Low-light photography with an old digital camera?
December 22, 2006 11:35 PM   Subscribe

Please help me make the most of my old point-and-shoot digital camera in low light situations!

I have an old Nikon CoolPix 2100. It's a 2 megapixel camera (buying a better camera won't be an option for a couple of months), but I was getting some decent shots with it three years ago. I haven't done much photography in the past couple of years though, so I'm very rusty.

Next week, a friend and I are taking pictures around Hollywood and Silverlake... we're making pilgrimages to sites mentioned in Tom Waits's songs and photographing them. To really capture that Waits-ian ambiance, we'll probably end up taking a lot of shots at night (I'm looking forward to photographing neon lights on Hollywood Boulevard) as well as indoors. I need some tricks to help make this work. Camera settings, tips to get motion effects with light using my gear, and any ideas you have to create good shots in the evening/indoors with less-than-ideal equipment will be appreciated! Don't be afraid to give basic tips, as I am woefully out of practice and want these photographs to be as good as possible.
posted by the_bone to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Before making the jump to a decent SLR with a fast lens I'd use my little Canon Elph in low light situations all the time. The key is to make certain you've a stable place to put the camera for a long exposure. There's almost never something at eye level that you can set a camera on, but you can lean it against an upright.

Press your Nikon against lamp posts, street signs and door frames and you'll be in business. Just about anything vertical can be made into a monopod.
posted by aladfar at 11:51 PM on December 22, 2006

In that vein, try a GorillaPod.
posted by kindall at 12:07 AM on December 23, 2006

There are two problems with low light shooting, which are a direct result of the longer shutter times you need to gather a reasonable amount of light:

1. Things are blurry because the camera is moving. As aladfar said, improvize using tables, railings, lampposts as stabilizers. If you can keep the camera perfectly still during the shot, this problem goes away.

2. Things are blurry because they are moving. Here's where you'll just wish you had a better camera. Turn the ISO setting to the max your camera supports. (400 perhaps?) The pictures will have noticeable noise in them, as the sensor turns up the gain on the signal, amplifying noise as well as the picture you're trying to capture.

In both situations, ensure that your camera is using the biggest aperture setting it supports (it will probably try to do this by default, in low light). Remember, bigger aperture settings are smaller numbers, i.e. f2.0 is bigger than f2.8. Treat the flash as a last resort -- it's ok for snapping pictures of people, sometimes, but in general it will simply overexpose the foreground and leave the background completely dark.

Unfortunately, there's not going to be a whole lot you can do with a point and shoot digital. I have both a dSLR and a point and shoot, and I'm almost always depressed with the results when I only have my P&S around. The sensors are simply too small to gather enough light in dim settings. Also, being smaller, they're harder to hold still for those longer exposures.

Good luck!
posted by knave at 12:09 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: What aladfar says! I turn off the flash on my Coolpix (hit "up" to get the flash menu and then choose the crossed-out symbol) all the time and prop it against things. It gives a nice orange glow. Lately though I've been hankering for a tripod and wanting to learn how to get truer color in low light, so I'll be watching this thread with interest.

You can also play with "scene" settings, especially the sunset and dawn ones, which boost certain colors in low light.

If the project is going online and if you happen to remember, I'd love to see it. Email is my profile.
posted by hippugeek at 12:10 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: One other thing I did, just this past weekend: improvize a flash diffuser. I found that sticking a plain white napkin on my flash diffused the light enough to make it reasonable to use. The lighting was relatively even on the subjects and the surroundings. So if you must use the flash, play with ways of making its light less harsh.
posted by knave at 12:13 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've been hankering for a tripod and wanting to learn how to get truer color in low light, so I'll be watching this thread with interest.

You can try to get the colors right at the time you take the photo by messing with the white balance setting on your camera. Put it on the tungsten setting (usually indicated by what looks like a normal incandescent light bulb), and the camera will compensate by "cooling" the color temperatures a bit. If your camera has a custom white balance option, use it. (Point the camera at something white or gray and it will adjust itself so that the object turns out white or gray in the resulting photo.)

