Thursday, 9 February 2012

How much light is enough?

One thing about the photo-a-day challenge – when I’m taking it seriously – is that it forces me to think a bit differently or risk every photo being a close-up of a household object. It also means that sometimes I have to take shots in fairly challenging conditions, which can be a useful creativity driver.

The ‘Fence’ was one example of that and it got me to thinking about how little information – and by implication light – you might need to make a reasonable photo. Most weeks I spend one or two nights in Stretton, just off J11 of the M56, which is fairly limiting from a photo opportunity angle but does have a rather splendid sandstone church which is sometimes, but not often floodlit. When the lighting is off the lights from the street and the nearby hotel cast a rather eerie glow onto the tower, which struck me as rather atmospheric. It’s also a bit tricky to capture, if you don’t have a tripod handy – which I didn’t. Usually I can find a wall to prop the camera up on, but without losing the composition that wasn’t possible – not least because I needed a portrait format to catch the tower.This forced me to ISO 3200 and f/2.8 which gave me a 1/4 second exposure (about 2/3 stop underexposed), which was just within the limits of handholding with a bit of wall support and IS. Even then I was exposed well over to the left – contrary to normal advice – don’t think there was a pixel above half-way on the histogram.

Lets not even talk about the chroma noise in the file.

But conversion to B&W and judicious use of the orange/red sliders, exposure clarity and noise reduction gives this rather atmospheric end result:

1000/717: 06 Feb 2012: Church Tower at Night

I know it’s soft, and grainy, and looks like it was taken a hundred years ago – but that’s exactly as I saw it turning out. It has that sense of mystery which churchyards have at night, there’s just enough detail to keep me looking and the small white dot (Venus) adds a slightly disconcerting note. In short – I think it has a real sense of place. Interestingly I think the chroma noise is a factor in the slightly other-worldly glow from the tower - tweaking the noise settings certainly had a marked impact. There’s an experiment for another time.

The following night I tried a slightly different approach – this time a portrait of a statue on the path behind the church. There was enough light from the street lamp to make hand-holding just feasible – although I’d have preferred a tripod so that I could get some extra depth of field as f/2.8 is a bit limiting at 2 feet or so. I could have pushed the ISO a bit further (to 3200 perhaps)but for this shot I didn’t want to risk softening the boundary between light and dark too much. Again most of the pixels were well to the left of the half-way mark on the histogram, which with a bit of tweaking of the red/orange/black point sliders produced this end result.

1000/718: 07 Feb 2012: Portrait of a Roman Soldier

Not quite true actually – I had to put quite a bit of effort into developing a decent range of tones in the lit areas while retaining the very sharp shadow edges. Again I’m quite pleased with the outcome. Given that it’s a statue it feels quite characterful – the moon behind adds some helpful atmosphere and at the risk of sounding pretentious the black shadow feels like a metaphor for time eating away at history.

I’m beginning to wonder if I have the basis for Assignment 5 here – if only I could think of a legitimate commercial brief.

I digress. It seems to me that it is possible to get interesting shots with very little light indeed, provided that you understand what can be done with that light. In some senses I think digital photography makes this easier because a quick peek at the preview shows whether there is anything useable recorded or not and you don’t have to worry about reciprocity failure. On the other hand, noise rears it’s ugly head and can have some interesting impacts on the B&W conversions. But this is both fun and rewarding and I’m beginning to hope that the evenings don’t draw out too quickly.

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