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With the long dark nights of winter setting in, there are still plenty of photo opportunities out there – it’s the perfect time to try one of these three creative low-light techniques.

1. The magic of bokeh

PURPOSELY DEFOCUS IMAGES FOR STRIKINGLY ABSTRACT RESULTS

KIT NEEDED: CAMERA AND LENS

For this project we recommend the M.Zuiko 40–150mm f/2.8 PRO or, for a shallower depth-of-field, the M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.2 PRO

It’s drilled into photographers pretty quickly that if the subject isn’t sharp, then it’s not a good shot. But sometimes, embracing blur can lead to a refreshingly abstract take on a subject. This is especially true when it comes to low-light photos, as any defocussed points of light such as street lamps and distantly lit windows can become circular ‘bokeh’ orbs in an image. Choose a scene with an array of light sources, and your creation will take on an almost magical aesthetic.

So how do we produce defocussed images? First, select the aperture-priority shooting mode and choose the widest possible aperture setting, such as f/2.8 or f/1.2. This creates a shallow depth-of-field in the image – a narrow band of sharpness sandwiched between blur. Then, switch the lens to manual focus and adjust it so that the points of light in the scene fall dramatically outside of this band of sharpness. If subjects are further than a few meters away, this can normally be achieved by setting the lens to its closest focus distance. Take a test shot and if you feel that the image you have captured is a bit too abstract, adjust the focus distance of the lens to bring the scene slightly more into focus again.

2. Capture the traffic trails

USE LONG EXPOSURES TO PRODUCE DRAMATIC RIVERS OF ILLUMINATION

KIT NEEDED: CAMERA, WIDE-ANGLE LENS AND TRIPOD

For this project we recommend the M.Zuiko 7–14mm f/2.8 PRO or the M.Zuiko 12‑40mm f/2.8 PRO

During the day, one of the last places a photographer who wants to capture an exceptional photo would visit is a busy roadway that carves through a landscape. But at night, a location like this can become a goldmine for spectacular shots, with moving vehicles producing flowing rivers of light in the darkness. Images which capture this transport activity in a vivid long-exposure blur are known as ‘traffic trail’ shots.

The first step in taking a traffic trail image is to find a location where you can safely get above the roadway to set up your equipment, such as a footbridge. Don’t ever try this next to a road unless there’s a suitable barrier protecting you. The best time to take your traffic trail images is during ‘blue hour’, which is the period of time just after sunset where the sky becomes a deep blue, but light is at low enough levels to enable the use of a long shutter speed. We recommend getting in position before it gets dark.

You’ll need to mount your camera onto a tripod to keep it steady and focus manually around one third of the way into the scene in terms of its depth for pleasing front-to-back sharpness. Shoot in manual mode, choose a narrow aperture such as f/16 for maximum depth-of-field within the scene, and the lowest ISO possible for optimum image quality. By default, your camera will try to suggest that you expose the scene as though it’s still daylight, but you’ll want to expose it less than that to capture the night-time effect in your image. Set an exposure time of between 15–30 seconds. If the location is dark enough, this will be plenty of time for smooth traffic trails to be recorded. If these settings are overexposing the moving lights, narrow your aperture further, lower your ISO more or reduce your
shutter speed.

3. Paint with light

USE A TORCH TO DRAW YOUR OWN SUBJECTS IN A DYNAMIC CREATION

KIT NEEDED: CAMERA, ZOOM LENS, TRIPOD AND TORCH

At its most basic level, a photo is just a recording of the light that was visible in a scene during its exposure. Although minimal detail can be seen at night or in a dimly-lit room, these settings do provide the opportunity to use these black underexposed spaces to produce your own incredible creations using light. Moving a light source across this frame will burn it into the darkness, meaning that all sorts of lines, shapes and words can be etched into an image. The only limitation as to what can produce is your own imagination.

Before you begin your light painting, you need to set up your camera on a tripod. It’s OK if some ambient light is present to light up a background, but it needs to be far less bright than your introduced light source for your painted designs to have clarity.

Set your camera to manual, with a narrow aperture of around f/11, and an ISO of 200. Now set your shutter speed, giving yourself plenty of time to produce your design – we suggest something close to ten seconds. Take a test shot and if your scene appears light, narrow down your aperture even further or reduce your shutter speed slightly.

Now you’re ready to start light painting. Any light source can become your brush, but popular options are torches, fibre optic lamps and LED wands. Press the shutter to start your exposure, step into your camera’s frame, and move your light source to leave a bright trail behind it. Don’t be disheartened if your design looked a bit rough to begin with, this is a technique that delivers its best results through experimentation!

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 60 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.