A Shot in the Dark

A friend of mine asked me this week about how to shoot candlelight vigils. She’d been to one, and while she got some usable images, she was not able to catch any magic with her camera.

Vietnam veteran James Pippen salutes as he holds a candle during an Ada Indivisible candlelight vigil in 2017.
Vietnam veteran James Pippen salutes as he holds a candle during an Ada Indivisible candlelight vigil in 2017.

Photographing low light situations has always been a challenge, but it has gotten easier in the last few years as the highest ISO settings, which control how sensitive the imaging sensor is to light, have shot into the stratosphere. It is pretty common in 2023 to shoot at ISO 12,800 with surprisingly controllable noise.

Even so, photographers sometimes run into situations where we are right on the margins of imaging: kids around a Christmas tree, detectives with flashlights at crime scenes, Relay for Life lit by luminaria, bonfires, people at fireworks shows, and, of course, candlelight vigils.

Luminaries glow at Relay for Life 2014 at Ada High School Friday, May 30, 2014. For this image, I used a tripod, which allowed me to shoot with a smaller aperture while still collecting a nice balance of last evening light with candles inside luminaria.
Luminaries glow at Relay for Life 2014 at Ada High School Friday, May 30, 2014. For this image, I used a tripod, which allowed me to shoot with a smaller aperture while still collecting a nice balance of last evening light with candles inside luminaria.

I tend to lean on lenses with very large maximum apertures, like f/1.8 to f/1.4. The easiest way to get into lenses in this category is to look at 50mm lenses. They have been around for decades, are easy and cheap to make, are lightweight, and, most importantly, they let a lot of light into the camera.

I know a couple of very talented photographers who have even brighter (known in the biz as “faster”) lenses, like the 85mm f/1.2.

Nothing invites you to the low-light party like lenses with vary large maximum apertures. Here are two 50mm f/1.4 lenses. The 50mm class of lenses is a great place to start low light photography.
Nothing invites you to the low-light party like lenses with vary large maximum apertures. Here are two 50mm f/1.4 lenses. The 50mm class of lenses is a great place to start low light photography.

Note that not all 50mm lenses are sharp wide open. Most 50mms need to be stopped down just a squinch, maybe to f/2, but that still invites a lot of light into the camera.

Tripods are another factor, though I find they slow me down. You can park your camera on a tripod and shoot at medium ISO values and medium aperture. The only problem that presents is that if people move while the shutter is open, they can be blurred, but there are some instances in which that can actually help your image, if that’s the look you want.

A good practice session might involve going outside with a 50mm set to f/1.8 and shoot by porch light or streetlight light and experiment with how to finesse those situations. Don’t be afraid to push yourself and your camera outside your comfort zone. Failed experiments can teach us a lot.

Once in a while I'll reach into my bag of tricks and pull out my rare and slightly mysterious Nikkor 200mm f/2.0. It is a challenging lens to use, and is big and heavy. And while I expect to delete a bigger percentage of images made with this lens, it has some very real low-light potential.
Once in a while I’ll reach into my bag of tricks and pull out my rare and slightly mysterious Nikkor 200mm f/2.0. It is a challenging lens to use, and is big and heavy. And while I expect to delete a bigger percentage of images made with this lens, it has some very real low-light potential.

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