shutters and "back curtain" type of settings, fill-flash can sometimes complement existing light in a complimentary way, blending with it to seem almost natural. So what if everybody sees little yellow or blue rectangles before their eyes for the next two minutes—that, like the formality of taking the picture itself, has become a social tradition. Why would anyone want to face the restrictions and improbabilities of taking pictures in low available light?

Well, let's say that there are probably a lot of people who'd be interested if someone made low-light photography as simple and as sure as the broad daylight. And they cover the full range of the photography market. For sure, the photojournalist on a warfront has to catch things that hide in the dark. But likewise, the family that has folks over for barbeque may really like the glow of the coals and the tone of the sky. There are no known statistics to prove it, but probably most people turn off the lights before bringing in the birthday cake.

Everybody wants to be a low-light photographer.

So what would it take to make low-light photography as simple and sure as broad daylight?

For certain, the lenses are starters, and they represent a promise yet unfilled. If there are no f/1.4, 4x zooms for DSLRs, the reasons may have more to do with the manufacturers' perception of demand, or the absence thereof, more than the sheer skillful ability to do it.

ountering that, exotic new possibilities are what now must be offered as the digicam market matures. It's not just about pixels anymore, as everyone keeps saying, and the fact is that we're witnessing innovation on a scale and in a variety that probably has no parallel in photographic history. Improving the odds at low-light shooting opens a large competitive field, since there is more than one way to achieve it. The lens makers have an important contribution ahead, and they should only be encouraged to proceed.

The likelihood is that the optical advances will go furthest in the DSLR market, because the imagers in the DSLRs are physically the largest. They range from "APS-C" size up to "full-frame," or the 36x24mm, (of which there is now only one model, the Canon 1Ds Mark II, Kodak having deep-sixed the SLR/n and SLR/c). The larger the chip, the larger the individual pixels can be, which tends to produce less noise to begin with. They're better able to be kicked-up into high sensitivity ranges—800 and above—with acceptable results.

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