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The low light photography field guide

In my research the ‘language of light’, I’ve been looking into the technicalities of low light photography and as well as some online research, read Michael Freeman’s book, The Low Light Photography Field Guide.

As usual with Freeman, the book is clearly and concisely written. It is very much a technical guide rather than a creative guide, but this is what I wanted. The text is in three main sections; a) a general introduction to Low Light including sensor limitations, light sources, colour temperatures, camera settings and post-production aspects; b) specific information on working handheld in low light, including steadying techniques, explanations of sharpness and types of blur, and noise, along with related post-production techniques; and c) working locked down using a tripod, including multi-exposure and blending techniques and applications within different types of software.

The book left me with a greater understand of possible technical approaches to low light photography and practical aspects. For example how good camera handling increases the chance of useable shots at relatively low shutter speeds.

What it did not address was the calculation or estimation of correct exposure settings for bulb exposures of over 30 seconds.  I was surprised and disappointed that this was not mentioned at all. For now, I am left experimenting with Gock’s approach of taking a light reading at a high ISO of 6400 (roughly a x60 multiple of 100 ISO), reducing the ISO to 100 and apply a 60 multiple to the time value at ISO 6400 – so broadly time in seconds becomes time in minutes. As my Fuji X-T1 as a minimum ISO of 200, I then need to divide the calculated time by two.

Armed with this technical information, I will now experiment with some shots!


Freeman M. The Low Light Photography Field Guide. Ilex ebook. Amazon Kindle edition. [accessed 6.6.15]

Gibson A. Gibson Photography Blog [online]. Using Bulb for long exposure photography. Available from: http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/2012/05/using-bulb-long-exposure-photography/ [accessed 6.6.15]

Gock A. The Newcastle Photographer [online blog]. How to calculate exposures quickly at night timehttp://gock.net/2010/02/how-to-calculate-exposures-quickly-at-night-time/ [accessed 6.6.15]

Ex 3.1 Frozen moment of time

Using fast shutter speeds, try to isolate a frozen moment of time in a moving subject.

I made these images in my hotel room, using a running tap, a glass and two oranges. After the initial shots (not included here), I added some torn pages from a hotel magazine to provide a contrasting background, rather than a pure white sink. The camera used was a Ricoh GR – what I was travelling with at the time.

orange-1As an experiment, I shot the same image using the built-in flash.  This achieved the same affect as the fast shutter-speed without the problems of lighting. To overcoming the lighting challenges, I used high ISOs and in the absence of of any spot-lights also experimented with the flashlight on my iPhone, which worked surprisingly well at close distance (even if it was a little wet by the end).

The image here is the most successful (with the iPhone adding light). What to the naked eye was an overflow of water from a glass, becomes a bubbling, splashing meeting of water and orange. 1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 25600.

Attached below is contact sheet with some of the other images and exposure data. My main observations from this exercise are that the subject requires some orchestration, and it would also benefit from the use of technology and special lighting (see my post on Harold Edgerton).

Orange Splash




Lens work in landscape (project 2)

The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.

(Wim Wenders (1997) quoted in Bromberg & Chanarin, 2008)

This blog post records my own research into some of the photographers mentioned in this OCA project, and includes one of my own images illustrating one of the aesthetic codes described in the project.

Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) is famous for his black and white work.  However, he also shot in colour (TIME) – http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1932762_1974604,00.html (accessed 15.3.15) – although he apparently was not comfortable with the lack of control over the medium, in comparison with black and white, at the time.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 18.41.53

Adams’ images are ubiquitous and can be easily found in any medium, including a number of documentaries about the great man’s life readily available on youtube. A link to the 2002 PBS documentary is here – (accessed 15.3.15).

Adams was motivated by the wild spaces America and and dedicated to conveying the expansiveness of the space and later to saving wild places through political lobbying.

The technology of photography was very different in Adams’ day and in this video (Getty Images) – In this video (accessed 15.3.15), Adams describes his approach to image capture and development. Front-t0-back sharpness is a feature of his images, accompanied by interesting viewpoints that emphasise the scale of the landscape. Nothing was left to chance and everything completely documented for future reference and analysis.  It was not unknown for Adams to spend a whole day in the dark room, working on a single image. Adams said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

Fay Godwin (1931-2005) was a British landscape photographer and her biography and work are well documented by DJ Clark on his website – http://www.djclark.com/godwin/index.htm (accessed 15.3.15). In Godwin’s work ‘there is an unequivocal, impassioned account of the effects of the closure of vast tracts of countryside for commerical, venal reasons, such as the rearing of animals and birds merely to shoot them.’ (Philip Stokes, essay in St James Modern Masterpieces, 1998). So, her images were driven by a similar passion to Adams’; the preservation of open, wild space.

