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Thoughts on low light indoor photography

Christmas Day’s weather was particularly miserable in North Yorkshire this year – the skies were dark and full of rain all day. Usually, there is some decent ambient light to help in my festive shots, but this year there was no escaping the need flash support. In this post, I note some of the trials and tribulations and experiments along the way – I am somewhat a flash novice at this stage!

Equipment used was a Fuji X-T1, Yongnuo RF triggers, a Yongnuo Speedlite (YN560-III), and a Nissin Flashlight (i40 – compatible Fuji TTL metering). I was mostly using a Fujinon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 with OIS.

  1. I initially set the shutter speed at 1/180 the max sync speed for the Fuji, and the ISO at 200 for a decent image quality. The immediate challenge was that in the absence of ambient light, it was very tricky to see the subject, other than momentarily as the autofocus beam lit the subject. This made composition a hit-or-miss affair. Reflecting on the alternative options:
    • Did I need to set the shutter speed at 1/180, which may have cut most of the poor ambient light? Could I have relied upon the flash to freeze the action at a slower shutter speed? Further trials suggested not necessarily, but 1/180 sec is not exactly high-speed and doesn’t cut all ambient light in any case. Reducing the shutter speed to lower levels requires a tripod to avoid the effects of camera movement – so no real benefits to hand held-shooting. Furthermore, no significant difference was made to the brightness of the image in the view-finder, therefore, not helping with composition.
    • Using a wide-angle view is more forgiving of composition errors and this combined with using both eyes (the eye not looking at the view finder checking for action in the scene) gives a greater success rate in the scenario described. Another option is to flip into a high ISO for composition and flip back for the shot itself.
    • I could have switched to a faster standard lens to let more light through, and foregone the flexibility offered with the variable focal length lens. This makes some difference to the brightness of the image in the view finder, but the downside is the additional care needed for focusing with a wide aperture (in poor lighting).
  2. In a few images, my flash had over-powered the ambient light in the scene – for example the flames when I set alight to the Christmas pudding, with my wife shooting the camera. These would have been better shot simply without flash, using a high ISO, or with careful positioning of the flash and setting of the exposure – perhaps unrealistic in this scenario. The lesson is to be flexible and remember it is quick and easy to turn off the flash and tweak the ISO.
  3. I played pass-the-parcel with off-camera flash, asking guests to direct its ceiling bounce at their opposite across the table. Some good results and fun with close friends and family – though would no work in other scenarios.
  4. In my post-shoot reflection, I wondered about high-speed synchronisation (HSS) of the Nissin flash unit with the Fuji – rumoured to be possible. A quick search found Photomad’s website – sure enough putting the flash into manual and pressing the test button for 3 seconds enabled HSS (tested successfully up to 1/4000 sec) – important note is that the test button is actually the lighted LED indicator on the back of the flash unit (this is not immediately apparent and a little surprising). This use of HSS is something to investigate later.

Over-all I’m not conclusive for the best approach in this scenario. What is needed is an approach that is unobtrusive and quick. With my equipment, that will mean either TTL on camera flash (ideally bounced), or try to set up a compromise exposure setting for off-camera (held-held) flash that will serve for working the room. It reminds me of setting up for street photography – the objective is to get the best candid shot in the moment. There are rarely second chances with this type of photography, so a compromise approach is needed.

References

PhotoMadd [website]. Nissin i40 High-Speed Sync (HSS) with Fujifilm – Hidden Option. Available from: http://photomadd.com/nissin-i40-high-speed-sync-hss-fujifilm-hidden-option/ [accessed 26.12.15]

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