Low Light without High ISO
If we were meant to take pictures in the dark, why would we need more science to make low light photography possible? This is not to say we cannot take pictures in the dark. Of course, we can. But, if you want the details in your low light photo opportunity to show up in your image capture, you will need some kind of technical intervention to bring out the details lost inside the crushed shadows. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much to see - only darkness.
With how poorly low light photo opportunities generally translate into pictures, it really makes one wonder why taking photos in the dark is practiced at all. In fact, the practice is very much alive. No time in our modern history of photography have more people been taking photos in the dark. But that is because we can now safely rely on high ISO technology to provide us that extra boost in making image capture possible in low light.
Unfortunately, advances in high ISO technology only goes so far in making low light photography possible. For all its promise, it still makes the image capture look as if it's taken in the dark. But to be fair, there has been great improvements. Where image details used to be lost in the shadows, today's low light high ISO technology can now recover image details - albeit subject to increased noise and visual artifacts. But at least there will be more than crushed shadows to see.
As you can imagine, I have a difficult time understanding why anyone would want to take pictures in the dark. As a rule of thumb, if the ambient light isn't enough for you to see your hand in front of your face, then it's too dark to take a photo. And if you must take a photo in such a dark place, then perhaps your photo should look as if it was taken in darkness. In that way, at least the image capture would be an accurate documentation of the ambient lighting, or lack of it.
Then again, it’s not as if there’s always sufficient light to take a picture for optimal result. After all, the world is in darkness for half the day. And even during the daylight hours, we are mostly stuck indoors where the ambient light is sober to say the least. So as you can imagine, the need to take photos in some manner of darkness isn’t unwarranted. Fact is, one could safely argue that there is a material need to document in low light, given how often we’re faced with it.
With that said, I’m still unconvinced that high ISO is the best solution. Moreover, I find our present day reliance on it to be misguided. Admittedly, I cannot dispute how beneficial it is that we can presently shoot in lower light situations. But, in no plausible way does it mean that high ISO is a miracle. In the end, the resulting image of any high ISO capture can never be rendered as cleanly as a low ISO capture - making the outcome look suboptimal in documentation.
And that’s the point. For any photograph to stand a reasonable chance of not being mistaken as a poorly captured image, it must be exposed with sufficient light. Without it, no amount of high ISO trickery will come close to compensating for that loss of contrast separating the subject from the background. Darkness will still envelop the entire frame, rendering image details muted, even with high ISO cranked all the way up. As a result, insufficient light diminishes visual impact.
Invariably, the outcome from any image taken in low light at high ISO will just end up looking like a Hail Mary effort in getting a shot in the dark - with all the telltale sign of faded tones and noise. Even so, high ISO can sometime be the difference between capturing something or nothing at all. Fact is, many are thankful that such a remedy even exists. I mean who knows what anyone would do in the dark, if it weren’t for high ISO? Wait for better light or just make do in the dark?
Mind you, high ISO isn’t the only remedy for low light photography. Long before modern science conquered the darkness, photographers prevailed by bringing light into the shadows. Of course, this approach may seem a tad primitive by contemporary practice - akin to what our Stone Age predecessors did by rubbing sticks to build fires for relief in the dark. That said, we have come a long way since our knuckle dragging days of igniting magnesium powder by hand.
Obviously, I’m speaking of the time honored tradition of employing fill flash to bring light into the darkness. Before the introduction of high ISO technology, flash photography was how one made low light documentation possible. But nowadays, the practice of fill flash is no longer popular, given the ease of high ISO in low light capture compared to the complexity of using a flash. That said, should we really be ruling out flash photography, just because it’s a little more complicated.
In my opinion, fill flash is a better low light remedy than high ISO. Aside from the obvious benefit, in which fill flash makes possible a cleaner rendering at low ISO than the noisy rendering typical of high ISO documentation, it also offers greater flexibility in documentation. Essentially, fill flash makes possible cleaner low light image capture at higher shutter speeds and lower aperture. This means one can freeze motion or increase depth of field in darkened spaces.
Of course, it’s not all smiles and sunshine with flash photography. There are still many limitations. For example, all cameras natively have a maximum flash synchronization shutter speed. Generally, it hovers between 1/125s to 1/250s, and 1/50s for analog Leica rangefinders. That being said, high speed flash synchronization is a possible alternative. However, relying on that option depends on whether your camera and flash offers that choice, and whether you know how to execute it.
There is also the issue of reach. It’s not as if the intensity of each burst of fill flash will extend light consistently across its line of fire. Whether the fill flash can reach multiple subjects with the same intensity on different focal planes is a question of execution. As such, using fill flash to stop down in darkness for the sake of extending depth of field will generally not lead to even illumination of multiple subjects on different focal planes - with light fading as it goes further from the source.
Also worth mentioning are the issues concerning battery levels and recycling time. This means all photographers using fill flash are forced to be mindful of how much battery life is remaining, and whether there is sufficient charge to power the next burst of light. This issue becomes even more pressing when the battery levels are low, since insufficient power will significantly slow down the recycling time, thus increasing the wait time between each shot.
Plus, there’s still that pesky matter of harsh shadows, cast directly behind the subject by the burst of fill flash, when the subject is too close to a surface or any visual distraction in the background. On the other extreme, there’s also that pesky matter of harsh highlights from intense bursts of fill flash, which can drown out subject details in the foreground. And have I also mention the issue of red-eye yet? Flash photography is fraught with difficulties to the uninitiated.
And it doesn’t help that fill flash is intrusive to the world about. In firing off a flash, you basically announce to everyone your intent like an exploding supernova. Invariably, it puts everyone on notice - so good luck documenting the world at ease. Fact is, with all the difficulties involved with using fill flash in low light situations, wouldn’t relying on high ISO make more sense? I mean, it is just so much more simple, more reliable, and more consistent in outcome.
Honestly, what’s the point of low light flash photography if shooting at higher shutter speeds and getting even illumination at increased depth of field can’t easily be achieved? In addition, what’s the point of fill flash if one has to constantly wait for the flash to fully recycle or make sure there’s sufficient battery life before each shot can be fired? By the time your flash is ready, the decisive moment may already have passed - assuming you haven’t put everyone on heightened alert.
Of course, there are techniques to address many of these issues, from redirecting to diffusing the burst of light. Unfortunately, much of that can be tricky. When starting out, there will be some guesswork involved if experience is insufficient. However, I truly believe that flash photography is better than high ISO in low light conditions. Once you get the hang of it, there really is no going back. In the end, cleaner images are so much more satisfying than noisy high ISO rendering.
Bottom line, flash photography in low light situation is worth the bother. That’s what I keep telling myself. But like most of you, I’m too lazy to follow through in burdening myself with bringing one more piece of gear and one more set of batteries, in addition to undergoing an extra step in the documentation process and remembering the steps involved in executing fill flash properly. From that perspective, is it any wonder why high ISO technology is so popular in low light!
Alas, foiled by my own human failings. In any event, it doesn’t take much to get started with flash photography. It’s just a matter of bringing along a pocket size flash and using it from time to time. Who knows. You might even be surprised by the outcome to continue shooting with a flash in low light situations. Besides, it’s easy with digital imaging given immediate feedback on image review. However, getting used to flash photography on an analog workflow will take more effort.
All images have been optimized in Adobe Lightroom. Some images have been leveled. The title image and the image at the crosswalk have had the background darkened by gradient filters in post - for the sake of presenting greater consistency in the sample images. Aperture setting have been stopped down and shutter speed have been set to maximum synchronization speed, given the limitation of conventional flash photography.