Action in low light

May 12, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Shooting action in low light is particularly challenging. Firstly, to freeze the action requires a fast shutter speed. But how can you jack up your shutter speed when you don't have the light to do so? Image stabilization technology does not help with moving subject, it only helps with moving cameras and lenses. Secondly, in very dim light it can be hard to see through the viewfinder to compose the image and to follow the action. Thirdly, autofocus systems struggle to focus in very dim light, let alone trying to do so with fast moving subjects. Fourthly, for those of us in cold climates, dim light typically also implies rather "dim" temperatures to be out in. Being out in winter or early spring during the dim light just before or as the sun fights the cold to rise is no joke in Nebraska. Early spring in Nebraska is the windy season, and if a place that almost always has wind calls a season the windy season, then you must know that we are talking about real WIND! When the cold and the wind combine it gets brutal.

          If this is so difficult (and COLD), why bother doing it? I am glad you asked. We do it because we love challenging ourselves and to grow. But we also do it to chase the images that those very conditions may produce (if we overcome these challenges). In case you wonder if dim light can, in fact, produce nice images, here is an examples of what I am talking about:

Besides the obvious advice of dressing warmly, here are some best practices to help you get images in these conditions.

  1. What would you prefer, an out of focus image or a noisy image? There is no saving an out of focus image, but there are tools to mitigate noise. So use the widest aperture your lens offers to get as much light to the sensor as possible, choose the shutter speed needed to freeze the action and then let the ISO fall where it may. If the ISO really gets too high then slow down the shutter speed just a bit. Blurry wingtips are acceptable and can even be pleasing as long as the face and eyes of your subject are sharp.

  2. Use AI noise reduction software on your raw file. Personally I prefer DXO PhotoLab or DXO PureRaw. Adobe also recently updated their AI noise module and now produce amazing results too. You will be surprised how good noisy images can be cleaned up these days. Luminar Neo's noise reduction also works very well. You can also look at the offerings from Topaz.

  3. A dark viewfinder is a serious issue. If you can't see you cannot compose your image, let alone following fast moving action. Most modern cameras allow you to set your viewfinder brighter in the menu settings. This can help a little, but usually not by much. Nikon cameras have a fantastic feature that you can turn on that ignores your camera settings for the viewfinder's purposes. It changes your settings just for the viewfinder to brighter it while not affecting your images. This feature is like magic. It lets you see in almost darkness. That was what allowed me to take these images.

  4. Autofocus systems need contrast in order to be able to focus. There is very little contrast in dim light. One trick that you can use is to set yourself up to shoot into the light which creates contrast. Parts of these birds' wings are quite bright because of being backlit. This not only helps your camera to focus but can also make your images more impactful. You can try to lower your angle to shoot upishly. If your subject has a brighter sky behind it you have contrast and your camera can focus. So your position relative to that of your subject, the sky, and the sun, can make a huge difference in aiding your camera with acquiring focus.

  5. Dressing warmly solves the cold problem but solving one problem often creates more problems, just different ones. One such problem is that warm clothing can, at times, be noisy. When a sleeve rubs against another part of a jacket it can create enough noise to scare your subjects. When they can't see that well they are more skittish for self preservation's sake. Any noise during dim lit times of the day can send your subjects to seek safety elsewhere. I don't know if it is just me who thinks this but to me it just seems as if noise travels further at night. So be cognisant of this problem and select clothing that does not make noise when it moves. I have yet to find gloves that work in Nebraska's cold. I have tried a number of pairs but the cold just laughs at them. Thicker gloves will impede my ability to control the camera. Please don't suggest "photographic" gloves where the fingers can be exposed to control the camera. Exposed fingers in Nebraska's winter make no sense to me. I have been in severe pain for forty or fifty minutes as my fingers thaw inside, and that was after having full gloves on, without any fingers being exposed. By the way, if your fingers are really cold, they should thaw slowly, don't put them in warm water, for example, as that may possibly injure you. I am not a medical provider, so please seek professional help. Either way, next winter I will experiment with electric gloves. I will let you know if they work both for heat (which I am sure will work wonderfully) AND for camera operability.

Be careful and safe. Have fun trying something new.


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