7 Tips for Shooting in Troubling Lighting

by on December 22, 2009

in Learn

Leeni at the Blip Festival
If you’re an event, wedding or concert photographer you know the pains of shooting in low light all too well. Some of the main problems are focusing, white balance issues, high ISO noise, and ensuring that you capture the correct motion. All of this can be pretty tricky, especially if you’re trying to get a variety of angles to ensure that your shots don’t all look the same. Here are some tips for shooting and how to save your work in post process.

1. Shoot RAW

This should truthfully go without saying, but there are many added benefits of shooting RAW. It allows you a whole different scale of versatility in post processing vs shooting JPEG. This will further allow you to get the shot that you wanted instead of that one that came out of the camera.

2. Use a Fast Lens with Manual Override or Manually Focus

These two things combined together will really save you. If you let the lens auto-focus and then you touch it up a bit, you’ll ensure that your subject is sharp and rest of the image is blurry due to bokeh. Faster lenses are usually better because they allow for the most light to hit the sensor and are also great for faster shutter speeds to capture motion.

Otherwise, turn off your auto-focus.

3. Over/Underexpose Depending on the Shot You Want

Failotron at the Blip Festival
I tend to underexpose my images to capture the motion and in post-process adjust the shadows and highlights. Photoshop is great for this, but Lightroom and even Photoshop Elements can really be all you need to get the image to where you want it. I refrain from saying a balance image because what you may want isn’t always balanced according to a histogram. In this shot, I wanted to capture his motion just a little bit as it makes for a more dramatic shot. So I slowed down the shutter speed just a tad.

4. Don’t Worry About White Balance…Yet

Silent Req Has a Crowd at the Blip Festival
Your camera is bound to not capture the correct colors or the colors you want (which is what white balance is.) Leave this setting on auto and don’t mess with it too much, especially if you’re working under colored stage lights. It may annoy you that your colors are off, but try to figure out how you want it to look and then fix it in post-process.

The above image is closer to what the actual event looked like. However, the background colors are off because it is an on-screen display.

5. Crank Your ISO Up Modestly

Anthony with the gaming music unit
While noisy images can be used to a certain point, you also need to find a balance between the capabilities of your fast lens and the ISO noise. This will help to capture faster motions (which tend to happen often). If you’re doing long exposure shots (which are great at concerts) then remember to lower your ISO down and crank it back up when you’re done.

In bad lighting, noise in the out of focus areas can look fine as in the shot above.

6. Convert to B/W or Use Crazy Color Processing

The Crowd Loves Failotron at the Blip Festival
One of the great things about high ISO images is that they look great in black and white. But if you don’t want to do this then try warping the colors to make them look like something totally different but still very interesting. It will make your viewers stare at your shots longer.

I couldn’t get this shot to where I wanted it color wise but it’s close. The colors are wacky and crazy, but it’s an awesome shot nonetheless. Don’t let that get you down and throw out an awesome shot. You worked for it, use it.

7. Only Sharpen After You Noise Process

Aerosmith Guitar Hero
The reason for this is because of the problems that occur in noise processing. I’ve noticed that my images become a bit softer after noise processing. To get that level of detail back, it is essential that you sharpen a bit. Sharpening also tends to add noise but not too much unless you sharpen all the way.

What tips can you add for shooting in troubling lighting?




1 Andrew Boyd December 22, 2009 at 8:54 am

Great tips. Your example photos are in what all look like band/stage/theater lighting, which I think most viewers tend to accept will be strange anyway. My favorite technique for cleaning up more mundane color casts is a simple one in Photoshop using individual Levels channels.(http://thediscerningphotographer.com/2009/06/20/photoshop-tip/)


2 Eric December 22, 2009 at 9:24 am

@Andrew – Thanks for the comment. That’s a great tip in the link you left and a smart post-processing technique.

3 Marko December 22, 2009 at 7:03 pm

When I started shooting concerts, I found Todd Owyoung’s website to be a great starting point. He has some really good articles and tips for concert photography. Definitely worth a look!


4 Roberto. R. Guzman December 24, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Very informative and helpful tips. Keep it up and going please.

5 Jeff Harper January 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

Great tips! Biggest pet peeve is photographers CRANKING the ISO (3200+)through the roof, when probably you could gotten away with 2000 or 16000.

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