Low-light party/nightlife photography

Discussion in 'Wedding and Event' started by jesper_hansen|3, Sep 13, 2010.

  1. Recently I photographed a teen party with my Canon 50D. I would really like some input about how to do this kind of low-light job right.
    Here are some of the problems I encountered:
    Starting out with reasonable light, I used Sigma 50mm 1.4, high ISO and no flash to keep the mood. Autofocus was quite unreliable though. When light levels dropped further, autofocus stopped working, especially the Sigma lens AF was completely useless. Isn't there supposed to be some red AF assist light in these situations?
    Did manual focus for a while, and then light dropped to very low. Pulled out the 540EX flash, and the 17-85 IS. Was unable to do indirect light with the flash, since the roof was like 8 meters up. So, pointing the flash straight forward, and dialed in -1 in flash level compensation, to try to keep it down, and also -1 in exposure compensation to not aim for "normal" light level in the pictures.
    The flash refused to do ETTL, simply stating "TTL" in the display instead, and it did not reflect the correct zoom distance of the lens, nor the compensation levels. Insisting on firing the full load everytime, exposure was way off. Normally ETTL serves me well, I often use both one and two flashguns and the ST-E2 master. What happened to my 540EX here? And still AF did not work at all.
    In the end I stopped using the 540EX, and used the built-in flash instead. The built-in flash gave me pre-flash to help the autofocus, and the exposure was now in accordance with my compensation settings. Probably the most usefull pictures of the night, even though I would normally do much to avoid the flash-on-camera pictures.
    Are the AF and ETTL problems normal? Why would the 540EX not do at least as good a job as the built-in flash?
    How do you guys normally handle low-light focusing, and how do you get reasonable pictures retaining just a little bit of the mood when doing nightlife pictures?
    All advice welcome - thanks,
    Jesper.
     
  2. i use manual focus, and a light that i turn on while focusing and then off once i have the subject in focus..
    and i use all my flash in manual..none of that ttl voodoo guessing game.
     
  3. You describe multiple issues here.
    1. Read Jeff Spirer's excellent article.
    http://www.photo.net/learn/club-photography/photographing-bands-musicians/
    2. AF assist from the flash is only with One Shot autofocusing. If using AI Servo, it does not operate.
    3. You cannot expect the 'regular' autofocusing to work well in low light. You could use the ST-E2 only, if taking no flash pictures, just to get the focus assist, but again, you must use One Shot focusing.
    4. You must be talking about the 580EX II flash, as a 540 flash is probably a 540EZ, which does not work with digital cameras. The 580EX II was firing full blast and only in TTL because the contact between flash and camera was faulty. This is a fairly common issue with this flash. The redesigned rubber gasket on the flash sometimes causes problems withe the flash contacting the hotshoe correctly. Research it--plenty has been written about it.
    5. Or, your hotshoe plate could be loose. You can tighten the screws yourself.
    http://www.conraderb.com/flashrepair/
    6. You can still bounce flash pretty far using high ISO. A 30 foot ceiling is not necessarily too high, although the color/value of it may be a problem. You can bounce off walls, or off other people and things around you, such as off tablecloths, or the floor. I have found that in very dark situations, pulling the wide angle diffuser out to spray the light in a wide pattern, actually helps.
    7. I use off camera flashes in these situations, plus diffused, direct flash, or bounced off a white card or other objects as described above.
    8. You can try using zone focus for the images with no shutter/focus lag. You may find the following interesting.
    http://www.photo.net/photography-lighting-equipment-techniques-forum/00XEeL
     
  4. @Mark - respect, but I don't have the skill or experience to pull that off yet :)
    @Nadine - thanks, your answers and links are extremely helpfull. And of course it is the 580EX II flash. It never failed me before - I'll check the hotshoe.
    I almost always do OneShot AF. Do I understand you correctly that the 50D is not capable of any AF assist on its own, but mounting the ST-E2 would do this? That is new to me, but vital knowledge for a situation like this. Thanks.
     
  5. Jesper--no, the 50D is very capable of AF on it's own. However, no camera, no matter how sophisticated, is going to easily autofocus in very dim light. Perhaps you are confusing AF with AF assist--these are two different things. When an external flash is mounted to the 50D, it is, of course, capable of utilizing the AF assist, which comes from the flash, not the camera.
    When you have this kind of situation, a wide aperture lens (usually a prime) is going to help, but slightly. What you really need is the AF assist from an external flash or, as I described above, the ST-E2 can be used just for the AF assist pattern.
     
  6. @Nadine, got you, that's what I wrote: "Not capable of doing any AF *assist* on its own" :)
     
  7. You can also set up an external flash to give AF assist but not fire.
     
  8. Great info - basically the 580 could help me out all through the event - both with and without flashing.
    I also found your description of the no flash at high ISO custom setting. If I understand it correctly, simply switching to a high ISO would mean that flash would be disabled, but I would still benefit from the AF assist. Selecting a low ISO again would enable the flash. Seems like a great setting for low light event fotography.
    Thanks for all your great advice.
     
  9. Jesper--no, high ISO and the flash not firing are not linked in the custom function setting. What I meant above, with high ISO, was that combined with a wide-ish aperture, your flash will have more 'reach', meaning going up to a 25-30 foot ceiling and back would be easier and do-able.
    The custom function which prevents the flash not firing is just for when you may want the focus assist for dark/dim conditions, but not the flash. You can set this either with the flash custom function, on the flash itself, or through the flash control menus in the camera. The flash firing or not is not linked to high or low ISO.
     
