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Thread: Tips for composing in low light?

  1. #11

    Join Date
    Jun 2007
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    Reykjavík, Iceland
    Posts
    86

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    I work in literal darkness quite a lot, as there is very little light to be found in the winter. I often use artificial lighting or flash as well. My most useful tool in this context is a Lupine headlamp. They are designed for biking and are extremely bright. I find that if I am under the darkcloth and either shining the light as I hold it, or placing it on a light stand, I am able to determine my compositions. Leaving a flashlight or something similarly bright at the point you want to focus on is an easy way to lock focus, or if you cannot access it, just shine the light on that spot and focus. 5.6 or faster lenses are helpful for this, but not required. For infinity or long focus, I tend to focus on stars, the moon, streetlights or townlights. Unless you are really out in the wilderness on a cloudy night, there is usually something you can focus on.

  2. #12
    Tin Can's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2011
    Posts
    17,808

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    37 years ago I found a fixture at work that was a failed experiment by someone...my boss...

    I was busy making a large Dragon to bolt on top of a $100 69 Cutlass, not at work

    The fixture was six 7" car headlights all wired in a metal box with switches and a car battery, bulky and heavy

    With Dragon aka Nogard secure on roof, car painted in 20 minutes all black, we donned white Lab Coats and headed for the bar sections of Chicago

    We drove up, parked on sidewalk in front of bar door, leaped out and set the lights up to shine on Nogard, with no time for pictures...nobody had cameras...either

    We always got a free drink, then we moved to another bar...bar stars for a moment

    On Rush Street a horse mounted Police officer approached. Nogard was taller and bigger. The horse wheeled and galloped the other way. We never saw them again. Not Hell-O-Ween

    I will post Nogard and I in Tiny Format Portrait shortly

    I just got a few Mazda 50 flash bulbs for this next Hell-O-Ween

  3. #13

    Join Date
    Sep 1998
    Location
    Oregon now (formerly Austria)
    Posts
    2,927

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    An alternative approach:

    Forget all that ground-glass viewing. You don't need it. (Don't stop reading yet, I'm serious.)

    I use a viewing frame to compose my image and find my camera position. How far the frame is from my eye gives me an idea of which focal-length lens I'll need. I also decide on focus points for both movements, if desired, and general focus. I use a focus-spread method for focusing and depth of field, so I only need to identify the nearest and farthest point that I want to keep sharp.

    All of this is done before the camera is set up.

    Exact camera position is important, so I always set up the tripod under my chin, close one eye and find the precise spot.

    I decide on the borders of my image along with choosing the camera position. Usually, I'll end up cropping a bit when printing to get the exact borders and aspect ratio I want (I don't work "full-frame").

    I then set up the camera, mount the lens I want and get to work. I use 4-diopter reading glasses for this first step. The ground glass gets checked quickly to make sure I have the camera pointed correctly and that everything I want in the image is on the ground glass, i.e., I check the borders to make sure specific objects are positioned where I want them. Rarely, I'll have to make a lens change, but I've got pretty good at choosing the right focal length by using the viewing filter. At this point I'll get out the loupe and check object convergences to make sure they are the way I want, if there are any critical ones (e.g., crack on a rock lining up with tree trunk, etc.) and adjust the camera position slightly if needed.

    When I'm satisfied with the borders and focal length, I'll switch to my loupe and use it to apply the movements I've pre-determined (if any). This can take a while with tricky shots, but note that I'm using the loupe all the time, not viewing the entire ground glass. To facilitate being able to see easily into the edges and corners of the image, I use a free-floating loupe (usually a 6x-8x magnifier like this: https://www.amazon.com/Folding-Pocke.../dp/B004KNS2BW ). That way, I can easily position it the direct light path. Finding focus is a simple matter of moving back and forth a bit till the frosted surface of the ground glass is in focus.

    After movements are set, I use the loupe to focus on the near and far focus points, note the focus spread and stop down to the right f-stop for the necessary. depth of field.

    When I don't need movements, the whole process takes very little time viewing the ground glass. The composition work and framing (focal length) gets done with the viewing filter (as well as deciding whether the scene is worth setting up for at all). Then it's just check borders quickly to make sure everything is in there somewhere and then a quick focus on two points. Sometimes I never really view the entire scene on the ground glass at all.

    In very low light, having a darkcloth that closes at the bottom (mine has Velcro) helps to cut extraneous light. Also, giving your eyes time to adjust to the dimness helps a lot too, as does using a free-floating and easily-positioned magnifier.

    Hope this helps,

    Doremus

  4. #14

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    Quote Originally Posted by Doremus Scudder View Post
    I use a viewing frame to compose my image
    That sounds like a great system--although with our 100% humidity here in the American South, it's a bit like playing whack-a-mole since everything fogs up the instant you lean into the GG. FWIW, I'm using a 4x5 negative carrier as my viewing frame, and carry around a few scrap negatives with windows cut for different aspect ratios--hope to become proficient with it this season.

  5. #15

    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Location
    New York
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    1,962

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    Quote Originally Posted by CreationBear View Post
    I'm using a 4x5 negative carrier as my viewing frame, and carry around a few scrap negatives with windows cut for different aspect ratios--hope to become proficient with it this season.
    For those who may be interested, the current thread below talks about using a smartphone or tablet as a viewing frame. There are apps available for both iOS and Android. One advantage is that one can use the app not only to view a scene with the frame lines of your choice, but to take a corresponding photograph with your phone's camera. The first post talks about one of these apps - Artist's Viewfinder - but posts in the last couple of days mention others:

    What Scouting/Planning Apps Are You Using in 2021?

