Anything you can see, you can photograph! Insufficient light makes some camera’s automatic exposure control system put a signal in the viewfinder so you wont press the shutter release — some even disengage the shutter-button so that pressing it does nothing. But the camera isn’t smarter than you are! You can out-think it and get excellent natural light photographs even when the “eye” doesn’t think you can.
Minimum exposure — the least that produces detail in shadows is usually best for your pictures. The shortest useful exposure permits you to close down the diaphragm for maximum depth of field or to speed up the shutter to minimize the chance of unsharpness due to camera shake. Overexposure can destroy highlight details.
In contrasty light or in night scenes, don’t trust a general meter reading from camera position. Whenever possible, make close-up readings of important picture areas and either average them or expose for the most important area. A general reading, when contrast is high, may be influenced too much by either large light or large dark areas and so give a reading that is not correct for the most important picture areas.
An exposure change may be necessary in stage photography when the spot or other lights on the performers change color — even though you may not notice the change in brightness. There is no rule of thumb except to learn the proper exposure for a white stage light by measurement or experience and then open up a stop or so when the light changes color. Bracketing several exposures is recommended.
Underexposure is a lesser fault than overexposure. Loss of highlight detail, which results from overexposure, is more offensive in the final picture than the dark shadow areas and extra saturation that result from underexposure. It’s best, of course, to expose correctly. But, if you’re going to err, try to err on the side of underexposing your image. When in doubt, don’t risk blowing it out.
When achieving good white balance is difficult due to varying colors of artificial light in a scene, try for warmer than normal tones rather than cooler. If there’s to be a color shift, aim for a shift toward the red end of the spectrum rather than blue. Unless there’s a specific mood you’re going for where a cooler toned image is what’s needed, images that are too warm tend to look more appealing than images that are too cool — especially if people are visible in the image.
Don’t forget slow shutter speeds when you need extra depth of field for natural light photography. Tripods, table tops, and other camera supports are too often neglected by natural light photographers who feel they must make all exposures hand-held if they don’t have a tripod with them.
The cheapest success insurance you can buy when it comes to natural light photography is bracketed exposures. Make the first exposure at the setting you think is right; follow up with one at half that exposure and another at twice that exposure. One of these should be about right. If you keep notes, you will soon learn to guess right the first time. But, even well-experienced pros often bracket their exposures when shooting natural light photography in tricky situation — even though they usually correctly estimate the proper exposure the first time. It never hurts to have insurance. And, the best of the best will sometimes still get it wrong.
A tiny key-chain flashlight should always be kept handy. It’s invaluable for helping to set camera controls in low-light areas, and for allowing your camera to auto-focus when it has difficulty doing so because of a lack of sufficient light. If your lens is “hunting” when attempting to auto-focus, shine your flashlight on an object that is at the same distance from the camera as what you wish to photograph and auto-focus off of the lighted area.
For unusual angle shots, table tripods with ball-joint heads can also be braced against walls, door jambs, and even your own chest to steady slow-speed exposures.
Exposure readings in very dim light can be made from the surface of a white card or handkerchief, which usually reflect enough light to give meter-readings. Use five times the indicated exposure when this method is used.
A picture from a TV screen should be exposed for no less than 1/30 second. Since the TV image is “painted” by a moving electron beam, a shorter exposure would give an incomplete image.
Sharp hand-held shots at slow speeds are facilitated by attaching to the camera’s tripod socket a chain long enough to reach from the eye-level of the camera to the ground. By stepping on the bottom end of the chain and pulling up on the camera enough to make the chain taut, you can hold the camera steady without the bother of setting up a tripod.