Fay Godwin
Fay Godwin

I looked at length at Godwin’s photographs on Clark’s website.  While the scenery of the British Isles she captures is not on the same grand scale as that of Adams’ scenery and there is a clear difference in the quality of light to the west coast of American she, like Adams, creates images that are sharp from front to back.

What of the use of shallow DOF in landscape photography? Kim Kirkpatrick provides examples for industrial landscapes in his early work – http://www.kimkirkpatrick.com/GalleryMain.asp?GalleryID=97163&AKey=FGWAF5R9 (accessed 15.3.15), but this is not the expansive landscape of Adams and Godwin.  Similarly, Gianluca uses shallow DOF to great effect in Panem et Circenses – http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page10.htm (accessed 15.3.15) but again in an urban context.

Christopher O’Donnel, demonstrates his use of shallow DOF in landscape photography in on his Blog –http://christopherodonnellphotography.com/bokeh-for-landscapes/ (accessed 15.3.15).  This approach leads the eye to a point of interest in what otherwise are quite ordinary landscapes (unlike Adams’ raw material). An example is below.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 20.43.49
Christopher O’Donnel

The effect O’Donnel  produces in landscape is similar to that in Mona Kuhn’s  Evidence series , in which depicts the unclothed body.  Looking at her work on her website, http://www.monakuhn.com (accessed 15.3.15), I see that she also has some photographs of landscape with the same aesthetic (see Native series).

As I live on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, I’m surrounded by beautiful landscape but also by local galleries and shops peddling photographs of the Dales to tourists.  There are many well-executed front-to-back sharp images, but they somehow lack soul and don’t express the brutal beauty of the landscape (saturated processing treatment). They often feel like a clinical view from the outside, rather than a view from within the landscape. This is something for which I’d like to find a different aesthetic. My image below was taken with a Ricoh GR (fixed 28mm efl f/2.8) for 1/125 second at f/16 – another front-to-back sharp image, with black and white post-processing.

Day 39 - Winter Dales
Andrew Fitzgibbon

Spot focusing and metering

Much of my photography until recently has been Street – I’d usually set up at hyper-focal length (straight-forward on a Ricoh GR, which shows this in-camera) and centre-weighted light metering, tweaking the exposure compensation dial if necessary.  My overall objective being to get a good shot in the moment, while events unfolded around me. Even for more general photography, I tended to stick with the camera set to a range of focus points in the centre of the image and centre-weighted metering.

This course has encouraged me to reconsider my approach in response to a wider range of subjects and photographic challenges. From revisiting books (in particular The Photographer’s Exposure Field Guide, Freeman M, published in UK in 2011 by ILEX) and websites, I was reminded of two important points:

  1. The exposure meter makes an assumption that a scene will, on average, be 50% brightness (grey) and uses this to determine a zero under/over exposure. Depending on the scene and the metering mode this can work fine, but for close detailed work or extremes of light conditions, the meter may not deliver the intended result.
  2. Multi-area focus points will tend to use the points covering the subject closest closest to the camera, so the image may not be sharpest where one would like it – control is lost. Single area focus points reduce the extent of this problem by focusing only on the subject in the centre of the frame – so focus and recompose can work well. However, a pin-point focus will focus on exactly the required spot – not always necessary, but very useful sometimes (for example someone’s eyes).

I performed some simple experiments (with a Panasonic Lumix LX100) to discover how much a difference selecting alternative metering and focusing options can make. In the example below, the focus is the unburnt wood (as good as mid-tone, grey). My preference is the third image (spot metered) that balances the mid-tones and shows the deep tonality of the burnt ashes. So, spot metering delivers an improved result in this situation.

metering modes


For a second experiment, I focused on the burned (black) ashes, which are far from neutral toned grey. In this example, the first spot metered example is a little washed out (trying to make the black grey). However, the 4th image which is also spot metered, but the with the exposure adjusted down 2 stops, best captures the rich dark tones of the embers. Also, the centre-weighted mode does a reasonable job in this case.

metering mode 2


Finally, an example of spot focusing. It’s all in the eyes!


Ex 2.6 – wide apertures, long FL and close view points

‘Use a combination of wide apertures, long focal lengths and close viewpoints to take a number of photographs with shallow depth of field.’

