SHOOTING HANDHELD IN LOW LIGHT
Smart Photography|May 2021
Ashok Kandimalla has been in the photographic field for over three decades and has extensive experience in both film and digital photography. Being an electronics engineer by profession and a photographer, he possesses a unique and deep insight into the technical aspects of digital photography and equipment. He has published more than a 100 articles on photography and some of his writings have also been published in the well-known international magazine Popular Photography. An avid collector of photographic books and vintage cameras, Ashok has a keen interest in the history of photography and a passion for sharing his knowledge on photography through teaching and writing. He is the only Indian photographer to be featured on the Nikon Centenary website. He is presently working as a Management and Engineering consutant. He can be reached at kashokk@gmail.com.
Ashok Kandimalla

During the film era, it was impossible to take a photograph in low light, without a tripod or a flash. That was because the ISO (or its equivalent predecessor, the ASA) rating of 99% of the films being used was just 100 and sometimes, even lower. Images from faster films were of low quality and in any case, the ISO maxed out at about 3200, unless you did push processing, which made the quality even worse!

Even after digital cameras were introduced, the low light capability was nothing great till larger sensors and CMOS technology brought a sea of changes. Now, it is quite common to see cameras offering ISO values in six digits and some even going over a million.

Whatever may be the case, you will sooner or later encounter a situation where you feel that the light is not enough to take a picture with your camera handheld, and you do not have a tripod or a flash (or even if you have the latter, it is of no use – for example, if you are photographing a monument or a landscape). Under such circumstances, you would do the following. Crank up the ISO to the maximum level, switch on image stabilisation and set the lens at the widest aperture (smallest f/ number). If possible, you will try and use a shorter focal length to get a slower handholdable shutter speed to satisfy the standard thumb rule. That’s about it. Let us say you have done all that and you look at the shutter speed on your camera only to find that it is ½ second or slower. Not enough to handhold!

So, what next? Pack your bag and leave? No, not necessarily. Here is a technique that the author has been using with good results and this article describes just that.

This technique relies on a few important underlying facts.

Modern digital cameras, especially those with large sensors, have a huge dynamic range and consequently, a very large latitude. Recall that dynamic range is the brightest and the darkest tones that your camera can simultaneously record in a single frame. Latitude means how much wrong exposure can be given at the time of image capture and yet, we can extract a useful picture from that image. In digital cameras, modern sensors allow a huge amount of latitude for underexposure, up to 4 or 5 stops (Picture 1). Also, for your information, digital cameras have very little latitude for overexposure, but, this is not relevant to us in the current scenario.

That is, you can underexpose an image even up to 5 stops and then increase the exposure in post-processing (Picture 2) to extract an acceptable picture. However, there is no free lunch and when you do so, there is a large amount of noise that is introduced. Though this may not be objectionable on social media, it will be unacceptable for a good quality print.

The next point is the nature of noise in digital sensors. Let us look at this in more detail. By the simplest definition, noise is something that alters and thus corrupts what you want. Those who study electronics are told that any ‘unwanted’ signal contributes to ‘noise’ as it corrupts the needed signal.

As photographers, we want artefacts (things that are not originally in the scene that is being captured) to be absent in our captured image, as these degrade the overall quality. Noise in images does just that - it adds something that is not there originally. Noise has two components, called ‘Chroma’ and ‘Luminance’. The former causes pixels of uneven colour resulting in coloured blotches (mottling). The latter gives rise to uneven brightness of pixels that cause a grain-like appearance when you were expecting a smooth result.

Most popular post-processing packages like Photoshop or Lightroom have commands with very advanced algorithms to reduce both these types of noise. Plus, many specialised applications do noise reduction. All these have a problem. They do reduce the noise, but, in the process, they also reduce other details and thus make the image soft. Is there a way out?

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