Low Light Photography Tutorial: Taking Photos in a Cave

In the Previous Tutorial…

…we attempted to take a sharp photo of a chess piece. We wanted the bishop in sharp focus with the knight in the background blurred out. We shot with a wide open aperture to give us a shallow depth of field. Our goal was to avoid a soft or blurry photo (this happens when the hand holding the camera shakes slightly, leading to a motion-blurred shot). This we accomplished easily as we had a ton of light around, and bright light makes for sharp photos as the sensor is flooded with light and the shutter does no have to stay open for long.

So a better challenge is to test our manual camera skills in an environment with less light around.

 

Low Light Photography Tutorial: Taking Photos in a Cave

 

For this outing I had left the trusty DSLR at home. Since I was taking my daughter along with me, I needed something small and pocketable. Enter the Sony RX100 M III stage left. I was curious to see how it would perform in low light. Although it has a built-in flash, I had made a decision to not use flash. Flash creates photos like the one below. Not good photography.

Low Light Photography

I also decided to not use the camera’s auto mode.

Inside the cave I checked my settings. It was still set to what worked well outside in broad daylight.

Low Light Photography Tutorial
ISO 200 sensitivity and F5.6 aperture size gives us a 1.3 seconds exposure

With the ISO sensitivity set to 200 and the aperture set to f/5.6 (which is not very wide open), the camera told us it needed a couple of seconds to expose a shot properly. For a handheld photo, we have a rule of thumb requiring at least 1/x of a second or faster if we are shooting at an x mm zoom. The Sony was set to a zoom of 24 mm, so we wanted at least a shutter speed of 1/24 or better for a sharp shot.

We took our first in-cave shot. Take a look at what we got:

Low Light Photography Tutorial
Motion blurred shot as I try to hold the camera still

Looks a bit like the Loch Ness monster. Its a totally messed up shot since I could not hold the camera still for eight seconds! We had to do something to improve the shutter speed. The shorter the span of time that the shutter remains open, the more I can eliminate the tiny movement of my hands as I hold the camera. What options did I have to make the sensor record an image quicker?

One solution was the aperture. I opened that light hole wider. Before, it was set to f/5.6. On most lenses, this is as far open as the aperture can go, but on our little pocket monster, we can make it say, “Aaah,” all the way up to f/1.8. That’s very wide.

Low Light Photography Tutorial
ISO 200, f/1.8 aperture gives a slightly better shutter speed of 1/13.

At a sensor sensitivity of ISO 200 and an aperture opening of f/1.8, the shutter speed is slightly better, but as I was standing under a spotlight, even the 1/13 will become slower when I am aiming at stalactites and stalagmites with soft-colored lights. I needed to get more shutter speed out of this camera, and there was only one other setting left that could help: making the sensor more sensitive so the image could record faster on the sensor. In a previous article, we discussed noise, but even in high noise situations, we can clean up some of that noise by editing the photo in a photo editing application. But we’ll get to that later.

Low Light Photography Tutorial
Sensitivity set to ISO 3200, aperture at f/1.8

We had now set the ISO quite high, to 3200, and the aperture was still set at f1/8. That gave us a sample shutter speed of 1/100, which should be quite helpful in eliminating camera shake. Let’s see what we got:

Cave_ISO3200_F1.8_test2

A shutter speed of 1/80 second combined with the optical stabilizer on the camera made for a super steady shot. That red rock in front is sharp and the people and white rock at the back is somewhat out of focus, which works from a composition point of view.

We got some nice sharp detail by zooming into the red rock:

Cave_ISO3200_F1.8_test3

We did have some noise though. Below is an example:

Cave_ISO3200_F1.8_test4

Now we have a couple of photos that are sharp, but somewhat noisy. We need to remove the noise and add a bit of punch to the photo. My lecturer always talked about making the photo “pop.” For this, we will need a good editing program. I have signed up to Adobe Creative Cloud for the low price of $9.99 a month. At that price, there is no better value for money.

 

Lightroom Editing

 

To remove some of the noise and give the photos some punch, let’s edit these photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Connect the camera, switch it on, and in Lightroom, go to File, Import Photos and Videos. Select the photos you took and click on Import. After your photos have imported, click on the Develop tab up top.

Below is how the image looks unedited and edited.

Cave_Lightroom_1 Cave_Lightroom_2

 

Notice how in the image on the right, we have more detail standing out at the base of the stalactite. At the top we also have a lot more dynamic range.

This we achieved with the following settings in Lightroom:

Cave_Lightroom_Settings

The only challenge we still have is to remove the noise.

By dragging the Luminance slider slightly to the right, Lightroom reduces noise as seen below:Cave_Lightroom_Noise_1 Cave_Lightroom_Noise_2

The Luminance slider:

Cave_Lightroom_Settings_Luminance

 

Any good photo editing application will do, but at the price point and convenience that Lightroom brings, it is hard to beat. In the next post we will attempt a night shoot and some light painting with the camera mounted on a tripod.

Until next time. Below some of the finished products:

Cave Photos 1

Cave Photo 2

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