Shooting in Low Light

Last week, some friends and I went to Ormby's for Happy Hour. I've been trying to take my camera with me more and thought it might be a good opportunity to take some photographs. However, Ormby's is much like most bars. Dark. And, while there was some interesting light, there wasn't much of it.

I'm trying to avoid using my pop-up flash as a key light. It makes everything in the image too hot. If you've ever taken a flash photograph in low light, you've seen the effect. It serves much better as a fill light ("filling" in shadows). Second, the flash in a dark setting can be distracting to your subject and those around you. Once people noticed I was taking photographs, they started posing and I was looking for more candid shots. So, I decided to leave the flash off.

Thankfully, I was shooting RAW. I cranked the ISO as high as I was comfortable with (I'm using a Nikon D3200) - for my camera, it's around ISO 1600. My goal was to capture as much light as possible using wide apertures and slow shutter speeds. My lens has Vibration Reduction (VR), so that bought me a few stops of light. My hope was that I could use post-production to make a few photographs.

Below is one of my friend, Sarah. Straight off the camera, it's fairly dark.

 At Ormby's. Original.

At Ormby's. Original.

The image is clearly too dark and there just isn't enough light on my subject's face. But, after adjusting the exposure and white balance, increasing the contrast, bringing up the shadows and moving the white point, I was able to recover a lot of detail. This is an advantage to shooting in RAW over JPEG.

 At Ormby's. After exposure adjustments.

At Ormby's. After exposure adjustments.

However, these adjustments introduced a lot of noise.

Thankfully, Lightroom (1) has some pretty fantastic noise reduction sliders. I was able to remove some of the luminance noise and adjusted the contrast to preserve some detail. Lightroom did an excellent job of eliminating most of the noise from the photograph.

 At Ormby's. After noise reduction.

At Ormby's. After noise reduction.

However, when zooming back out on the photograph, the image just seemed too soft. I used the sharpening slider to bring back some detail and used the masking slider to focus on the edges. If you're using Lightroom, holding down the option key is incredibly useful when making these adjustments. The result was pretty good.

 At Ormby's. Final.

At Ormby's. Final.

Is the final photograph as good as it could have been? Of course not. I could have brought in some lighting equipment or set up some speed lights, etc. But, for just some candid shots that I could share with my friends, Lightroom did an excellent job of saving many of these photos.


(1) While Lightroom is a great editing application, many apps will allow you to make similar edits, some even on your phone.