Thoughts on Photography in Low Light and Camera Noise.

Musicians 1

Musicians 2

Musicians 3

Musicians 4


Musicians 6

Musicians 7



A friend dropped by my shop to show me photographs he took of some musicians performing at a local evening event. As we looked at his images, we talked about how successful they were and how he had to push his ISO higher and higher for lighting conditions he was forced to shoot under.

He began by rating his camera first at ISO 800, then later, higher than that because of the low mood lighting. He didn’t want to use a flash because it would have disturbed the ambiance of the musicians and for the audience. The only illumination was a couple of little spotlights that had been redirected towards the musicians. In compensating for the low light, his only concern as he prepared to shoot was image noise.

Digital image noise is noticeable by the presence of coloured speckles where there shouldn’t be any. For example, instead of clear dark or coloured background, there might be different colour speckles in the background. Noise is closest to the “grain” one used to see when using high ISO films, except with film it was more about those areas that didn’t expose correctly.

Photographers have always struggled with the effect of high ISOs and I remember when 400 ISO was considered a pretty grainy film. In the days when film was king there were all sorts of special chemicals to process film to try to get fine grain and allow for pushing film to a higher ISO than 400. Photography magazines had article after article discussing ISO grain.

If photographers asked my advice ten years ago I would have suggested they use Ilford’s Delta 3200 ISO black and white film and to rate it at 1600 and process it in Ilford Perceptol, but these days some camera sensors are amazing in their ability to “see” light. Modern camera companies control the way images are processed in their cameras, and there is a lot of marketing based on beautiful images to encourage buyers to spend money on whichever new model they are promoting.

When selecting higher ISO today, the signal from light photons is amplified, and with that the background electrical noise that is present in a camera’s electrical system is also amplified.

Without enough light for a proper exposure the camera’s sensor will collect a weak signal and more background electrical noise is also collected.

This isn’t the place for making recommendations for which is the best camera for low light shooting. I’ll leave that to others. I suggest readers do some research on different manufacturers and tests on the cameras they own. There are also programs like Noise Ninja, Neat Image, Topaz DeNoise, and NIK’s Dfine that can reduce the effect of high ISO, and those that aren’t in the mood to follow the herd of photographers that purchase a new camera every year just to reduce digital noise, might try one of those programs.

For me, it comes down to the purpose of the photographs. If I was photographing a college basketball game and the images would be used in brochures or magazines, I would want the cleanest, lowest noise images I could get; but if they were going to end up as pictures in an on line album, or just stored in a computer’s hard drive for friends’ viewing, I wouldn’t be too concerned about noise. Therefore, I suggest that photographers determine the purpose in advance of any photos taken in low light.

There is a lot of information on the Internet about specific cameras and their abilities regarding sensor noise. I suggest doing some research and checking out other photographers’ comments regarding what they own, or may be thinking of upgrading to, and as I said before, do some experimenting with the camera they have.

I enjoy receiving comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Photographing a Christmas Concert.

There is nothing like a well lit photograph.

There is nothing like a well lit photograph.

The Yule Log Fireplace channel is now available on TV. That must mean Christmas is coming. My wife and I also just received a call from my son to tell us the date of our granddaughters’ school Christmas concert. And with that festive event, it’s final – Christmas is on the way!

Last year my wife and I joined what seemed to be about five hundred parents, siblings, and, of course, other grandparents in a large hall. We had arrived early because my daughter-in-law said the seating would be limited and as it turned out, it was standing room only for those who arrived late.

There were many people holding their cell phones or little digicams, and I think I saw someone with a DSLR away in the back, but mostly they just sat in their chairs waiting, hopeful their cameras would make wonderful photographs of the childrens’ concert. I heard a parent near us complain she hadn’t charged her batteries.

I had a centre isle seat near the back that was perfect from which to move around. And before everything started I made several exposure tests so I would know my exposure and where to stand to get the best shots.

When the audience lights were lowered and teachers positioned themselves to coach (and coax) the children as they sang I remember looking around watching people holding out their cell phones and digicams at arm length to photograph those on stage.

Flashes on those tiny devices only have a reach of approximately 15 feet, and even if the small figures on the stage were visible in the pictures, everything in the foreground would be extremely over exposed. The person with the DSLR was at the back of the audience with a telephoto lens, but no flash, foolishly relying on her camera’s high ISO. I expect the resulting images were much the same as the digicams with inconsistent exposures.

