Shooting in low light with any camera takes more care and attention to your camera settings, lens selection and shooting style than shooting in broad daylight. That’s why I was quite pleased that one of the greatest improvements in the image quality of the Olympus PEN E-P3 is in its low light performance. Since low light photography can be tricky, I’ve put together a short list of tips to help you capture great low light photos with your PEN E-P3 or any camera. To illustrate the article, I used the E-P3 in a couple of low light situations: a home pilates studio illuminated by recessed ceiling light and a pool hall using only the available light.
Low is a relative term, so for our purposes we’ll say low light applies to any scene that isn’t illuminated by bright sunlight. This can encompass anything from a San Francisco foggy day to a romantic dinner lit by candlelight.
Why low light is different
A typical family room contains 1/1,000th the amount of light of a bright sunny day, so your camera must work harder to gather enough light to create a well exposed, sharp photo. Outdoors, at twilight, there’s 1/10,000th the light of a bright sunny day. This presents a unique challenge when working with such little raw (light) material.
Avoiding the Shakes
In low light situations the key to success is managing your shutter speed to prevent camera shake, a leading cause of blurry photos. Your camera needs to hold the shutter open for longer periods of time to gather the necessary light for a correctly exposed photo. It is important to note that while the shutter is open, any movement by the camera or will result in a blurry picture. This is true for any camera you work with in low light. To eliminate camera shake, you’ll need to make the camera itself as stable as possible while the shutter is open. I’ll cover that in a few moments.
Get the right speed
As a general rule of thumb, you need your shutter speed to be as fast as your lens is long. For example, using a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second will give you reliably well-focused images with lenses 30mm or wider. For a long zoom lens, say a 400mm lens, you need a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second or faster, which is very difficult to achieve in a low-light situation.
How long the shutter is open depends on the lens used and the aperture and ISO selected on camera.
Stabilize the camera
One solution to camera shake is to use a tripod. While effective, this can be unwieldy and unpractical for many situations. In these cases, you’ll need to a) make sure your camera settings will give you the fastest shutter speed that is practical for your situation and b) hold the camera as steady as possible. This means holding your camera close to your face with your elbows pressed against your body. With PEN cameras, I recommend using the electronic viewfinder for low-light situations. Not only does it make it easier to confirm focus, but it also helps bring your body in the proper position to minimize camera shake. Good body position, combined with the built-in image stabilization found in all PEN cameras and the newer Olympus E-system camera bodies, helps me bend the “shutter as fast as my lens is long rule” and get great results while hand-holding an E-P3 wide-angle lens as slow as 1/8th second.
Setting Things Right
In addition to supporting your camera to minimize camera shake, you’ll need to select the proper lenses and choose optimal camera settings to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough for hand-holding your camera in low light.
To improve your low light photography, I strongly recommend investing in lenses with a maximum aperture of 2.8 or lower. Often called “fast” lenses, these lenses use their wide maximum aperture to gather more light than their counterparts. By gathering more light through the lens, you’re able to choose a faster shutter speed.
When shooting in low light, my new favorite lens is the 12mm F2.0 micro 4:3 lens. Among the standard 4:3 lenses, I still love the 50mm F2.0 and 35-100mm F2.0 for combining the power of a moderate zoom with a wide maximum aperture for low light prowess.
Just remember, when shooting with longer lenses in low light, you’ll need to make sure your shutter speed, and perhaps ISO is boosted accordingly to adhere to the “shutter speed as fast as your lens is long” rule.
If you’re unable to gather enough light through the lens, you’ll need to boost the ISO to provide a fast enough shutter speed. Often, in a low light situation, you’ll need to do both. Just remember, with any camera, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise will be present in the photo. With the E-P3, I don’t find noise to be an issue until I’m shooting above ISO 2000. Using the right lenses, it’s very rare that I ever need to use a higher ISO. Of all the images in my image catalog, only 1.5% are shot above ISO 2000. Given the quality from the PEN at ISO 2000 from the E-P3, I’m very pleased to not have to worry about noise ever being a detractor from my photos.
As a general rule of thumb, use the lowest ISO you can get away with for the situation at hand. It’s always better to boost the ISO than to miss a photo due to camera shake.
Shooting in low light can be very rewarding provided you have a grasp of how the camera will perform and an understanding of how slow you can push the shutter speed before camera shake becomes an issue. As a final tip, when you’re bending the rule of your shutter speed being as fast as your lens is long, take several photos in quick succession. This quick burst of photos is almost certain to contain a couple of sharp images and allows you to push your camera even farther into the waning light and still come back with a collection of great images.
Note: All images taken with the Olympus E-P3. I made minor adjustments to tone, color and contrast from the in-camera JPEGs. No noise reduction was performed on these images. If you’d like to review the original files, you can download them here.