Event photography in low light
Event photography where you are photographing speakers at the event, can be challenging in its own way. The problem with taking photos of presenters, especially if they are animated, is that you have to take a LOT of photos to get a few where they look good. You don’t want to give your client any photos with awkward expressions. This means you have to take so many photos just to get a few keepers. But shooting a ton of photos with flash becomes intrusive after a very short while. I therefore prefer to do the majority of photos of speakers at events, using the available light only … with the silent shutter. However, the lighting might not be ideal. So I might do a few sequences with flash, just to have that in my pocket. Ideally, a camera that has a silent shutter is the best choice – you can take hundreds of photos without anyone being aware of the camera shutter.
I recently photographed Cory Booker at a fundraiser event last night. The venue was pretty dark, with wooden ceilings, as you can see in the photo below. Wooden ceilings are not ideal for flash photography, but I did some photos with flash, bouncing flash off that wooden ceiling. Then I used the Profoto A1 at full power, with the flash bouncing to the side (and to the front of me), using a Black Foamy Thing to flag the flash. For these photos I was at f/2 and 3200 ISO. The very warm White Balance is then corrected as part of the usual RAW workflow.
I brought along my new favorite lens for this event – the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens (B&H / Amazon) – just in case I had to deal with such challenges as a venue with low light levels. This lens is incredibly sharp wide open, which is exactly where you will be using it most of the time. The autofocusing is also fast and sure.
Along with Sony’s eye-focus ability, it helps track the person as they move. It can be a challenge when you have a presenter who walks to and fro on the stage. But with the eye-focus of the Sony (and the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras), this stress is reduced for the photographer. The camera tracks the person’s eye so well that the majority of photos will be in focus. The camera I used here was the Sony A7 iii camera (B&H / Amazon), which also handled the high ISO settings like a champ.
The fast aperture allowed me to bounce flash, using an f/2 aperture at 3200 ISO. But I also did a larger number of photos with the silent shutter, shooting at f/1.8 @ 6400 ISO @ 1/125th to get a decently exposed photo. (I still had to bump the exposure in post by about 1/2 stop for most of the available light photos.)
What I am trying to get to here is that this would have been really really tough without the 135mm f/1.8 … an f/2.8 zoom wouldn’t have been a workable option with the available light. And even bouncing flash off the ceiling like that would have been tough without pushing the ISO up higher.
I now bring the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and the Sony 135mm f1/.8 to weddings. I still love zooms for their versatility, but there are times where you need that extra bump in exposure with the wider aperture. For this event I only brought the 135mm because I knew it would be a more controlled environment than a church wedding.
I do prefer the shot with flash because the light is more controlled, and the photo looks more crisp. But I shot over 200 photos just available light, using the silent shutter. I would have been a nuisance if I did that with flash. So I gave the client about 10 photos that I selected from the photos with flash, and then added the available light photos for more variety. This gave them enough options.
The flash that I used for the photo below, is the Profoto A1x flash (for Sony) (B&H / Amazon). I love it for the power, and the fast recycling. But also for the ease of switching between TTL and manual flash, and how quickly I can adjust manual power. Perfect for quick decisions.
Camera settings & photo gear used for this photo
- f/2 @ 3200 ISO @ 1/200
- Using flash with the BFT
- Sony A7 iii camera (B&H / Amazon)
- Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens (B&H / Amazon)
- Profoto A1x flash (for Sony) (B&H / Amazon)
Camera settings & photo gear used for this photo
- f/1.8 @ 6400 ISO @ 1/125th
- Available light only
6 Comments, Add Your Own
Amateur, do a lot of low-lighting events…bands, dances, ballet recitals, contemporary church services. Seldom use a flash, as it’s too distracting. Lighting is typically dark, sometimes spotlights, sometimes not. Lessons learned:
— Definitely need a fast lens, f/2.8 minimum. (I usually use a Nikon D7200 + 70-200 f/2.8 VRII)
— In low lighting, camera based AF Assist beam is very annoying, besides won’t work anyways, so I turn it off. Ability to focus becomes a challenge. For like dark dance photos, I mount an SB910 and turn off its flash and only use its AF Assist. The red light isn’t so annoying.
