Whether you’re new to photography or more advanced, or maybe you recently updated your camera, this lesson will be useful to you.
Many of my students say: “I don’t want to shoot in low light because of the noise” or “whenever I under-expose, I get a lot of noise”, or they wonder why I shoot at a reasonably high shutter speed for a still subject.
So in this challenge, I’m going to encourage you to explore the limits of your camera. Because if we know what the camera can handle, we’ll know how far we can push it on a shoot. You will find the appropriate challenge for your stage in the Learning jJourney below, so I recommend that as you gain skill and confidence, you return to this challenge and have a go at the next level.
I was booked to do a photoshoot of a senior dog. He was very unwell and we weren’t sure how much longer he had left. We took photos for an hour and a half of him, and he did so amazingly, but then got a bit tired. At that time, I switched to taking photos of the owner and her other dogs, while Dusty lay down and had a break.
We shot until the sun was down and we were left with the very last light from a clear sky, with a large field area at our backs providing just enough ambient light for these last photos.
As I was wrapping up with the owner and her other dogs, I looked over and saw Dusty lying like this, watching us, just quiet and relaxed. I dialed in my settings. I knew that at such a high ISO, it would be a bad idea to underexpose at all, as lightening up in editing would cause way more noise than if I’d just increased the ISO a bit more. Even then, I still took them slightly darker than is perfect.
I knew the photo would have some loss of detail, but the way Dusty was looking, and knowing these would be the last photos I would take, I fired off about 30, changing my angle slightly. I knew my camera could handle ISO8000 reasonably well. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be perfectly fine. I could add a bit of denoise in Lightroom or Topaz Denoise AI, and having this photo would be better than not having it at all.
We walked back in the pitch dark. Dusty passed away 4 days later, and these were the last photos of him.
The point of the story is: I knew how my camera would handle ISO8000 as long as I didn’t underexpose too much or at all. I knew that 1/320 for shutter speed would be enough if I was careful with my hands. I knew that Lightroom or Topaz could fix whatever noise showed up. So I got the photo. By knowing what my camera is capable of, I captured this last image of Dusty.
Below: SOOC. Settings: 1/320, f/1.8, ISO 8000. — After/edited version.
Table of Contents
I want to make it clear that this isn’t a “how high can your ISO go” challenge.
This is a challenge for you to be prepared to take some photos that you’ll never use, that will never see the light of day, that might be a complete disaster… so that you can learn under what conditions your camera still retains data and detail, and under what conditions it doesn’t.
This challenge is also not about who has the fanciest best camera for low light conditions. It’s about you discovering what your camera is capable of and then confidently working within those limits.
Stage 1: Beginning
Shutter Speed Challenge
During a private lesson with a student of mine the other day, she asked why I have my shutter speed so fast even if the dog is lying down.
My answer was, that by observing the tens of thousands of photos that I’ve taken, I notice a significant increase in motion blur or slightly blurry dogs when my shutter speed is 1/320 or slower. At 1/500 I don’t notice these issues at all, unless the dog is moving in some way.
I don’t know if this is because I am constantly in motion, if my hands move, or what, but I do know that photographers of people often recommend a shutter speed of 1/125 for still portraits, and 1/500 only when the person is moving!
If I listened to this advice, I suspect I would lose 80% of my photos to motion blur, based on my observations.
So your next challenge is to:
- take your dog, or a practise dog, out on a mini photoshoot with reasonable lighting conditions (nothing too bright!).
- Use your favourite/normal/go-to lens as focal length CAN make a difference to camera shake/motion blur.
- Start by taking some photos at 1/500 sec, then drop it down. 1/400, 1/320, 1/200, 1/125.
- Remember to adjust your other settings as necessary. If your ISO hits 100, then you may need to make your aperture more narrow. Don’t worry, this is just an experiment.
- Take a few photos in a couple of locations, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy or overly involved. Just so you get into the “flow” of a shoot, and you’re moving how you normally move. Each time go through the different shutter speeds.
- Go home, import the photos, and make some observations on the focus/blur. What percentage of your photos are affected by some kind of motion blur at each speed? Is there a noticeable difference between one speed and another? What percentage of blurry shots vs. focused shots is acceptable to you?
Note: If you’re not sure what motion blur looks like, I usually check the eyes first. Depending how extreme the blur is, you might see a slight “drag”.
