I knew I was in trouble the moment I walked into the venue – the Royal Canadian Legion in Strathmore, Alberta. The hall where the ceremony was being held had mostly been darkened. The window blinds were pulled closed and the main lights were off. The primary remaining sources of illumination were strings of white Christmas lighting and the bright white 2022 grad banner projected onto a screen behind the graduates. There was a door to the right of the stage and the podium where no one thought to cover the window. It created a hot spot on the right with a completely different lighting temperature (daylight). There was some secondary accent lighting also with a warm temperature.
I had volunteered to shoot the grad ceremony this year as I had done the previous year. Last year was outside in the park because, well, pandemic. Events have moved back inside in 2022, so we’re back to crap lighting.
Shooting with flash isn’t an option for me. I take multiple shots to make sure I have enough to avoid people blinking or transitional (funny looking) facial expressions. The extreme number of flash bursts from my camera would be extremely disruptive. The amount of power required from the flash for a venue that size and the recharging time between shots is also impractical. So, existing light (or lack thereof) it is.
First and foremost, you have to shoot in RAW in any situation like this. RAW files contain a lot of tonal data, usually more than you can see on your phone or computer display. These are large files, but memory is cheap these days so go for it. You can recover blown highlights and shadow detail from a RAW file. Do NOT shoot as JPG when you have a dSLR or equivalent mirrorless camera. The camera discards most of the tonal information when it finalizes the file. You’re not recovering a blown highlight or shadow detail from a JPG.
I wound up going with the widest possible aperture, ISO 2400 (very noisy), and aiming for a shutter speed at least equivalent to or higher than my focal length. A lens at 24mm would be 1/30 or better shutter speed.
The most challenging aspect of the event was how strongly the graduates were backlit. They were basically silhoutted against the 2022 grad themed projected image that someone incorrectly thought was a good idea (it would have been if the graduates had been lit from the front as well).
Yuck. Nasty. Gross. Ecccch. Not referring to the subject of the image here as she was an attractive young lady and also by all accounts one of good character since she picked up a civic award for volunteer work that evening. I’m talking about the lighting circumstances.
You can adjust the gamma to bring the details back out, but the noise is nasty as seen on the left. The recovered image is on the right and also below.
Here were the steps taken for all of the images from this shoot that you can hopefully use…
- Set camera to high ISO and wide aperture. Take test shots before the event to make sure images could be shot hand-held without camera shake at shutter speed used (try for a speed twice that of your focal length or at least equal to it).
- Take test shots of different lighting zones and note exposure bias requirements so you can dial up and down on the fly.
- Set camera to RAW. RAW + JPG is fine if you want to, but your JPGs will likely be unusable.
- I processed the images through Aurora HDR to remap the tonality as much as I could to light the subjects from the front. I don’t get anything from recommending this product, by the way. It’s just a damn good product.
- Images were then run through the severe noise filter on DeNoiseAI from Topaz software.
- Final adjustments were made in Photoshop correcting light curves, adjusting saturation, etc.
- Finals saved as high quality TIF for my own storage and downsized to JPGs for delivery to the client via a cloud storage service.
Are there some obvious problems with the final images? Absolutely. First and foremost, they do lack fidelity to the original scene. That’s not an issue for me as it was hard to see the grads as they were lit. You can actually make out who is who in the captured images as opposed to the live event. Is there some detail smearing? Yes, but it’s better than the severe noise the images had before. Do the images look a touch cartoonish upon enlargement because of detail recovery? Occasionally. The recovered image still looks better than the original so that’s a win for me.
The bottom line is that you can do productive hand-held, candid photography in extreme low-light situations. You will have to push your camera to the very edge of its capabilities and there will be definite trade-offs on image quality. Expect to put a lot of work into post-processing as well. If at the end of the day your images capture the important moments and tell the story of the event, it’s job well done.
I just hope they fix the lighting if they ask me back next year. With my luck they’ll want to do the next ceremony by candlelight.