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Photography Class
Bong S. Eliab
First Semester
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University

Syllabus | NotesPapers | Projects

Low Light Photography

You can achieve fabulous effects when taking photographs at night or in other low-light situations. City skylines that are mundane and boring during daylight hours take on a special quality when the lights come on. When photographing buildings, use the "magic time" in the half-hour or so just after sunset and before total darkness falls (conversely, just before dawn). The sky takes on beautiful hues that enhance outlines of buildings, for example. First-rate real-estate photos are often taken at twilight, with warm house lights creating a cozy mood. Use a hose to wet the driveway and you have the added benefit of reflections.

You can "paint" with flashlights, car headlights/tail lights, flash units and other creative sources of light. Freeways provide great gold and red streaks. Try long exposures while zooming your zoom lens. Experiment!

When photographing outdoors at twilight or at night, you can use either daylight or tungsten film. This is because you're working with mixed light sources. Using daylight film gives your sky a natural look but makes artificial light "warmer." This is often a desirable effect. If you want your lights to look realistic, then use tungsten film, but remember that the rest of your photo will take on a heavy blue cast. One guideline is to use film for the predominant light source.

Often, you can get great creative effects by using the "B" shutter speed setting. This means you're triggering the shutter and then holding or locking the shutter open for whatever time span you want, whether it's 30 seconds or 3 hours. Reciprocity failure can occur if you use very long exposures. When in doubt, bracket.

Tools That Help

Fast Films

If you're trying to stop action at low light levels, you must use a flash (not always desirable because of its artificial look) or fast film (ISO 400 or higher), which is very sensitive to light. However, the quality of fast film is less than that of slow film. You can "push" film by rating it at a higher speed than that suggested by the manufacturer. For example, you can push ISO 400 film 1 stop to ISO 800 or even 1600. Just remember to mark your film canister so you can tell your custom photo processor what you've done. Remember, a film that is to be push-processed must be exposed at only one film speed; you can't change the exposure meter's ISO setting to a different film speed in the middle of a roll.

Fast Lens

If you're doing a lot of low-light work, you may want to consider investing in a fast lens, which means that the largest aperture is VERY large, as in f/1.0 or f/1.2, thus giving you one or two f/stops more light, and hence faster shutter speeds. Typically, 50mm lenses are relatively fast and can be purchased for less money than their wide-angle or telephoto counterparts. Photojournalists, who must often photograph indoors using available light, use a combination of fast lenses and high-speed film.

Spot Meter (either in-camera or hand-held)

This piece of equipment is not essential but does help.Night photography often has extreme, uneven ranges of light levels. Metering for such situations is difficult. Please use the chart, "Trial Exposures Under Difficult Lighting Conditions," that is part of this assignment. If you choose to meter, keep in mind that you likely will NOT want middle gray tones; you want your night scenics to look as though they were taken at night, so they will usually be a couple of stops darker than what your averaging meter says. If you have a spot meter, take your measurements off important highlight areas, and use those settings. If you don't have a spotmeter, and if you're photographing a stage play, for example, try to get close enough for a few moments to get a reading, then use that reading when you're further away from the stage. If you don't have a spot meter, you can try using your longest telephoto lens (though hauling bulky photo equipment into a theatre may not be for everyone). For stage plays and other artificially lit situations, use tungsten film. If you can afford the film, bracket.

Cable Release

If you're making a long exposure not found on your shutter speed dial (on older cameras, this will be any exposure longer than 1 second; on newer automatic cameras, usually anything longer than 30 seconds), you'll need a cable release to hold the shutter open on its "B" setting. Otherwise, you can set your shutter speed and use the self-timer. Either a self-timer or cable release is essential for sharp night exposures. To make your time exposures even sharper, momentarily block the light to your lens just as you trip the shutter and again as you end the exposure. The shutter release,which also makes the mirror lift on a 35mm camera, can cause camera shake.

Special Situations

Star and Moon Photography

If you want to get sharp photos of stars, moon and other celestial objects, keep in mind that you are contending with the rotation of the earth, so your celestial objects will leave a "trail" if your exposures are too long. Sometimes this is a desirable creative effect. How long can exposure times be before sky objects begin to "trail?" Try this formula: e=600/fl, where e is the maximum exposure and fl is the focal length of the lens. Some examples are: 12 seconds with a 50mm, 17 seconds with a 35mm, and 6 seconds with a 100mm. At twilight you don't have to worry as much about these "trails."

