I have been trying to identify my deficiencies with photography and work towards improving them, I like to think of it like the photographic 12-step program. “First step is admitting you have a problem”, and no I don’t just mean with buying expensive gear. This time around I’m going to dive into how to deal with a lack of light, particularly using a drift event I attended this weekend that chose to run the one good course for photography late in the evening after all the good lighting was gone.

Note: I am far from a professional and all advice is purely my thoughts learned through trial and error, with a little research thrown in, and I’m sure the ideas here are incomplete and could be drastically improved upon.

With that out of the way, let’s talk low light. While the track we were shooting at doesn’t look too terribly lit, the biggest limiting factor turned out to be keeping the shutter speed in a range that works for moving cars, I typically shoot somewhere between 1/40th and 1/80th depending on light and angle and speed when dealing with drift events. With that set I looked at the lenses I had and the only two that really fit the bill for these shots were my Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM and 17-40mm f/4L, while the fast 50 definitely helps out in the low light, it does have some distracting CA when close to wide open with high contrast(such as lights and white walls against a dark sky) and that narrow of a DoF can be a challenge with moving subjects.

Canon 7D, 50mm, f/3.2, 1/50s, ISO-1600

After knowing what my limits are on both aperture and shutter speed that leaves me with only one other way to get the light I needed. I’ll be the first to admit that I have been deathly afraid of cranking the ISO up when trying to get shots for the website in the past. They always looked like crap. This time I went in armed with a bit of knowledge that helped me get some pretty decent shots when the lights went down. This tip really comes from how a digital sensor works and leveraging that to your advantage. All of us know that when you start asking your camera to work with a higher ISO the noise can be utterly unbearable. From doing some reading I found someone who said something that really made it all click for me... High ISO doesn’t cause noise, underexposed areas on a high ISO image create noise.

Canon 7D, 50mm, f/3.5, 1/50s, ISO-1600

Armed with this knowledge, I purposefully overexposed my shots by about 1 full stop, then pulled them back down in post processing. There was still noise to deal with, but it greatly reduced the impact on the final product. All my images are handled in Adobe Lightroom and only exposure, noise reduction, a bit of sharpening, and color correction are done. These have not been retouched in Photoshop to further hide the noise. This method produces god awful images in camera, and I had very little faith when reviewing at the event, but after a few adjustments I am blown away by the final product.

Canon 7D, 40mm, f/4, 1/50s, ISO-4000

As you can see, I’ve included the metadata on the images and while the top two shot at ISO-1600 don’t push the envelope of noise too far, the last one shot at ISO-4000 makes me reconsider how I’ve been approaching night shooting from the beginning.

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Have any tips or tricks for getting the perfect shot at night? Feel free to comment them below and help everyone improve their images!

If you would like me to make more articles like this one, let me know. Topic ideas are much appreciated as well as any ways I can make these better.