Thoughts on Photography in Low Light and Camera Noise.

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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

Modifying light and keeping photograph’s exposure believable.

A few weeks ago I wrote about modifying light instead of using the direct light from a camera mounted flash.  This is a topic I have discussed many times in my years writing for different publications as I strive to persuade photographers to add flash to their portrait photography.

It seems my comments are having some success because since my blog of May 5thth I have had more than one photographer tell me they had started using light modifiers like “shoot through” and reflector umbrellas. That is a good thing, however, I’m now receiving questions like, “Now that I’m bouncing and softening the light, how come the background doesn’t look right?”

Like any photograph, inside or outside, a photographer needs to take into account how all elements in the image are exposed. That’s the reason I prefer using the manual mode on my camera. It makes it easy to set the exposure where I want to make that subject look like it fits into the environment.

Here is an example that might help readers.  A week ago I photographed a couple in a wide field alongside the South Thompson River. They wanted the white, silt cliffs that jutted up from the grassy flatlands to be visible behind them. The sun (when it poked through the clouds) was bright and cast unflattering shadows on their faces.

My goal was to have the correct exposure for the cliffs, the sky, and, of course, my subjects.  It was slightly breezy; therefore, my wife held onto a stand with a 33” umbrella and wireless flash I used to provide a fill light that would get rid of unsightly shadows on my subjects.

Indoors or out, I always start with the shutter speed. If I need it to be faster I bump up the ISO. Usually I try for 100 ISO, but sometimes I need a higher shutter speed and a wider aperture and that’s when I adjust my ISO.

I first decided what exposure would give me a nice sky and scenic white cliffs. In this instance I metered the exposure and then underexposed by two stops to give me a bit of a darker appearing landscape. Then as my subjects were positioning themselves I fired the wireless flash from different positions until I saw that the light on their faces appeared in the way I wanted it.

My exposure and flash modes were both set to manual. Using manual exposure gave me consistent control over the ambient light. To find the proper exposure for the flash I just moved it closer till I was satisfied with what I saw in my camera’s LCD.   I had balanced the light. There was a nice dark sky, the white cliffs were shining and had defining shadows. My subjects were separated from the slightly darker ambient light without any shadows at all on their faces.

The ambient light kept changing quickly as clouds moved in and a storm approached so I switched from manual flash to TTL flash, and because of troubling wind removed the umbrella from the stand, and instead used a small diffuser cup on the flash to modify its light.

With the camera in manual mode, the shutter, aperture, ISO, distance of the light to the subject, and power of our light source, all controls flash exposure. Things change with the incorporation of TTL flash.  Used together, the TTL camera and flash controls and calculates the flash exposure, and adjusts the power of the flash to deliver and determine the correct flash exposure regardless of the photographer’s choice of shutter, aperture, ISO, and subject distance.

How a portrait looks does have a lot to do with how the subject(s) are posed, but I think light and how it is applied is just as important. Using flash, on or off camera, to modify light gives a photographer more control than just using the sun, or relying on a high ISO. In addition photographers must also experiment and learn how to balance the background, or ambient light, with that flash.

The location really does not matter, whether inside or out, as long as there is enough ambient light to expose the subject. Pose the subject in front of a window or on the lawn. Then add enough light from another source to achieve the final goal of having the background, the foreground, and the subject exposures all together appear to be balanced and not looking artificial.





The photographer said, “I have never used a flash”.

“I have never used a flash.” That was a statement from a young photographer just starting to photograph weddings of her friends. She had stopped by to purchase a lens hood (very good idea for any lens) and while we talked she wondered about how I dealt with contrasting shadows on sunny days and if a polarizing filter might help her get rid of them.

Polarizing light with a polarizing filter will reduce glare in the sky and on reflective surfaces like water and windows, but it doesn’t reduce shadows or contrast. It will decrease the amount of overall light coming through a lens. If a lens is fitted with a polarizing filter light is polarized if it reaches the lens from any angle, but if the sun is directly in front or behind the photographer the light will not be polarized. For this young photographer using a polarizer won’t noticeably affect her wedding photographs in any way other than to maybe darken the sky behind the wedding couple.

I told her that I always use a flash indoors and outdoors when photographing people and she said “even in bright sunlight?” I use the flash to fill or reduce the shadows caused by bright sunlight. Modern TTL (through the lens) flash technology is easy to use and almost fool proof and the days of calculating distance and flash power are long gone.

Many photographers think the only time to use a flash is in a darkened room and because they haven’t learned how to use flash effectively are now relying on high ISO camera settings that will let them shoot in low light interiors. ISO stands for International Standards Organization and determines the sensitivity to light for which sensor is set.

I think relying on high ISO settings is great for those long shots inside the gym during basketball games or when capturing wide church interiors, however, closer pictures of people with mixed lighting coming from overhead leave unflattering shadows and colours crossing their face.

My camera is fitted with a flash bracket that lifts the flash about six inches above the lens. Most camera hotshoes place the flash close and directly over the lens and that close proximity usually causes an effect called “red eye” – the appearance of red pupils in the eyes. Moving the flash away from the lens helps to reduce that effect, and when I move in close for photographs I always place a diffuser over my flash head to spread and soften the light.

Using my flash like that gives me broad, even lighting on people and I set my shutter, aperture, ISO, and flash output so those individuals are slightly brighter than the surrounding area and the background. My flash bracket can be positioned for best effect whether I use my camera horizontally or vertical. The flash is connected to the camera with a power cord that fires it when the shutter is released. I can remove it (and much of the time do) from the bracket and point the flash in any direction I want; bouncing the light off walls, the floor and, if I want, higher than the people sitting in front of me. I can leave them in low light while I point the flash at arms length, from an angle to the side or from above the individuals I am photographing.

Just as there are photographers that leave their cameras’ setting on “program” or “auto mode” and expect good results, there are also those photographers that are unaware how important a good quality flash is. However, in the last few years more photographers that are concerned with their images are using a flash, and not the tiny popup flash that many cameras have, but a flash with the power to illuminate spaces much larger than a family dining room. There are many informational sites on the Internet dedicated to using and controlling flash and probably the most visited is

When I learned to use a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography. I no longer had to rely only on ambient light and I began to notice my subjects had more “pop” than those without the flash as I learned to add light to a subjects face instead of only using it to illuminate or make that person brighter in a dim room. Just like the control I gained by using different focal length lenses, using the flash allowed me to add light when I needed it, improving the quality of my photographs and separating my photography from who do not to use flash.