Of the many technical questions I'm asked, taking pictures in
low light is a subject very frequently raised. Typical low-light
questions: What light meter is most effective? How do you balance
flash with low ambient light? What's the best method of focusing?
My recent trip to Italy affirmed practical answers to all these
I spent about a week in Venice last year and was confronted with a myriad of picture-taking challenges. The quality and beauty of light was dramatic, but not always ideal for shooting. That's why my preferred light meter remains Nikon's 3D Matrix metering.
I've been using this invaluable tool for years and have found it to be the most consistent performer, under the widest range of lighting conditions.
When I ventured into the historic Basilica San Marco on Venice's famed Plaza, I was confronted by its enormous darkened space pierced with shards of dappled light. From past experience I knew that using exposure compensation of plus 0.5 EV and the camera's 3D Matrix Metering would likely deliver beautiful exposures for the complex lighting.
Overexposing slide film in low light increases exposure and produces rich, highly saturated results. But just for insurance I took advantage of my camera's Auto Bracketing feature and made a two-frame bracket series at my chosen setting as well as plus 1 EV. When you're thousands of miles from a reshoot, a margin of safety is simply prudent.
Photographing candid portraits can be one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of travel photography. That's one reason I never travel without a Speedlight—in this case an SB-28. Great subjects are often discovered in less-than-great light. Having full confidence that you can quickly and accurately turn a dim or contrasty image into something memorable is the perfect reason to master fill-flash techniques.
While strolling a darkened path in Venice, I happened upon a gondolier making his way to work. He graciously agreed to become my subject. As I raised my camera to my eye I noticed that, even with my lens wide open, the available and uninteresting light was providing a shutter speed of only 1/30 second. Fill flash was the perfect tool to brighten anotherwise flat, low- light image. I set my F100 to Program and Slow Sync flash modes, and mounted my SB-28 Speedlight.
The camera delivered a perfect ambient light exposure of 1/30 second and my Speedlight added brightness and filled the shadows.
The autofocus systems in today's cameras isn't just for photographing fast action. The better systems also allow you to take pictures when your eyes are fatigued or when there's insufficient light to manually focus with precision. All of Nikon's AF SLR's focus accurately at EV—1, which is the equivalent of an exposure of eight seconds at f/2 with ISO 100 film. This type of performance is something we can all take advantage of, especially in low light. Autofocus can also support spontaneity, even in the low light of Venice's chaotic fish market. Using the F100's multiple AF sensors, quick and effective composition becomes much easier.
Selecting the best AF sensor for my scene, I was able to compose with confidence and concentrate on the magic of faces. Techniques grow from capabilities. As technology faces. Techniques grow from capabilities. As technology gives us advantages, we devise ways to put those advantages to practical use. In this case, technology takes the pauses out of pre-visualization.
I like to take pictures in every kind of light. Thanks to the amazing capabilities of today's technologies I'm rarely deterred by low light. It's up to you to go out and apply these and many other techniques to your style of photography.