Photographing events and performances at night: low light lenses and fast apertures

I spend quite a lot of time hanging out around “The Piazza” in Kelapa Gading. That’s where my gym is, Starbucks (yeah don’t say it), absurd numbers of restaurants (mourning the loss of my favorite Indian), and two large stages that regularly have Indonesian artists, singers, celebrities, and all sorts of other events on a near daily basis. Since Jakarta’s traffic has become so congested, it’s often easier to motivate myself to hang around here with Novita than it is to sit in the car for an hour or more to head downtown.

Last Saturday night, there was an event, “Let’s Dance” with coverage by Global TV. One of the artists that seemed to draw a lot of attention was this guy – I believe his name is Afgan? I’m definitely not up with the Indonesian celebs – reminds me of the time Novita and I ran into Julia Perez at the zoo and I thought it was just one of her friends from university by the way they were comfortably conversing.

These type of events prove to be good practice for learning to take photos of staged events, night shooting, and action in low-light.

Indonesian celebrity

I ran home, grabbed Novita’s 40d, and a couple of lenses and headed back to try to capture some of this event. Usually, it’d be ideal to use a tripod, but with hundreds of people pushing and shoving to get to the front, it was less than feasible. And generally, it’d be best to use a lens that allows for maximum light (a ‘fast lens’) with an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. As you may have read, I bought the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM while in the States this summer. A perfect lens for night photography, except that I wanted to zoom in much closer for this event. My other option was my Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, but that still wasn’t quite close enough. I brought out the big boy, a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM with a 1.4x teleconvertor (which then limits the f-stop to f/5.6). By using the 40D, this effectively gave me 448mm of zooming goodness.

With the 40D, I lose a slight amount of the noise compensation compared to my 5D (which handles high ISO beautifully), but it’s still quite impressive even at ISO 1200 or so. Typically, you should match your lens’ focal length to the shutter speed (meaning if you use a 50mm lens, you’d use at least 1/60 sec to avoid blurring). This would mean I’d need 1/500 sec for 448mm – which was simply not an option with the 70-200. So, I made due with holding my breath, keeping things as steady as possible, and shooting hand-held at 1/80 sec for these shots. Obviously if I were doing this as a paid gig, or I had to get these shots perfectly sharp, I would never have done the same type of set-up handheld or with a shutter speed so slow. But keep in mind that for the vast majority of people taking photos, a large tripod, and huge fast glass isn’t always an option.

You may hear companies pushing IS technology (Image Stability) either within the camera or in the lenses. This is an awesome technology that allows up to 4-stop difference in comparison to non-IS lenses. My Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM is just such a lens. It’s wonderful for stationary subjects, places that do not permit flash photography, and just great overall walkaround lenses. However, you need to realize that IS does not help for subjects that are moving. Meaning, if you had a scene that required 1/500 sec with a typical lens, you could theoretically bring that shutter down to 1/60 or less with an IS equipped lens. But what if the subject is moving quickly? Then IS will not be of a benefit – only a faster aperture would be. That’s when an aperture of f/2 – f/1.4 really shines. The difference is tremendous when compared to more modest lenses. In my own case, I was using f/5.6 when I could have had dramatically more light if I had switched to the 35mm f/1.4.

The following article from Wikipedia demonstrates aperture quite effectively. (check out the graphic from f/5.6 to f/1.4!)

Lesson learned: If you can afford faster lenses with larger apertures, it can be the factor which makes or breaks the ability to capture subjects in low light; especially if that subject is moving.

I hope this type of article proves helpful for those of you just starting out in photography. If you have further questions or would like to add something to this discussion, you are welcome to comment. I will be doing more low-light and night photography this year, and will continue to assist those with equipment questions or advice for setting up a shot.

A year ago I wrote another post about photographing in low-light conditions. It’s linked here.