I’m not afraid of the dark anymore…

… or high ISO holds no fear for me.

It’s taken me a while to become comfortable with shooting in low light conditions, anywhere north of 1600 ISO. My old Digital Rebel began to fall apart at anything over 400 ISO. The 5D MkII is just beginning to stretch its wings at 1600 ISO.

circus dreams

When I went to the Peru Indiana Circus last month to spend a day shooting, during the show I basically ended up setting the camera at 5000 ISO, f/2.0, and let the aperture priority take care of the shutter speed. The circus had asked us not to use flash during the performance. Lots of people in the audience were using flash, but we were up in a balcony area that wasn’t open to the public, often right at eye level with the performers who were 30 ft above floor level. Getting blinded by flash right in their eyes at that level would not have been a Good Thing. It was a challenging environment to shoot in, but also very enjoyable. Often the only lighting we had was the spotlights on the performers, with subdued ambient light otherwise.


Rule number one to getting good results under these conditions… expose to the right. (The real rule number one is to shoot in RAW, not jpeg, but I think that’s like saying “take the lens cap off before you shoot“. It’s just a given that I shoot in RAW.) I’ve read it many places before, and under normal conditions have never found it to be that critical. But the 5D MkII is not very forgiving of trying to boost exposure in the shadows of an underexposed image. There’s a lot of detail present in the highlights that can be recovered if you’re shooting to the right, not nearly as much detail can be recovered from the shadows, at least not without introducing a lot of ugly noise.


Rule number two, in my hands anything over 1600 ISO (or so) goes through an initial noise reduction in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional. I’ve found that it does a much better job at reducing noise without introducing ugly artifacts than either Adobe Camera Raw (in either Lightroom or PS4), or Noise Ninja. DPP is an awkward program to use, but it comes free with the camera, and who knows how to process their RAW files better than the camera company that produced the files? I still feel more comfortable doing color correction and other tweaking in Lightroom, but the first thing I do is to open the files in DPP and run both luminance and chrominance noise reduction on the RAW files, then export them to 16 bit TIFF files. Then I import them into Lightroom for the rest of the post-processing.

the voice of the circus

They’re not noise-free after processing this way, but there’s nothing wrong with some noise, as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing. And I’m finding that I really like the visual presence of images taken under low, ambient light conditions. And, as if you can’t tell, I’m on a square format kick these days for photos as well. I started thinking about exploring cropping my photos to a square format after reading some thoughts on square format from The Visual Science Lab, as well as admiring some additional square format photos online.


Never lose your sense of wonder.


~ by Dave on 08/22/09.

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