As the concert began, and before my granddaughter appeared I stepped into the isle and made some shots and as I expected, they were not to my satisfaction. Yes, I could see the whole group with their teacher, back to me, gesturing, but the children were too far away, and although some parents may be interested in their children’s classmates, I selfishly only cared about getting good pictures of my granddaughter, so I moved up close. My technique for being in front of other people is to select my spot, kneel down out of everyone’s view until I am ready, then I stand up, take my picture, and kneel down again.

With my camera and lens pre-set, I only needed to work around several parents sitting on the floor holding their digicams at arms length above their heads, and the one grandparent kneeling and wildly waving.

The concert was fun and my granddaughter was excellent (in my opinion anyway) and I took lots of pictures of her while she was on stage, and downloaded the image files from my camera to my computer when I got home. I edited, re-edited, then edited again for a final selection that I liked, and finally was down to a couple that I really liked. My opinion is that anything but the best is just wasting space and I never want people to see anything but my best photographs.

As I left the concert I could hear people saying they wish they could have got better photographs, and of course they blamed their equipment or other people, but not themselves. Soon the season will be upon us and for photographers the decision should be easy; every photographic opportunity should be thought out and they should always take the time to produce quality images. At last year’s concert most people had inadequate equipment or poor locations, whereas I had a DSLR with a flash attached and had spent some time preparing and selected the best position I good get in that overcrowded hall.

I really enjoy everyones comments. Thanks, John

My website is at



The Lens – The Most Important Part of the Camera


The Lens – The Most Important Part of the Camera

Ask any experienced photographer whether to buy a new camera or a new lens and the answer will usually be, “it’s all about the glass,” or, “a good lens is more important than a good camera.”

A bad lens on a good camera will still make poor images, but a good lens on a poor or average camera will most likely give the photographer good results.

I listened to several friends talking over coffee about reviews they had read about the latest camera offering from Canon. The discussion began with questions like, “why does a photographer that doesn’t shoot sports need a camera with 7 or 8 frames a second” and “I really don’t spend much time shooting in low light situations, so why would I spend extra money on a camera because it is capable of a high ISO.” However, as expected, it wasn’t long before the talk easily turned to an exchange of views on lenses. Remember, because after all, “it’s all about the glass.”

The conversation easily moved from a difference of opinion between those that preferred prime (fixed focal length) lenses, and those, like me, that chose multi-focal length (zoom) lenses. We talked about the importance of wide angle and, of course, wide aperture lenses.

Just because you can change the lens doesn’t mean you have to, but I don’t know many photographers that are that sensible. Mostly we are willing to change lenses as soon as we have extra cash in our pockets, more emotional and impulsive than sensible.

I know very few are content with the short zoom that came as a package with the camera any more than they are with the tires the manufacturer installed on their car. Yes, the lenses, just like the tires aren’t high quality, but that’s not my point. What I mean is that changing lenses is like changing the visual personality of the image, and most photographers I know are engaged in, what I’ll call, a search for a perspective that fits their personality and personal vision.

The camera might capture some subject’s personality, but the lens, in my opinion, says more about the photographer than the subject.

Several photographers standing on a picturesque hillside using the same camera and lens will probably produce much the same image, but give them each a different lens and the resulting images will be diverse, distinct, and individual.

Yes, it is all about the glass, and there is such a pleasing and very exciting diversity of lenses out there waiting for each photographer to choose, discard, and choose again as they explore and create within this stimulating medium of photography.

As I wrote those words I wondered if there were others that I could use that were more applicable than stimulating. I could have used, intoxicating, invigorating, or even compelling. They all fit and, I think, could apply to some of the feelings I could see and hear from those photographers lounging around my shop drinking warm coffee on a cold November day as they talked about the lenses they used and would like to use.

A new camera is a lot of fun, but it really is “all about the glass.

I appreciate any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Depth of Field

I have included a few examples that show the technique.

I have included a few examples that show control over the technique.

D of F 2

hoodo and fence 3

Plowing the field

Shoot'n the sunrise 1

A smaller aperture for more depth of field.

Shoot'n the sunrise 2

A wider aperture for less depth of field.