  6. #16

    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Location
    New York
    Posts
    1,962

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    In terms of dealing with the low light itself, does this differ from Vaughn's suggestion in post #5? Dealing with a dim ground glass appears to be addressed in these sentences from your post: "To facilitate being able to see easily into the edges and corners of the image, I use a free-floating loupe... That way, I can easily position it the direct light path. Finding focus is a simple matter of moving back and forth a bit till the frosted surface of the ground glass is in focus."

    The rest of the post appears to explain your general approach to using a view camera.

    Quote Originally Posted by Doremus Scudder View Post
    An alternative approach:

    Forget all that ground-glass viewing. You don't need it. (Don't stop reading yet, I'm serious.)

    I use a viewing frame to compose my image and find my camera position. How far the frame is from my eye gives me an idea of which focal-length lens I'll need. I also decide on focus points for both movements, if desired, and general focus. I use a focus-spread method for focusing and depth of field, so I only need to identify the nearest and farthest point that I want to keep sharp.

    All of this is done before the camera is set up.

    Exact camera position is important, so I always set up the tripod under my chin, close one eye and find the precise spot.

    I decide on the borders of my image along with choosing the camera position. Usually, I'll end up cropping a bit when printing to get the exact borders and aspect ratio I want (I don't work "full-frame").

    I then set up the camera, mount the lens I want and get to work. I use 4-diopter reading glasses for this first step. The ground glass gets checked quickly to make sure I have the camera pointed correctly and that everything I want in the image is on the ground glass, i.e., I check the borders to make sure specific objects are positioned where I want them. Rarely, I'll have to make a lens change, but I've got pretty good at choosing the right focal length by using the viewing filter. At this point I'll get out the loupe and check object convergences to make sure they are the way I want, if there are any critical ones (e.g., crack on a rock lining up with tree trunk, etc.) and adjust the camera position slightly if needed.

    When I'm satisfied with the borders and focal length, I'll switch to my loupe and use it to apply the movements I've pre-determined (if any). This can take a while with tricky shots, but note that I'm using the loupe all the time, not viewing the entire ground glass. To facilitate being able to see easily into the edges and corners of the image, I use a free-floating loupe (usually a 6x-8x magnifier like this: https://www.amazon.com/Folding-Pocke.../dp/B004KNS2BW ). That way, I can easily position it the direct light path. Finding focus is a simple matter of moving back and forth a bit till the frosted surface of the ground glass is in focus.

    After movements are set, I use the loupe to focus on the near and far focus points, note the focus spread and stop down to the right f-stop for the necessary. depth of field.

    When I don't need movements, the whole process takes very little time viewing the ground glass. The composition work and framing (focal length) gets done with the viewing filter (as well as deciding whether the scene is worth setting up for at all). Then it's just check borders quickly to make sure everything is in there somewhere and then a quick focus on two points. Sometimes I never really view the entire scene on the ground glass at all.

    In very low light, having a darkcloth that closes at the bottom (mine has Velcro) helps to cut extraneous light. Also, giving your eyes time to adjust to the dimness helps a lot too, as does using a free-floating and easily-positioned magnifier.

    Hope this helps,

    Doremus

  7. #17
    Drew Wiley
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    Location
    SF Bay area, CA
    Posts
    16,003

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    I'm ordinarily an opportunistic shooter, but not always. There is a particular lava tube cave on the island of Kauai which I photographed 30 years in color, but on our next trip there 25 years later, I wanted to shoot it even deeper within using b&w film instead. Very low light, and I was using a view camera lens with a maximum aperture of f/9. No problem. I also brought along a film Nikon with a fast lens of similar angle of view. With that I identified certain key details which would represent the respective corners of the composition. Then I just aimed the view camera that general direction and used a red laser pointer aimed at those key positions in order to more carefully compose and focus the shot, and finally with respect to other fine details to manage the significant tilt, swing, and depth of field issues involved. As I recall, I had along 4X5 Acros, which is especially cooperative when it comes to long exposure reciprocity performance. The negatives came out perfect.

  8. #18

    Join Date
    May 2018
    Location
    Somewhere between SoCal & Norway
    Posts
    295

    Re: Tips for composing in low light?

    Thanks to all of you for some very useful suggestions and tips.

    Yes, I've been using a viewing frame and have it in my camera bag, made of taped cardboard with a piece of string attached, and knots at 90, 150, 210 and 300mm from the frame to determine focal length. Easy and quick to use on site before setting anything up. I do have an app on my phone that shows field of view for different lenses (Photopills), but I don't find it translates to camera as well as my old piece of cardboard. I can definitely investigate some of the other apps.

    It does appear that there are some areas on the GG (or angles rather) that are clearer/easier to see than others, now I know it's due to the angle of light coming in from the lens. I also agree that it's often easier to look at the GG from a greater distance, especially when composing. The better dark cloth definitely helps and gives me more room. I had been trying to find a few reference points in the cardboard viewfinder and match them up on the GG, but sometimes it's so dim out by the edges it's really hard to tell. I can try with objects closer to the middle and ballpark the distance to the edges of the frame.

    Coming from MF, I think I was doing most of my composing in the finder, wandering around an interesting subject with camera in hand. Not quite as easy with 4x5, ha ha ha, so I'm working more to use the viewing frame instead and really dial in as far as I'm able before setting up the camera and tripod.

    While on this past trip I did spend time scouting, usually mid-day, then went back to get the shot in the late afternoon, early morning or similar when the light was better. That definitely helps. I'm thinking that it may be better in many cases to take the medium format gear the first time I go somewhere to make it easier to get some shots and explore the place, then go back next time with the large format setup.

    Some good suggestions with using small flashlights, and I will definitely look into a laser pointer as well.

    All in all I think it's also down to more practice, keep finding better ways of solving problems like this.

    Thanks again for all the great suggestions and ideas, I appreciate it!

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