Shooting in the Dark

Contents
Introduction
The Mythology
Mythbusting
The Tools of the Trade
The Noctilux - A Reality Check
Technique is Important
When All Else Fails and Other Ideas

Introduction

Shooting scenes in their natural light has been a hallmark and even a sense of pride when it comes to not only M shooters, but photographers everywhere. But like the megapixel race, the so-called ISO race has been waged and the dust has mostly settled now. In the grand scheme of things, where does that leave us today? Believe it or not, you still can't take a picture in a scene devoid of light. That's just the way it is, high-ISO or not. Photography is all about light - and capturing same. So what's the secret?

A lot of this article applies to film as well, but there's a strong digital perspective. Nevertheless, there are some key points for everyone.

The Mythology

Digital photography is a funny thing. After the "megapixel race" and before the "video bandwagon" there was another period of evolution. The "ISO race." Every manufacturer, having peaked their various megapixel counts - began to look for the next big thing. It seemed everyone wanted to shoot in the dark, and thus began the race to tout the highest ISO settings in the newest camera bodies. It's not uncommon to see ISO ratings of 25,600 now! This is the price of progress - back when everyone was shooting film, ISO 1,600 or 3,200 films were as good as it got and people made do. Now, the laws of physics don't seem to be a valid enough reason why we can't shoot in pitch darkness with an f/4 lens, handheld.

So what do these ultra-high ISO speeds give us? High-ISO performance has definitely improved, making speeds such as 6,400 mostly usable. Beyond this point is where the reality check hits - ISO 25,600 is a marketing gimmick. Sure, the camera will record an image, but the sensor data is so amplified and the noise reduction so strong that the images are all but useless. The noise is still there and the dynamic range quite narrow indeed. What's left is a horrid image - but at least you can say the camera "works" at ISO 25,600.

When the M8 came out, one of the issues reported by users was limited ISO capability. Indeed, it wasn't the M8's strong suit. But it wasn't quite so bad as it was made out, either. Then the M9 came out and it seems people were expecting über-high ISO speeds like all the latest DSLRs, and were disappointed to learn that the M9 only went to 2,500. Nevertheless, it was a tangible improvement over the M8 and offered up to a stop or two improvement in usable ISO. ISO 2,500 on the M9 is definitely usable if necessary.

Mythbusting

So what's the secret to shooting low light photos? If there's one message to take away from this article, it's simply: proper exposure. Nothing will bring out the noise like trying to lighten a dark image - as noise is lightened along with it. Unlike film grain which has a certain aesthetic, it is almost universally agreed that digital noise is just ugly. The best way to get a clean image is to have the proper exposure in the first place. If anything you want an image that might be on the light side, and either darken it or increase the contrast during post-processing, which will keep the noise hidden. At any speed above the native ISO of the sensor, noise increases. At first, it's not much - but rapidly escalates the higher you go. Of course, this is all easier said than done sometimes.

The Tools of the Trade

One tool you might want to consider If you prefer available light shooting, as the majority of M shooters do - is purchase a good noise reduction solution such as Picture Code's Noise Ninja, Nik Software's Dfine, Topaz Labs' DeNoise or Neat Image. If proper exposure and fast lenses still won't get the job done, these software tools will allow you a great deal of flexibility in managing the noise beyond what can be done in-camera.

Most M system photographers have a certain disdain for flash, preferring available light. But sometimes, a little flash can go a long, long way. The trick is to keep your flash output low and balanced to the scene - and not look like a paparazzo that jumped out of the bushes to blitz his victim. Again, a little goes a long way. Don't be afraid to try using a flash - just dial it down. You want to supplement the existing light enough to enable you to get a reasonably sharp photo. If your first reaction to a photo is that a flash was used, then you're not quite there yet. There are numerous flashes on the market that work well with the M system - that aren't too large to stash in a bag for a rainy day. Leica's own SF24D is handy and small, but somewhat limited in power and it doesn't bounce (but it can be diffused). If you're shooting outdoors and other places without a handy white ceiling above you, this isn't a limitation. Metz makes a number of small units that do offer bounce and swivel capability that are quite popular and reasonably priced.

After ISO speed, the only other way to improve the situation is with faster lenses - or increasing the light available (e.g. flash). Thankfully there are several options when it comes to the M system. Leica makes several lenses, some among the fastest in the world to address this. One example are the various Noctilux lenses; a 50mm ranging from f/0.95-1.2. There are also the Summiluxes which are f/1.4 lenses. These lenses, especially the former - are not cheap. It's one thing to make a fast lens, and a whole other to make a good one. Suffice it to say, Leica has done this - at a price. Another popular option are the Cosina/Voigtländer lenses such as the 1,2/35 Nokton and 1,1/50 Nokton, among others. Very affordable and actually very good lenses. Physics being what it is, says that large apertures require larger, heavier lenses. Everything in photography is a compromise of some sort. This is no exception.