  10. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I have not read all the detail here and in the links . . . but I don't think these two points have been mentioned re MF without Flash assist;
    1. The 50D can accept three Canon Focusing screens (and also third party).
    2. When MF in low light the technique is important. I focus through the point "feeling" the focus ring turret and then come back - in both cases I get the red flash to confirm.
    It is important to focus on a line of different contrasts - I often use coat lapels/white shirts or dresses/the skin at top of the bust line and then recompose. (i.e. NOT their faces)
    Also it is important to know the DoF limits and what is safe and what is not and how much fudge room you might have: http://www.photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=964622
    WW
     
  11. When it starts getting darker then completely dark I rely on setting up strobes on a stand, such as White Lightnings; any type of mono light will work if it has a modeling light built in. It is not necessary to fire the mono light, but you surely can. It doesn't take much light from a light on a stand for your camera to auto focus. Whats cool about this is no one will ever complain or even notice this extra light. I've been using multiple lights since the '80's without a single issue. You can read up on adding lights to a dark reception. There are tons of articles written. The below shot was taken 2 or 3 months ago using a fish eye lens. I had 3 lights set up behind me, plus I used a bare bulb setup with my Quantum flash. This is a flash unit that allows a photographer to shoot without a deffuser. You could use a flash with a deffuser, such as your 540 flash.
    00XHXI-280569584.jpg
     
  12. Here's another angle at the same reception. You can actually see one of the flash units go off in the upper left corner.
    00XHXU-280571584.jpg
     
  13. Jesper, sometimes it is pretty handy to carry a torch with you to illuminate a couple of faces and make it easy for AF to autofocus. :)
    00XHbr-280627684.jpg
     
  14. next thing i am going to do is to buy cheap big torches and place them in corners of a room pointing different directions. no example so far, but gotta work!:)
     
  15. I shoot low light parties a lot and I've tried lots of things.

    Stuff that makes working in these conditions easier is a fullframe camera (for a bigger and brighter viewfinder), a fast lens (for a bigger and brighter viewfinder), and a flash (can't really do it without one).

    I started out using just direct flash slightly underexposed while exposing for the ambient light. Looked OK.

    I moved on to use a diffuser on my flash, then went to bouncing via the ceiling.

    I then found Neil van Niererks blog and found the black foamie thingy. If the room is right it works wonderfully.
    I now use my 580EX II on my camera, set to master flash and my old, cracked screen, taped togheter 430EX as slave in my left hand. For this you'd want a camera strap. I now expose for the ambient but with different settings. Depending on the light levels and what effect I want, I generally keep my settings at 1/4-1/10 shutter speed, f/4 or so. I first try to balance the ambient by using ISO, then by varying the shutterspeed. By using the 430EX to freeze motion you can really use any shutterspeed you like.
    Here are some examples from saturday.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

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    [​IMG]
     
  16. Humm. My first reaction was to suggest a Leica M3 with a 50mm f/1.2 and some 800 ISO film....
    I would just use HP5 at ISO 400.
    Oh well, I guess film wasn't a possible solution to the problem.
     
  17. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Rusla: A strong beamed and reliable Torch is a necessary inclusion in a camera bag - anyway IMO.
    Bob: That's the Reception Room "sans grinding"?
    WW
     
  18. I think AF in low light requires some tweaking and practice to work. At least with cameras that are not pro sport shooters models.
    I find that when using fast lenses, back button focusing (AF-On) and only using the center focus point (or any other f/2.8 cross type AF sensor) I can focus down to the limit of the camera metering system (EV 0) without AF assist.
    This way of working also allows me to use continuous AF tracking (aka AI mode on Canon and AF-S mode on Nikon) and shoot without having anything in the hotshoe for af assist.
    I try to find something of high contrast to AF on, I keep the AF-On button pressed until I see that the camera has good focus and then I recompose and shoot as long as the distance to the subject doesn't change too much.
    If it's darker it's below the specs for the AF sensors and the camera metering system. Then I just use manual focus first by focusing in the viewfinder and then when it too dark for that I do it by judging distance and scale focusing.
     
  19. I have a method for using shallow DOF/wide aperture shot during low light receptions and such. I warn you, this is not for the faint hearted.
    I prefocus (usually manually) to a given distance. If the AF can grab anything within the proximity of what I hope to get, I go with it. If not, Manual focus will always get me close enough for this technique. Once in the zone, I time the shots so the subject either comes into where I think it will be in focus, or to my movement toward/away from them. Then I fire two, three or four in rapid succession. One will usually get me what I want, but this "swing" shooting, is a tricky business and not always as successful as I would like.
    This series from last week shows a set to get the idea of what I usually get with this method (and it doesn't really depend on the af too much).
    Look at my settings below them to see just how dark it was.
    00XIx2-281643584.jpg
     
  20. BTW, I cropped them so you can see an up close version to see what you will see in PS at 50%.
     
  21. I hope this does not offend, but I thought it would be helpful to post a second series to better demo the point. I am PPing this wedding as I type, so just came across this set...
    00XIxQ-281645584.jpg
     
  22. Good eye William W! Yes same place. That was one strange reception!
     
  23. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    @ David W - yes I did look "85/1.4 at f1.6: iso6400: 1/20th" . . . That's really low light. And really hard work!
    @ Bob B. - It was the walls and the gold "$" Symbol.
    WW
     

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