Alternatively, you can forget about it entirely at the time you take the photo, and correct it in software later. If you're using a raw image format (from a dSLR typically), the capture programs will have white balance adjustment. If you're dealing with JPGs, you can still do it (I did it using Adobe Lightroom recently, turned out great). Photoshop can probably do it, too, but I'm not sure.
posted by knave at 12:17 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: This article has some good tips. Personally I never use my fill flash. I have a tiny fold-up table-top tripod I keep with me when I know I'll be shooting at night, which helps a lot.
posted by Brittanie at 12:23 AM on December 23, 2006

Oh wow. Thanks, knave. I've fooled around with the white balance occasionally in the past, but failed to put two and two together.
posted by hippugeek at 12:39 AM on December 23, 2006

Get yourself a mini-tripod. Even cheapo cameras will take great low light pictures as long as you make them steady. The mere act of pressing the shutter can cause vibrations at long shutters speeds. The traditional solution was a remote release. If you lack that, just set the self-timer on the camera, the one for taking a picture of yourself, then any vibrations you give it by pressing the shutter release will by over by the time the timer is over. Long shutter times can give you some color issues, but you can probably fix these post processing. Also, if you leave the ISO on auto it might pick a very high ISO giving you high grain, so set the ISO yourself.
posted by caddis at 1:25 AM on December 23, 2006

Response by poster: Man, these are awesome suggestions. I'm going to bed in a sec, but I'll no doubt be marking be marking a bunch of "best answers" tomorrow!
posted by the_bone at 1:56 AM on December 23, 2006

In situations where, for some reason, a tripod can't be used, you can make yourself become a tripod. Hold your breath, lean up against something and take a shot.

These instances are far and few in between but sometimes you either don't have time to set up your camera.
posted by Cog at 2:40 AM on December 23, 2006

I'm in a very similar situation. Yes, being a monopod by leaning up against a stable object is good. I generally don't adjust the ISO with the weak camera I have (seems to cause more issues than it solves) and do most of my work in Photoshop afterwards. Avoid having any light bulbs or source of illumination in the frame for the shot. Try to wait for that bit where your subject aren't moving.

My next camera, well, I'll have to figure out how to buy one for low-light. It's easy to take a great picture when there's a lot of light.
posted by adipocere at 5:29 AM on December 23, 2006

Check out this article:
It describes how to make a camera stabilizer, a flexible line which acts like a tripod. One end of the flexible line is attached to the camera tripod socket and the other end is held in position by your foot. As long as the line is under tension, the camera cannot move vertically. Viola, a one-way mono-pod.
posted by cyrreb at 6:20 AM on December 23, 2006

posted by cyrreb at 6:23 AM on December 23, 2006

In that vein, try a GorillaPod. posted by kindall

OH MY GOSH! kindall, I finally know what I want for Christmas! Thanks for that link!

And good question, the_bone. It's one of the most common problems for digital camera users, since the default ISO of many is equivalent to a slow film speed that you wouldn't even buy if you could find it. And in many small digitals, bumping the speed up to reasonable ISO results in too much noise, which is much more objectionable then the grain in equivalent speed film.

There are some good suggestions here. Find any way you can to steady the camera. If you can carry tripod, that's your best bet. Good luck.

Upload your finished photos so we can see the results.
posted by The Deej at 8:32 AM on December 23, 2006

Yes, minitripod. Also use your camera's timer to take photos so your hand isn't shaking the camera around during the exposure.
posted by Nelson at 8:43 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: Take a lot of practice shots, along with notes, now, so you can see the results on your computer screen before you go out.

Don't rule out pushing the ISO higher. Yeah, you'll get more noise, but it might be the difference between getting the shot you want and yet another smear of lights. Besides, a 2Mpixel camera is probably going to have less noise than the equivalent 6-8 Mpixel point and shoot these days. If the noise is objectionable, try reducing it with Neatimage.