The Noctilux - a Reality Check

If you've been in the M system circle for even a little while, you've surely heard of the Noctilux lens. For the majority of its life, its been a 50mm f/1 lens (older ones were a tad slower, the latest a tad faster). There are two camps when it comes to this "legendary" lens. People generally either are after "the look" (which is really something else in its own right) or chasing the low-light dragon into the cave. One important thing to keep in mind is that even at f/1, it's still only a stop faster than an f/1.4 lens (admittedly, this means twice as much light). When we're talking about available light, it's true that every little bit helps. Conversely, keep in mind that the depth of field is ever-shrinking as well. It's hard enough to focus an f/1 lens in bright daylight with such a thin depth of field, let alone in the dark. And even when you nail the focus; don't expect too much detail. Nevertheless, this lens has been an object of desire for many for a long, long time - and usually - but not necessarily for good reason. It's a lens like no other and has a certain look about it. Some of it may be bragging rights. It worked for Leica. But all you need is a peek at for sale forums or eBay to see that it has now reached the point of absurdity. A lens that you could get for less than $2k a few years ago is fetching upwards of $6k today. The latest incarnation, which is admittedly an incredible accomplishment on the part of Leica - the 0,95/50 Noctilux ASPH... Is a lens you need to be really serious about. It's over $10k new!

Technique is Important

If you don't shoot moving things - like people - a tripod is the way to go as it will eliminate all camera movement. However, it must be understood that just like in-camera image stabilization, they will only prevent your own movement - not that of your subject. Tripods are best for static scenes. However, a tabletop or travel tripod is a valuable tool. Failing that, do not be afraid to use real-world objects around you as an ersatz tripod! Lean against a wall, rest your arms on a mailbox or sit your camera down atop your bag and use the self-timer. Nothing is off limits. Granted, you may appear a little odd to passers-by in some cases.

Failing a stable platform, you'll need to handhold the camera. Shooting in the dark at slow shutter speeds requires good technique regardless of what the camera or lens is capable of. A blurry shot is just that. You should practice holding and shooting your camera: - Grip the camera firmly, but in a relaxed way. It's not going to jump out of your hand. - Support the lens and body with your left hand, under the body and cradling the lens. - Keep your arms tucked in, close to your body - and not out to the sides. - Your legs should be spread slightly, in a relaxed fashion. Do not be so rigid here. - You want to gently squeeze the shutter release and follow through. - Some people swear by "soft releases."

When All Else Fails and Other Ideas

So you held the camera steady, and have a reasonably sharp photo. The exposure is right on. But the noise is still there. What to do? As mentioned earlier, you can darken the photo using various means to hide the noise as much as possible. One method is to decrease the overall exposure of the photo if the lit areas of your scene allow it. Another trick is to boost the contrast of the scene, which tends to crush your blacks, or shadows - where most noise lives. Noise reduction software and plugins are one option. The key is to keep it to a minimum, as invariably you will lose detail and the image begins to look a bit "plastic." One final trick is to convert your image to black and white. The biggest problem with digital noise, unlike film grain - is that it's just that - noise. Not just luminance noise, but color noise; a random sprinkling of brightly colored specks. If noise reduction techniques are leaving your image a little odd, try a black and white conversion! You'd be surprised at how film-like noise can look when treated this way.

Another technique is to imply. You don't always need a well-lit subject to tell your viewer what is going on. You can imply it. Shoot in a silhouette. Use backlighting to your advantage to define your subject and what they're doing in the scene. You don't need every detail to be visible to see someone leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette under a streetlamp. This dark mood can say a lot more than a bright, flat image.

Also, don't be afraid to embrace the limitations. Everybody wants or expects a cracking sharp photo or it's a fail. However, you don't need a sharp photo to make your point. Some of the best photos are imperfect and it's their imperfection that adds magic. Life isn't a postcard; it's a moving, ever-changing event. Embrace your subjects motion to lend a bit of life to your image... Slightly blurred legs of people walking by, trails of light from passing cars and planes. Photos are about capturing a moment and generating an emotional response from your viewer. If you've done this, you'd be surprised at how much one can overlook if it's not the perfect image. Sometimes a completely blurry, colorful shot of blobs moving in space is an interesting image in its own right. Don't be afraid to experiment.