Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Anatomy of a low low light night shot

It’s not secret that I like low-light and night shots, and this carried over from my film camera days.

While I was usually not too pleased with the results – everything came out yellow thanks to the near universal adoption of low-pressure sodium street lighting – I did seem to be able to get results, and was often surprised by others who I thought were decent photographers who claimed they just couldn’t get it to work for them.

I beat the yellow lighting by shooting black & white, which had the fun side effect of often not looking like a night shot, and surprised a few people when they learned what looked like a slightly odd daytime pic had actually been shot at something like 3 am. Then, I was also tied to tripods or supports. Today, I work mainly hand-held, don’t use a tripod, or a support (can’t carry them casually anyway), and avoid flash if at all possible.

Folk don’t know how lucky they are now, as their phones carry cameras that will take pics at night (without flash) in places where there is half-decent lighting.

Real cameras do even better, but still need sensible users. Despite buttons and settings marked ‘Night Shot’ they often don’t deliver if it REALLY is night, and there’s no nearby lighting.

I was reminded of this as I tried to grab a ‘casual’ pic recently, while walking home.

The first attempt was a joke, and there was so little light (no working street lights nearby) – my little pocket camera just laughed (no pic).

So, disable the flash suppression – well, the flash certainly fired, but the result speaks for itself, and the expression ‘Taking a pic of a black cat in a black room with the lights off’ came to mind. This pic.

Bicycle Try 1

Bicycle Try 1

I have an ‘Auto Adjust’ pic correction option in my software. This almost never fails to impress me with the adjustments it makes, and there are often cases where I cannot manually reproduce whatever it does with some pics, regardless of which individual tools I use.

But it barely changed this one.

Bicycle Try 2

Bicycle Try 2

I tried an alternative, which allowed me manual control of the automation to tweak the effect, and this managed to do a little better, but this was the limit for a ‘simple’ pocket camera.

Bicycle Try 2A

Bicycle Try 2A

I was going to have to go back if I wanted this shot, and take the ‘Big Guns’.

The first shot was really just meant as a trial, with no street lights shining on this corner, and me too lazy to release the highest ISO setting in the camera, I didn’t expect much. In fact, I was caught by surprise as the shot would have come out reasonably… had I not moved too soon, before the shutter closed. My bad, not the camera or the way I have it set. I just didn’t wait. I thought it was going to hold the shutter open a lot longer than it did. (No second shot, this was only an exposure test – to compare against the previous examples above).

Bicycle Try 3

Bicycle Try 3

I normally avoid flash, unless absolutely necessary, so the last shot in this set allowed it to fire.

Bicycle Try 4

Bicycle Try 4

Even I’m impressed, as it’s only a tiny pop-up.

Probably the main advantage it brings is to kill the dreadful yellow of the old LP sodium streets lights still living here.


I ended up delaying this post for a few days, in anticipation of the arrival of a fast lens (f1.8 – all I can afford) and a final comparison.

While the ‘new’ lens was just on the camera and I had not had a chance to test or calibrate it (the body settings are still tweaked for the slow zoom lens, and a surprising change in the weather (it got WARMER after raining lightly through most of the afternoon/evening) meant I was plagued with condensation on the relatively cold camera body and lens surfaces, all but ruining tests I had been trying to make.

That said, the comparison was amusing – while this corner was so dark, the zoom lens exposure was almost 2 seconds for Try 3 (no wonder it blurred, even with vibration reduction doing its best), the fast lens took the same shot in 1/6 second.

Bicycle Try 5

Bicycle Try 5 (Yes someone sat it up since I was last there)

Bear in mind that this was a straight hand-held shot in a corner so dark the autofocus couldn’t see anything to focus on, and manual focus was not going to happen, I couldn’t see enough detail in the viewfinder. Fortunately, I could fire-up an autofocus illuminator.

Slightly puzzled by the WHOLE scene being notably out of focus though, as focus confirmation was signalled (shutter is locked if AF fails anyway). Might have been down to condensation, which the weird wet weather I had been walking through all day had hit inside the camera body, and affected this function. While a wide aperture lens does have a narrow depth-of-field, NOTHING in this view is actually in focus.

Update 2

This post got delayed AGAIN!

The f1.8 lens turned out to be horrible for my purposes, and after a day (and night) spent with it, it was found to produce poorer results than any of my cleverer lenses with slower f-numbers, but vibration reduction (and able to zoom).

I wanted one last shot of this scene, but in daylight.

I almost missed it, as it gets dark so early, but as can be seen, the shop in the background is open this time.

Bicycle Try 6

Bicycle Try 6

This shot just confirmed that a fixed lens without vibration reduction just doesn’t cut it, not even in daylight.

And the wide aperture – meaning narrow depth of field – is just a liability. I generally need MORE, not less.

They may be great in sunlight, or in a studio, or with a tripod, or under a flash, but for street use?


(It’s history.)

29/11/2017 - Posted by | Civilian, photography, Transport | ,

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