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Available light photography, Part 1 (12/21/2003)
By Tom Hirsch
While attending an indoor event such as a basketball game, a graduation ceremony or a circus, have you noticed the unmistakable flash from cameras in the bleachers? When these photographers get the results, many of their pictures will be underexposed. The reason is that light from a built-in electronic flash is only effective up to a maximum distance of about forty feet, and with many cameras, much less. With more powerful flash units, available for many 35mm and APS SLRs, the distance might be 150 feet or so, but this still isn't adequate for some indoor events.

Another potential problem is that the use of flash is banned in some places. Although restrictions have eased up somewhat, flash is still forbidden during the performance of many wedding ceremonies, although picture-taking without flash is allowed. At most museums and art galleries, the use of flash is strictly prohibited.

When flash is inadequate, impractical or forbidden, one solution is to take advantage of available light, the light that illuminates the scene.

Available or existing light photography is useful in a variety of situations. For example, during activities in which you want to be unobtrusive, such as a child's birthday party; when attending a concert or play where flash would be disruptive or distracting (if pictures are allowed at all); at museums or art galleries in which flash is banned; and any low-light event where the distance is too great for flash to reach, such as most indoor and night sporting events.

Available light is any uncontrolled light source such as artificial light that exists naturally in a scene, or daylight coming through a window indoors. Window light is included, but usually not if it includes direct rays of the sun. In the strictest sense, floor and table lamps constitute available light, but not if they are moved to create a specific lighting effect. Even though flash might be available, it is never considered available light.

Pictures taken under available light are characterized by natural appearing subjects because they are illuminated only by the natural light falling on the scene. Shadows will fall willy-nilly, so in some situations you might want to move around until you find a shooting direction in which faces are not obscured.

Another characteristic of available light photography is that light levels are much lower than those found under daylight conditions outdoors. For this reason, it's necessary to use a fast film, or the highest ISO setting on a digital camera. ISO 400 might be adequate when the lighting is fairly bright and subjects aren't moving, but in many cases it will be necessary to use an ISO of 1000 or greater, such as ISO 1600 or 3200. Unfortunately, these settings are not yet available on digital or APS cameras.

The higher the ISO option, the lower the light levels under which you can shoot, but also the grainier the images. Under available light conditions, graininess is usually acceptable, but you still want good pictures. With a 35mm or APS camera, ask the photo dealer to recommend a high-quality fast film. Before you buy, though, check your camera manual to determine the fastest film your camera will accept.

Even with a high ISO setting, shutter speeds are usually quite slow, so it is a good idea to use a tripod, or brace the camera as steadily as possible.

If your camera has automatic flash, remember to turn it off. This might be done with a button, or by pushing the flash unit down and holding it in place.

When using available light in fast action events, there will be some blur. This can add to the feeling of motion. You can add to the impact by using the panning technique. If you can control the exposure, try several slow shutter speeds such as 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 second. With a digital camera, the same effect can be achieved by using the entire range of ISO settings and/or apertures.

Available light is a great technique, but there are a few things to keep in mind, such as - oops, we ran out of space. More next time. 

 

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