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.
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.
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.
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.