Blue Freighter Frog

Brewster copy 2

Truck in the meadow copy

River Sandon BC


A topic that I recently discussed in my classes, that I repeatedly explain to photographers that come to my shop complaining about what they believe are lens focusing problems, and have written more than once about is “depth-of-field”, but it still seems to be an elusive concept for many. However, it is really important and photographers should make the effort to grasp it even though it appears difficult.

I pondered this last Thursday when a local photographer showed me an image she had made during a wedding. She showed it to me proudly and commented that she has chosen that lens because it let in more light when photographing in low light, but complained that the expensive lens she had didn’t seem all that sharp.

The image showed a view of the central aisle of the church with pews left and right, leading up to the bride in the distant centre, approximately 20 feet from where the photographer was standing. The overall exposure shot at an aperture of f/2.8 was fairly good. However, what that photographer saw was the lack of sharpness everywhere, except for the bride standing in the aisle.

The definition of depth-of-field is “that area around the main subject, in front of, and behind it, that is in acceptably sharp focus”. In application the wider the lens’ aperture is set the less will be the depth of field, or that area of sharp focus, around the main subject will be.

Wide aperture lenses are very popular these days and using a lens at a wide aperture like f/2.8 when making a portrait isolates the main subject and produces a soft, out-of-focus background referred to as bokeh by reducing the depth of field. Bokeh is a pleasing soft blur produced by a wide aperture lens in the out-of-focus area directly behind the subject.

In this instance the photographer was relying on the wide aperture to increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions. That additional light allowed a faster shutterspeed for handholding, but along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor the resulting effect was to reduce depth of field.

Using that wide aperture created a field of focus in front of the subject of a couple feet and only a bit more behind that would be fine in a portrait, however in that photograph of the church aisle with pews on both sides, that included lots in the foreground and much of the background, looked out-of-focus.

Many photographers unwittingly rely too much on their photography equipment to (magically?) make good images, and blame faults in their photographs on that same equipment. Understanding the basic concept of depth-of-field would have made that photograph more to the photographer’s liking.

The smaller the lens aperture number is the less the depth-of-field. I prefer using a small aperture (larger number) for scenic photography and, as in this instance, interiors. The answer to that photographer’s low light problem would be to increase the ISO and use a smaller aperture. (I would be surprised to find a modern DSLR that wouldn’t shoot noise free at ISO1600 or even more)

Assuming the lens isn’t sharp when the real problem is with photographic technique is expensive if the photographer goes so far as to replacing a lens. My recommendation is to spend time learning the basics of depth of field instead of blaming equipment when problems occur.


I appreciate reader’s comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

The Photographic Composer’s Score and Performance

Spring storm

A storm o the prairie


Wind power


October Infrared

October walk in Infrared

Trans Canada trucking

Trans Canada Highway – Infrared

River bluffs

Infrared of Thompson River


I taught photography in the 1980s and 90s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) when the only way to make a photograph was using film.

In my lectures I informed students that as well as learning about their cameras, they must become proficient in negative development and printmaking. I would emphasize that those serious about the medium of photography would come to realize that what they did with the camera and the negative it produced was only the beginning, and that it was their final print that would set them apart as a photographer. And I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print…its performance…”

Film has now been discarded by most serious photographers, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years to come, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

The digital camera isn’t making a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that are transferred to computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities. I have become, more than ever, of the opinion that like the negative, the RAW image file, is now the “score” to Ansel Adams – the photographic print.

I know there are those that haven’t bothered to move their camera selector off JPG (Joint Photographic Group). However, choosing JPG files means those images are pre-processed in-camera and the photographer loses control. I prefer shooting RAW (not an acronym like JPG, RAW is unprocessed data) and choosing RAW is like having the negative Mr. Adams discussed, affording us total control over those data files or, more importantly, allowing a personal vision of how the final photograph will look.

A young photographer that came into my shop last week got me thinking about this when, with some kind of misplaced pride, he announced he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer’s presets that were applied in-camera to his image files, the sensor’s dynamic range of only about five stops from black to white and the very limited number of colour spaces his tiny JPG files gave him.

Some years ago I attended a print-making lecture during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an impressive sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to an unknown technician’s personal vision. However, now he shoots RAW and transfers his image files to his computer and the decision has become his to control how his photograph will be processed for viewing.

As in the days when I processed and altered negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision of each. And I expect the same thing is true now as it was with my students all those years ago, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning, and to repeat Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print (is) its performance…”

I look forward to all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at