Exercise 2.6


All shots are close-up view points, long focal length, and various wide apertures. While the book in the foreground always remains in focus, the effect on depth of field as the aperture is closed down is noticeable on the pattern of the bedspread, which comes more into focus.

Ex 2.5 Close View Point, Long Focal Length

‘Find a subject in front of a background with depth. Take a close viewpoint and zoom in; you’ll need to be aware of the minimum focusing distance of your lens. Focus on the subject and take a single shot. Then, without changing the focal length, set the focus to infinity and take a second shot.’

exercise 2.5


Cup shots use consistent mid-aperture setting.  Close view point introduces bokeh to the background, even at this aperture.

The book is taken in poor light conditions, with higher ISO and wider apertures.  With focus on infinity (in the second image) the background is brought more into focus even with wide aperture.

Ex 2.4 – Portrait Lens

Find a location with good light for a portrait shot. Place your subject some distance in front of a simple background and select a wide aperture together with a moderately long focal length.

Leica summilux 1:1.7-2.8/10.9-34. Efl 75mm 1/125 at f/2.8.


Compressed space between subject and background and strong bokeh. This was taken with a micro 4/3 camera and the lens needed to be wide open to create the shallow depth of field.  A noticeable difference to my APSC cameras.

Ex 2.3 – Short Focal Length & Low POV

Choose a subject in front of a background with depth. Select your shortest focal length and take a close low viewpoint, below your subject. Find a natural point of focus and take the shot.

Polish army academy soldiers in Warsaw. Leica summilux 1:1.7-2.8 /10.9-34. Efl 24mm, 1/160 at f/8.0.



The extreme lean-in of the building and statue in the background and distortion of facial features (particularly front left) add to the menace of the the subject, which in itself is already menacing. Not the best settings for a standard portrait, but provide an imposing atmosphere when required.

Ex 2.2 Long vs Short focal length

Select your longest focal length and compose a portrait shot fairly tightly within the frame in front of a background with depth. Take one photograph. Then walk towards your subject while zooming out to your shortest focal length.

exercise 2.2

The extremes of focal length on the zoom lens (Lecia summilux 1:1.7-2.8 /10.9-34) create very different perspectives. At 24mm the foreground is widened (including rounding of the subject’s face) and the background is also widened in the distance but in middle ground, the subject now obscures the building and lady walking behind him.

Technical weakness in these shots – too focused on the exercise with the focal lengths that the slow shutter speed and small aperture were not noticed at the time – has impacted the sharpness of the images.  Must remember SETTINGS before every shot.

Ex 2.1 Focal Lengths

“Find a scene that has depth. From a fixed position, take a sequence of five or six shots at different focal lengths without changing your viewpoint. (You might like to use the specific focal lengths indicated on the lens barrel.)”

This contact sheet shows pictures of ‘Manufactura’ in Lodz, Poland – a one time textile factory converted into a shopping centre and leisure complex.

Lens – Leica DC vario-summilux 1:1.7-2.8/10.9-34. EFL and exposure readings shown on contact sheet.

Focal length


Two main technical observations as the lens is zoomed in from 24mm to 75mm: a) width of foreground is significantly reduced, with edges gradually cropped out, and b) sense of perspective is reduced as diagonals become less pronounced. The shorter focal lengths create a more intimate atmosphere, pulling the viewer into the image, and the longer lengths give a colder, removed view point.


Formalism: prioritisation of concern with form rather than content. Focus on composition and the material nature of any specific medium. (Wells, 2009, p.347)

Contact sheets by Andrew Fitzgibbon
By Andrew Fitzgibbon

A series of images taken around Blenheim Palace – a formal place in itself.  I focused on using the strong diagonals to lead the eye through the frame in many of the images.  Where people are present, I consciously placed them as a focal point (images 3 and 5). Image 1 (a cliché) is arranged to show the shadow of the grand archway, with the lighted gate leading to the outer courtyard.

The moving instrument

Experimenting with breaking the rules – in preparation for the ‘my square mile shoot’. UNSTEADY CAMERA. Tried a number of shots’ rotatating, spinning, moving up, moving down, jumping, moving across with the camera as the shot was being taken. I foundthat the best action is in the wrist (a bit like picking a guitar) as there is more control over the movement. Moving across vertical lines just creates a mess. Rotating and moving up/down creates some interesting effects. I was surprised by the vortex! Some examples below. All with Ricoh GR, full auto, ISO 200.