Available light

Whenever I get a chance to try out new equipment, technique or other stuff in photography, I am very lucky to be able to default to my best Three Test Subjects for some fun experimentation. This weekend I had 6 photo shoots and very, very nearly had a 7th (though thankfully that one will hold off a while longer). It has been a bit quiet around this blog in light of that and the 1500+ images I am currently sifting through plus the 200 or so I randomly snapped of the girls. A while back I got the chance to use a really sweet open lens and wrote about it here. That post is one of the top two that, by far, get the most traffic from Google. Like I am some sort of photographic equipment reviewer or something (I’m totally not, for the record). I used this same lens all weekend and had a total blast just playing around with as many variations in lighting I possibly could without using any on- or off-camera lighting. It really reinforces how much broader the range of conditions becomes with an open aperture lens. I get asked quite a bit by people what camera they should buy or how many megapixels my camera is or how I get such great photos. While I love the flattery, I wanted to also demystify and debunk the ‘camera takes great photos’ notion a little bit. Absolutely, hands down, neither the camera body or amount of megapixels or price of the camera body are things will make nearly as much of a difference as a nice open (smaller f-stop number, like 2.8, 1.8 or 1.4 or if you are on Canon 1.2) lens will. Invest money in glass, it will make the most impact.

This is the conditions I shoot in just for fun the majority of the time:



Usually when I am out and about with the kids or just goofing off around the house I shoot with a pretty general, cheap kit lens (the Nikon AF 18-55mm f/3.5-5.5G DX VR if you are really wondering). My main reasons are that, 1.) the lens performs great in 80% of natural light conditions; and 2.) I usually stuff the whole DSLR in my diaper bag so this lens is lighter, small and would be a cheapie to replace. But I know I am only going to get ‘good’ shots if there is enough light. So I only use it outside or I always shoot by a really large window if I am inside. But that doesn’t do much for me if it is too dark. There are even some dismal Seattle gray days where inside I don’t get enough light in the lens to get a really nicely exposed image. Plus I think most of the images turn out a bit ‘soft’ with this lens, but I tend to like really sharp and crisp photos.

Or there are instances where I think, that would be an awesome picture, but we are say, sitting in front of the computer playing Phonics and Alphabet games:



These are lit solely by a 24″ Apple Display, located in our office (a.k.a. the Sensory Deprivation Room) which has no windows. The more open the aperture can be gives a huge advantage with odd lighting conditions like this. Otherwise, the camera will have to slow the shutter speed (time the camera is taking the picture) too slow and the picture will be blurry because you and your subject can’t hold still long enough. Shutter and aperture are like a faucet — the aperture is the amount or flow of water coming out of the tap and the shutter speed is how long the faucet is turned on. So the goal is to fill up the cup and get a properly exposed image by adjusting the flow and duration the water goes into the cup. If there is a lot of light coming into the lens (lots of water coming out), you only need to turn the faucet on for a very short period of time. If there is a small trickle coming out, you need to turn the faucet on for quite a while in order for the cup to fill up. Most point and shoot cameras and general lenses (3.5 and above) are more limiting in how much light they can let in. In this case, opening up the f-stop allows me to get the shutter to a high enough speed the image isn’t blurry or too dark.

Now let’s go even more extreme, nighttime, right before bed, and Pia is really cute under two tiny Ikea spots in our bedroom:



This is where I start to notice a huge performance difference and advantage in the pro lens (an AF Nikon 85mm f/1.4D). These are actually rather decent shots in lighting conditions that are far, far from what I would normally be shooting at. But the images are usable, sharp, and bright. The nice, white-colored Ikea lights do help.

The next ones are taken later that night under overhead compact fluorescent fixtures in our living room:



The light temperature is really warm, so that is what causes the yellow (there was no color-adjustments or editing done on these because I wanted to compare the raw differences straight out of the camera, I should have changed the white balance settings in the camera to ‘fluorescent’ and that would have helped a great deal). The 1.4 lens is open all the way and with Tallis fidgeting it isn’t quite fast enough to get the images sharp. But they are still decent even if they aren’t as sharp as I usually like. With a more general f/3.5 or above lens these would have been near impossible. There are obviously more tricks I could have done to improve these, but for the sake of playing around with solely the lens I only focused on the impacts only the aperture makes.

There is also the preconceived notion of expense, camera equipment tends to be darn expensive. The latter images above were shot with a $1000 piece of glass (the 85mm f/1.4). But, you can instead get the Nikon AF 85mm f/1.8D for $380 new (or I saw 2 this weekend on Craigslist for $275), and in all honesty there are very few situations where that extra stop would really make a difference for most people. Even better is the $300 Nikon AF 50mm f/1.4, which is a staple of a lens, hands down. Even better is the 50mm f/1.8 which goes for $109 new and $90 used. If you have a DSLR and want to improve the lens purchase of one of these is the way to go, not upgrading to a different body. Shooting this weekend in Volunteer Park, as soon as the sun came out there were hoards of people out with their Digital SLR’s- I’d be willing to bet nearly all of them believe that it is the camera that takes good photos, as if the action of simply pushing a button is going to somehow be different on a $300 camera than a $1500 camera. Don’t get me wrong, the kit lenses are great (as I said I use one nearly all the time) and so are most of the DSLR’s out there, but it must start with a foundation of knowing how to use the tool. Otherwise that would be like saying Mozart had a really good piano. But, it is a tool, and there are tools that do a better job at different things.


~ by gdesign on November 11, 2008.

One Response to “Available light”

  1. […] have every once in a while taken on an aspect of making images to talk about here. Last time it was lenses and light. Again I must preface that the camera doesn’t so much matter- it is just a tool- you have to […]

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