How to Photograph in Low Light

Photography

Ever since writing the two-part Photography with Flash series, I received questions like the following:
Dear Jasmine,
I was wondering what you did in regards to focusing in low light and capturing action ie: The Grand Entrance in a low light venue. How do you capture them walking in while keeping them in focus since they are moving and the light is very low. I know you like to look for points of contrast…is there anything else to it?

and

Dear Jasmine,
I have always had trouble with getting my camera to focus on my subjects well and to focus well quickly when I am shooting receptions in dark or dimly lit reception halls… which happen to be most of the receptions I shoot. This is a problem even when I have my aperture set higher than f/3.5, etc.

Today I’ll be discussing how I focus in low light situations, specifically during a wedding reception, but breaking my answer into three categories:
1. Low Light, with illumination flexibility and non-moving subjects
2. Low Light, with illumination flexibility and moving subjects
3. Low Light, with OH MY GOD I’M SCREWED lighting

1. Low Light, with illumination flexibility and non-moving subjects
This situation might be found at a wedding reception, just before guests are invited into the room to sit. Non-moving subjects (a wedding cake, floral decor, a dessert bar, etc.) can be difficult to shoot in low-light, but I use–and love–hand-held video lights to provide a nice bump in light. We’ve been using the Dot Line DLC video light for the past seven months and they’re the best we’ve experienced. We have two, but one could suffice in a pinch. My second shooter (JD) will stand just off to the side of me with the light(s) held above his head and point them down (to replicate pin lighting when it’s not available).
There’s been times when I had to hold the video light myself, so that’s an option, but it affects how fast I can work.

2. Low Light, with illumination flexibility and moving subjects
The trickiest part of low light scenarios at a wedding is that subjects move really fast, often resulting in a camera that doesn’t fire or a blurry photo. Here are a few things I do to help with focusing…
a. Test the light. I have my second shooter do a mock Grand Entrance before guests are invited into the reception. I gauge where I need to stand for the best light and mobility as I pace backward with my subjects. I memorize the settings and how I need to change them as the subjects move (most times it’s darker at the point of entry than on the dance floor).
b. Use off-camera flash. I leverage the autofocus assist setting (this is shown as a red-colored pattern from my Canon flash, but can sometimes be a white light from camera/flash combinations). The red pattern/white light illuminates the subject and the camera’s auto focus system will lock into the area (to clarify, I’m selecting the focal point in advance, so the red pattern will only appear if the lens has focused on the subject). Once I know it’s focused, the off-camera flash will add in a nice pop of light, adding depth to the photo and an overall balanced photo.
c. If the reception is very, very dark, I may ask the event coordinator to raise the house lights just for the Grand Entrance. I explain it’ll help with photos…for myself, and guests. Most of the time, they happily oblige.

3. Low Light, with OH MY GOD I’M SCREWED lighting
This happens when the room is near black and there’s no way to bounce flash light from a nearby wall or low ceiling. By this time I will have asked to have the house lights raised a bit and if that’s not possible, JD and I go into red alert.
Most of the time, my second shooter and I will be positioned at different locations for the Grand Entrance, but in very dark scenarios, he’ll stand behind me to the right (always in the same position so I can count on his light source). He will hold the video light in his left hand above his head, and continue to shoot with his right hand. The light he provides will be enough for my flash to fire just fine.
This isn’t what we prefer as I depend on his angles for pivotal moments at a wedding, but in dark and stormy situations, you do whatever it takes to make it work. Can I get an Amen?

I hope this helps and if you have tips, I’d love to hear them…just drop them in the comment box! 🙂
j*