Digital camera features you need for low-light photography
Low-light photography isn’t all about fast shutter speeds. Many of the most arresting images are taken with long exposures. These can give rough water surfaces a mirror-smooth appearance, create motion blur in waterfalls and capture light trails from moving traffic.
Another bonus is that people walking about in busy city nightscape scenes will be effectively blurred out of the image. In most cases, semi-auto exposure modes like Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority have a 30-second limit for slow shutter speeds. In the case of some cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Lumix G5, it’s a full minute.
Using Bulb mode
To get even longer exposures, you need to switch to the Manual shooting mode and use a Bulb exposure. Here, you can often keep the shutter open indefinitely, or at least until you start to lose battery power.
There’s a catch, however, with some cameras like the Olympus and Panasonic models mentioned above. In Bulb mode, for instance, they only enable maximum exposure lengths of 30 minutes and just two minutes respectively. That said, the Olympus does have clever and innovative Bulb features.
If timing is critical, and you can’t use a self-timer delay, you’ll also need a remote controller so you don’t have to touch (and jog) the camera at the beginning of the exposure.
Cable releases are available for most digital cameras, and most DSLRs give you the choice of both cable and wireless remotes.
Good autofocus performance enables cameras to focus quickly and accurately, even in low-light conditions. It’s frustrating when a lens hunts back and forth, or fails to autofocus on a target.
For close-up shooting, another of the crucial digital camera features for low-light photography are AF assist lamps.
Another digital camera feature you’ll want for effective low-light photography is a pop-up flash. These can be useful for adding fill-in light, but are no substitute for a proper flashgun.
As well as lacking power, they have no bounce or swivel facility for softening the flash by bouncing light off ceilings or walls. The result is hard lighting that’s unflattering for portraiture. Also the close proximity of the flash to the lens makes red-eye a danger.
Dedicated flashguns are available for most SLRs and some digital cameras, like the Panasonic G5, enable you to use the pop-up flash as a wireless controller for off-camera flashgun effects.
Studio flash heads are another option, but at the end of the day the use of flashguns or studio flash heads can ruin the subtle ambience of low-light shots. In the photography cheat sheet below we’ve dissected a camera to better illustrate these key features you should look for if low-light photography is your primary subject. Simply click on the infographic to expand the file.
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