You'll surely need to do post-processing, but the more you end up post-processing a JPEG in Photoshop, the more artifacts you'll likely end up with. I'm not talking about recompression. I'm talking about the fact that JPEGs are only 8/bit per channel per pixel. Tweaking whitebalance or correcting exposure can quickly lead to banding & poster effects. So, try and get the camera to correct white balance itself, and consider using the high-iso mode so it can try to make the most use of the dynamic range afforded by JPEGs.
posted by Good Brain at 9:31 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: Another trick is to use the multiple-shot option. If you hold down the shutter release and take a few photos, the middle ones won't have the blur from pressing the button or releasing it. Plus, you can pick out the least blurry of the rest as the keeper.
posted by smackfu at 10:40 AM on December 23, 2006

Response by poster: So many great answers. I noted the ones that are most relevant to me (the GorillaPod is a brilliant idea, but I won't be able to acquire one before Thursday... but hopefully someone who reads this thread at a future date will find it useful), but everyone should consider themselves marked "best answer."

One thing about my camera, which I forgot to mention: it automatically selects the shutter speed and ISO, so one needs to play with the modes in order to finagle specific results.

I'll go ahead and borrow a tripod from a friend, so that will help. I don't have access to Photoshop at the moment, but I know enough photographers that I'm sure I could get some time with the program to do some post-processing (I have a basic familiarity with Photoshop, and have used it to touch up photos in the past when I was more actively pursuing photography as a hobby).

Again, a million thanks. I'll continue to keep an eye on this thread... and will post a link to the pictures sometime in early January (I wn't get around to fiddling with them in Photoshop until after New Year's).
posted by the_bone at 2:24 PM on December 23, 2006

just got a gorillapod and i have some recommendations:

1. get the gorillapod SLR-zoom, not the cheapy mini. it doesn't come with a head, so you'll need to buy that too.
2. get a miniature but durable head for it. i got a manfrotto 482 micro ball head.

the combination of these two will greatly improve both the durability and functionality of the gorillapod.

also, the_bone, you'd be surprised -- most camera shops, especially that massive one in LA (is it on La Brea? I can't remember) have gorillapods in stock.
posted by SeƱor Pantalones at 3:41 PM on December 23, 2006

If I'm taking a fairly long exposure (with my Coolpix) I place the camera on something stable and use the timer. This way my finger pressing down on the button doesn't move the camera at all.
posted by tomble at 10:12 PM on December 23, 2006

I probably saw this on MAKE, but you can take a six ft. length of chain and attach it to a bolt that screws into the tripod receptacle. You then stand on the chain and pull it taut, and it serves as a crude tripod, plus it's portable and cheap.
posted by craniac at 10:17 PM on December 23, 2006

Zoom out so the apeture is as open as possible.

Also, if you want to do long exposure, it can help to take a long exposure in complete blackness, and use that photo as a map of "stuck" pixels (that become bright-spots in a long exposure photo), subtracting it from the long exposure to reduce noise. Some cameras offer the option to do this in-camera, but if it doesn't, you can take a black photo and manually subtract.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:38 AM on December 24, 2006

With a long exposure, something to stabilize your camera is a necessity. There are several DIY tripod solutions out there. Here's one made out of a water bottle (technically a monopod I suppose). And here's a DIY Gorilapod that I've been meaning to construct myself.
posted by dondiego87 at 9:50 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Update: The project went well! I ended up using very slow shutter speeds (the main visual elements on Hollywood Boulevard that have always captivated me are the darkness, color and motion, and long exposures really captured that). The tripod was essential. I need to do a little bit of post-processing, mostly to straighten out a few shots that are a touch crooked, but I lack Photoshop at the moment. I'm emailing the pictures to a friend who'll do that for me, and the project will go up on flickr soon.
posted by the_bone at 7:59 PM on January 1, 2007

Response by poster: It's up!
posted by the_bone at 3:35 AM on January 19, 2007

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