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Available light photography, Part 2 (12/28/2003)
By Tom Hirsch
Available light photography is much more interesting, fun, and challenging than using flash in dim light situations. Speaking of challenges, the following paragraphs will cover a few that you should keep in mind.

For starters, watch out for spotlights, windows or any bright light source that might be in front of the camera. The camera's meter will determine exposure based on all the light falling on it, and anything much brighter than the intended subject will cause the pictures to be underexposed. To compensate, one option is to use the backlight button. If you have an SLR, increase exposure by one or two stops. Even more if the light source is exceptionally bright. With a high-end digital camera, go to the exposure compensation bar and give it +1 or +2. With many cameras, you can use the spot meter, and get a reading from a small area of the subject, avoiding the bright light all together. You might be able to avoid the problem, though, if you can move around or have the subject move to a location where the light source won't dominate the exposure.

Another challenge is dealing with the color balance of available light. For example, tungsten light has a yellow-orange cast, so the subjects will take on this tint in the pictures. For most subjects this isn't objectionable. In informal group shots of people, for example, this coloration can add a soothing warmth. On the other hand, most fluorescent lighting will produce a greenish cast - not a flattering color in pictures of people. With many digital cameras, color correction can easily be made with the Tungsten or Fluorescent settings in the White Balance mode.

If you use an SLR, color casts can be corrected with filters. These filters are available at any camera store. To counteract the yellow-orange of tungsten light, use a blue 80A filter. A magenta FL-D filter will eliminate the green of fluorescent lighting. The downside is that the 80A filter reduces exposure by the equivalent of two f/stops, and the FL-D filter will essentially cut film speed in half.

Color correction can also be made during printing. If you're a film shooter, when you get your pictures, if the color is objectionable, take the negatives and prints to the photo dealer and ask to have the pictures reprinted for proper coloration. This special printing will probably cost somewhat more, but it will be worth it. Be aware, though, that due to the makeup of the film emulsion, color correction is not always possible for pictures taken under fluorescent lighting, so you might have to be happy with the results you get.

In digital photography, the most convenient and fastest way of correcting color is with the White Balance filters; but correction can also be made on the computer, if you have a photo enhancing program. Corrections can also be made by a commercial printer.

For you 35mm and APS photographers, when you decide to get into available light photography big time, you'll always want some ISO 1600 or 3200 film on hand (if it's available for your camera). Suppose, though, a situation comes up in which available light photography is appropriate but you have ISO 200 film in your camera and you've taken only six shots on the roll. Don't shoot up the film. Most 35mm cameras have provision for rewinding the film before the last frame has been shot. Of course, because of the nature of t he cassettes, this isn't necessary with APS cameras. Also, with most 35mm cameras, about a one inch tab of film extends out of the cartridge after rewinding.

If both of these features are on your 35mm camera, make note that six frames have been shot, then rewind the film. With a felt-tip or ball-point pen, write on the tab, "Go to #7." Adding a frame will prevent possible overlap. Now load the fast film and take your available light shots.

Here comes the challenge - reinserting the slower film. If you have an SLR, attach the lens cap and, with the camera on manual exposure, set the shutter speed to the fastest setting. Now advance the film to the appropriate exposure.

With a compact 35mm camera it's a little more challenging. Insert the film as usual, then go into an absolutely dark closet. To avoid exposing the film, you'll have to turn off the flash. Advance the film, counting the number of exposures.

Is available light photography challenging? Yes. Are the challenges worth it? Without question. 


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