As well, the eyes or photo might feel soft, as if it’s out of focus, but there will be no clear area that is IN focus. With normal focus issues, some part of the nose, snout, or fur on the head will be very detailed, showing that something was focused on, just not the thing you wanted. Motion blur/camera shake etc will show everything slightly blurry.
Left: Motion blur. Right: Slightly missed focus.
Both were taken at 1/400 sec, f/1.8, ISO 500. Even at 1/400 sec on this day I experienced an unexpectedly high amount of photos with some motion blur, and he wasn’t the fastest-moving dog around!
Stage 2: Creating
So far, we’ve tested the dynamic range of your camera, as well as how steady you can hold your hands to get a good hit-rate!
Lastly, we want to check what your camera can handle in terms of ISO.
- Get your dog or a practise dog. Find a location that isn’t too bright.
- Set your aperture wide open, and your shutter speed as normal. Ideally you want to start with your ISO around 200-400, so find a location where your aperture + shutter speed + ISO are creating a correctly exposed photo. Eg., NOT underexposing.
- Take a photo.
- Raise the ISO to ~500. You may want to adjust your shutter speed to compensate for the extra light (eg., make it faster!) Take a photo.
- Raise the ISO to ~800. Adjust shutter speed as necessary.
- Keep going. Go all the way until you have no more ISO if you want. If you have a look at the top banner for this lesson you’ll see I did exactly this experiment recently. I knew how my photos looked at ISO20,000 but I’d never pushed it further. I wanted to see how much of a dumpster fire they would be at ISO 204,800
- No, I would never go this high for clients or even myself (it was literally dark for these photos!) but at least I know.
- Go home, import the photos, play with denoise in Lightroom if needed. Make note of your observations. How much noise is there? When does it become “unacceptable”? (eg., for me, 20,000 is looking pretty yuck unless it’s something really special and only for Instagram!). What happens if you lighten that photo up at all?
Stage 3: Exploring
The first challenge is to see how your camera retains detail in the shadows and blacks.
- Find a situation where you would need to underexpose the image and where you would have a relatively low ISO. Check this lesson if you’re not sure about when to underexpose. An open space with lots of ambient light, and some very soft filtered backlight would work well in this case.
- Take at least 3 photos. 1 where your exposure would normally be if you were just shooting, 1 photo darker, and one photo darker still.
- To do this, you may need to lower your ISO bit by bit, or if it’s already on 100, try raising the shutter speed bit by bit instead.
- You can take more photos! If you want to really see what your camera can do.
- As an alternative, you can also take one photo a bit brighter, to see how your camera handles the highlights as well!
- go home and do very rough, fast edits on each of them, attempting to bring out detail on the dog. How much detail is there still? How much noise? Are there areas of “clipped blacks”? (Don’t trust Lightroom’s clipping tool! Just because you’ve made something turn grey doesn’t mean your camera has captured the detail and data in that area!)
SOOC vs when I pulled exposure right up. Note the area I circled in blue has no data. The black there got too black and is now just black pixels. Even if I kept lightening it up, I wouldn’t get any more detail out of that area, it would just get more and more pixelated.
Settings: 1/320, f/1.8, ISO 3200. This shot wasn’t planned, or I definitely would not have underexposed so much!
Under-expose challenge part 2
Now let’s see how your camera handles under-exposing at a higher ISO.
- As above, find somewhere that would require you to under-expose the image to preserve the highlights but which requires a higher ISO – for your camera! For mine, this is ISO 4000. For yours, it might be ISO 500. If you’re not sure, take a guess! This is what we’re here to learn! Somewhere with less ambient light (eg., in the woods with backlight) would work in this situation.
- Choose your settings for how you would “normally” expose the photo. Then change them so it’s darker, then darker again. Take at least 3 photos.
- Again, you can take more if you want! Or try one that’s lighter than you would normally go and see how it handles the highlights!
- Do a quick, rough edit. How is the noise now? Did you lose any detail? Could you even try again with a higher ISO, or is it completely destroyed?
Hopefully by the end of this challenge you’ll have a much better understanding of your camera and what it is capable of!
If it didn’t “perform well” in any of the experiments, don’t be discouraged or feel like you need to go buy a new camera. That isn’t the point here. It means you need to be extra aware of the setting you’re using, and the lighting conditions you’re taking photos in. It may mean you need to be extra careful when under-exposing, or that you may need to stick to more open areas with lots of ambient light. Knowing these things will give you more confidence in how, when and where you shoot, what settings you use, and when you need to stop for the evening!