One great moon photo you can take is of a crescent moon in a dusk or dawn sky. Wait until the sky glow has decreased enough to allow the earthshine to show. This ghostly glow on the "unlit" portion of the lunar surface is caused by light reflected off the daylight side of the earth. You can best capture earthshine two to four days after new moon, starting 30 minutes after sunset. Take a light meter reading of the brightest portion of the sky, then open up one f-stop. For example, you might find optimum conditions at a light reading of 17 seconds at about f/5.6 to f/8.0 with a 35mm wide-angle lens using Fujichrome Sensia with an ISO of 100. In twilight scenics that include a moon, you can use a split neutral density filter to hold detail in your darker foreground.

If you want to photograph a bright, white moon high in the sky, using a shutter speed equal to 1/film speed, use f/16 if the moon is full, f/11 if gibbous, f/8 for half and f/4 for a slender phase of the moon, says one moon photography expert. Another recommends these "ball park" settings with ISO 100 film: crescent moon: 1/60 at f/4; half moon: 1/60 at f/5.6; full moon: 1/60 at f/8. So experiment, bracket, and note your settings. If you just want a bright photo of the moon and nothing else in the landscape, use the Sunny 16 rule (where is the light source on the moon coming from?...). Use at least a 200mm lens unless you want the moon to appear as a small bright dot. A 500mm or longer tele will reveal details.

You can also try time exposures of a landscape lit by a full moon. ISO 100 film pushed to 400 works for this kind of situation. Use the formula above, opening your lens up as much as possible. f/2 at 17 seconds using a 50mm lens is one formulation. Bracket.

Since you must often carefully plan your night exposures, it helps to know ahead of time where and when your celestial objects will appear. Many astronomy computer programs will give you the whereabouts of celestial objects. A local newspaper will give you sunrise/sunset times. If you don't have access to these computer programs, the Nautical Almanac, published by the U.S. Naval Observatory, is available in U.S. government bookstores and can be ordered directly from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC 20402.

Star trails can be great fun. Since you want some definition of foreground, start your exposure while there is still a little bit of afterglow in the sky. Then you can leave your shutter open all night, even 12 hours (don't sleep in!). The tricky part is figuring out how much afterglow to use. One way to avoid the guesswork in this is to make a double exposure, taking the first exposure when colors are at their best and there is still enough light to meter accurately. Then simply wait until the sky has gone completely black, before opening the shutter again for your time-exposure phase. Take care not to move the camera between exposures or while winding. Compose the foreground of your photo when it's still light enough to see what's there.


Manually set your shutter to "B" and keep the shutter open about 8 to 10 seconds to record several bursts of fireworks on each frame of film. A starting point for exposures is f/8 with ISO 100 film, f/11 with ISO 200 film, and f/16 with ISO 400 film. Vary the f/stop or the number of bursts; you ever know the intensity of a fireworks until it explodes. Take plenty of shots because fireworks shows usually don't last very long.


First, use common sense. This can be a very dangerous form of photography! Stay away from open areas and don't use a metal tripod and leave the area if the lightning is getting too close. You must shoot lightning at night or at very low light levels. Since you don't know exactly when and where lightning will strike, you must use time exposures. Start at 30 seconds and go on to several-minute exposures. Various lenses help, too. Kodachrome gives the most natural color, while Fujichrome and Elitechrome give a warmer look. Tungsten film will give lightning a slightly bluish cast. Foreground subjects, creating silhouettes, enhance composition. Expect to use a lot of film before you get any great images.


Simple, easily transported equipment works well here. You'll need a good-quality backpacking tripod. Caves are often wet, so waterproof cases are essential. Moderately wide-angle lenses, such as a 35mm lens, capture the view nicely. Long time exposures permit the use of multiple flash units fired over a fairly long period of time. To light up large areas in caves, flashbulbs on folding flash guns work well. Strobes are ideal for good for close-ups and other single-flash shots. For the best results, keep in mind great composition and don't worry about even lighting; large areas of dark enhance the cave feeling. Sidelighting and backlighting create dramatic effects. For off-camera flash, use a "B" setting and have an assistant fire the flash.

Syllabus | NotesPapers | Projects


All Rights Reserved 2001
Ateneo de Davao University
10 June 2002