— I’ve never gotten consistent results with spot metering, so I leave it on matrix and chase correct exposure compensation. I don’t have much post-processing ability, and I like to get it right first time. In these venues I find my exp comp will typically range from -0.7 to -1.7. Sometimes I playback photo and zoom in on face and use histogram to verify that my exp comp is right on the money. With experience, you can look at the playback and tell where you are with exposure and make a quick adjustment.
— I like to automate as much as possible, as things are fast moving and you can miss that great shot. So I shoot in P mode, ISO auto with min shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/200. The 1/200 is a luxury I don’t always have enough light to afford.
— Certain photos are more forgiving of ISO noise than others. Remember, your clients are not professionals–they don’t notice the things you do.
— When folks are performing, speaking, etc. under spotlights, the contrast between them and the background is not as great to the naked eye as it comes out in the photo. Use this to your advantage. You unexpectedly get some total dark backgrounds and it has a nice effect.
— Another trick…I scout out the place before taking shots, looking for a small section of white wall, a dark blue or black curtain, or some other piece of neutral background–a small piece. Using highest focal length (200mm on a DX camera), and assuming I’m photographing 1 person, maybe just waist up or headhshot, I get positioned at just the right angle so that the wall, etc. is the immediate background where the silhouette of the their head, arms, body touches that wall, curtain, etc. I allow other “junk” in the background. The resulting photo I photoshop out the junk by painting over the offending stuff. Since there’s “junk” at the boundary of the person’s outline, nobody notices the photoshopping–otherwise it’s noticeable. Some cool pics result.
2Le J Nutzman says
I thoroughly enjoy reading all your articles about bounce lighting and have been doing some experimental learning as a result of it. The one thing I wanted to ask that I have noticed so often is the you really seem to drive higher than normal ISO for portrait photography. So I can only assume that the high ISO is directly related to the existing lighting conditions PRIOR to your beautifully enhanced bounce flash shot. If that is the case, how do you come to the determination of which high ISO to actually use to get those results?
3Neil vN says
Le — in this case the high ISO was forced because of the low light levels when shooting just available light.
For the flash photos, the high-ISO was somewhat forced because I dislike direct flash. I am sure the subjects also dislike direct flash. Since I had to contend with the wooden ceiling which sucks up most of the light from bounce flash, I had to be at full power, and then still had to squeak in at that high ISO setting to get proper exposure.
The higher ISO settings don’t concern me much especially when you consider the final use for these images — news stories and social media. None of which really require the detail we know we will get from 100 ISO.
And that is very important in considering the choice of ISO — the final use of the images.
4Mark VB says
Neil, Thanks for this article and the follow-up comments in reply to Le. I do lots of events that don’t have the “good” conditions you had for this event (e.g., a black ceiling, or a much higher wooden ceiling are two examples). Sometimes there just isn’t the option to bounce flash off the ceiling or a side wall, in which case I will use some on-flash modifier to reduce (minimize?) the impact of direct flash. While we as photographers (at least responsible ones) are concerned about how disturbing flash might be to a speaker (or others), I have found that speakers once they start and are focused on what they are doing seem to ignore the use of flash (at least when I’m off to a side, towards the back of a room, and not right in front of them). I also think that when we have the ability to bounce flash off a ceiling or side-wall a speaker is more than likely oblivious to the flash. This is particularly so for someone like Senator Booker, who by now must be used to speaking with all sorts of cameras (with and without flash) going off.
Would be curious how you would have handled the flash shots if you had even worse conditions, such as much higher or black ceiling (and distant side walls). Thanks.
4.1Neil vN says
Mark … sometimes there is just no other option but to use direct flash of some kind, perhaps with some diffuser to create a larger light source. Not my favorite way of doing things though.
The ideal would be off-camera lighting, but this just isn’t feasible for most event photography. So then it has to be direct flash.
5Valent Lau says
Great moments. You can feel the action