If you’re not able to hold the necessary highlight and shadow detail, consider a multiple-exposure HDR capture.
For landscape photographers such as Landeros, the Golden Hours during sunrise and sunset offer desirable lighting. At that time, however, because light is constantly changing, you can’t use long shutter speeds with confidence that the exposure you determine when the shutter opens will still be accurate when it closes. “I often make exposures of between 10 and 15 minutes,” says Landeros.
“To see how much the light changes during exposure, I take meter readings using either an external lightmeter or the meter in a backup camera. For sunsets, I usually end up adding about 25 percent to my starting exposure.”
He has another technique for making (seemingly) low-light photography easy: He shoots in broad daylight. The technique is commonly used by cinematographers and is called “day for night.” In Landeros' Mendocino County seascape above, he shot late in the afternoon and used three neutral density filters so that the light striking his sensor was as dim as moonlight. This gave him the look of night, with all the conveniences of working in relative daylight.
Landeros also has an interesting technique for stabilizing his camera during long exposures. “When I’m shooting a beach scene like this, I use a quality tripod and sand. Once I’ve found my composition, I shove my tripod legs as far into the sand as possible,” he says.
Indeed, one of the primary challenges in low-light photography is holding the camera still for the long exposures. For his building photographs(see our gallery for an example), Davidson used an unusual handheld support: a Kenyon Admiral KS-8 gyro stabilizer ($4,000, direct). Used by airborne photographers—aviator Davidson shot the building from a TwinStar helicopter—and cinematographers shooting from moving vehicles, the gyro stabilizer is about the size of a Classic Nerf football (though much heavier) and it attaches to a camera’s tripod socket, where its spinning gyroscope isolates the handheld camera from external movement. When tripods won’t work, either because they’re not permitted or you need the freedom of handheld operation, Davidson suggests renting a stabilizer from places like Kenyon-Labs (ken-lab.com), which offers them for about $200 to $300 a week.
When not shooting in the clouds, Davidson opts for a “heavy-duty Gitzo tripod for its stability and build. I wrap a 10-pound Matthews Boa Bag sand bag ($37, street) around its legs. During long exposures, I also avoid touching or holding the tripod, and I always use a remote cable release and mirror lock-up," he concludes.
If you find yourself in low light without a tripod? Turn yourself into one. “For the space shuttle image, I took extra care to steady my camera by pressing my back against a wall, and sitting on the ground to create a low center of gravity,” says Shane. Seated, you’re less likely to sway than standing.
Is your camera inherently noisy at high ISOs? Avoid subjects and locations that won’t allow tripod use for lower, noise-free ISOs. Fast glass is also essential. As Davidson puts it: “If you’re going to attempt shooting in darkness, it will cost you. Cheap or slow lenses are a no-go. Better to rent something fast than waste your time in the dark with substandard glass.”
Getting the Shot
Tools and Tech: Recent aids for better results in low light.
• EASIER HDR COMPOSITING—For high-contrast nighttime cityscapes with bright highlights and dim shadows, HDR capture and compositing software can help. Try plug-ins like Photomatix or Nik HDR Efex Pro.
• BETTER NOISE REDUCTION—For taming noise in high-ISO images, try Nik Dfine 2.0, PictureCode's Noise Ninja, and Imagenonic's Noiseware.
• SONY'S HANDHELD TWILIGHT MODE—Included in more recent Sony cameras, this tool was specifically designed for low light, combining noise reduction and HDR.
Best Cameras in the Dark: In Pop Photo tests, these cameras produced the least noise at high ISOs.
• BEST: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
• ALMOST THERE: Canon G1X and EOS Rebel 4Ti, Nikon D4, Sony NEX-7
• RUNNERS UP: Canon 60D, EOS Rebel 3Ti; Nikon D800, V1; Olympus OM-D, Olympus Pen E-PL3 and E-P3; Pentax K-r; and Sony Alpha NEX-C
Fastest Glass:Highly specialized lenses for low-light shooting.
• Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L ($1,619 street). Tested here in 2007, it was proclaimed the fastest normal AF lens on the planet.
• Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II ($2,199, street). The world’s fastest lens in the moderate tele range.
• Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ($10,995, street). This manual-focus-only lens ran the Pop Photo gauntlet in 2009 and every aperture (at our benchmark magnification) produced A+ SQF numbers. That’s rare.
Best Accessories: Besides tripods and stabilized lenses, try...
• Remote camera triggers help you avoid having to press a shutter release and jar the camera. Examples: PocketWizard Plus III, MicroSync II, simple cable release.
• Neutral-density filters for shooting low-ISO “day for night” images. Examples: Schneider True-Match Vari-ND filter, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo Polarizer and ND filter.
• Gimbal-style camera supports that give extra stability with the freedom of handholding. Examples: Glidecam HD2000, Steadicam Merlin 2, VariZoom FlowPod.