So I have another reading lesson in photography, and it follows on from what I wrote a while back about shooting telephoto. When I was in Spain in May I was asked by my parents to shoot one of their “Cantante” concerts. Cantante, for the uninformed, is a singing group that goes around the Albox area to different locations and sing, mainly in aid of charity. Cantante were at a bar (the name escapes me) near Los Carasoles off the A-334, and my plan was to be as unintrusive as possible, so I would be shooting telephoto from across the room.
I had some preconceptions with regards to what I was going to find. I was expecting the lighting to be average, so I had a pair of flashes I could trigger wirelessly, but I didn’t really want to use them as I though they would be distracting.
Once I was sat with a drink, I realised the lighting was going to be the main problem. The whole place was darker than it should have been, but the singers were backlit from a large window. Once I applied the formula from the other blog post, to shoot at 200mm and keeping my shutter speed above 1/320s, at my biggest aperture (f/5.6) my ISO needed to be 12,800.
This is not an ISO I particularly like to use. My preference when shooting with my Sony a77 is to keep the ISO below 800. I don’t mind the noise too much even at ISO 3200, but beyond that it starts getting a bit ugly.
In any case, I didn’t have much choice, so I moved around the tables a little to vary my angle, aiming to get some shots of singers, the piano player, and the conductor. The images were coming out noisy but otherwise properly exposed and sharp.
I was having some difficulty using the autofocus, so on occasion I would switch to manual focus. When I use manual focus, I like to keep my focal length the same, as it’s much easier to work with one variable at a time. This means essentially that your zoom lens becomes a prime lens, and this means you can try and work at the sharper focal lengths. For my setup, I was working mainly at 135 and 200mm.
When the singers started, the ambient light wasn’t great, and a large window was back lighting them. This was workable for the first half. After an intermission, the ambient light was almost entirely gone, and I was relying on the yellow, ugly lights indoors, which were unimpressive. This, along with the fact that people were taking pictures of the singers with their mobile phones with flash, made me reconsider my earlier conclusion of no flash.
I had brought two flashes, along with wireless triggers. During the intermission, I set one up in wireless mode on a table, pointing at the ceiling. If I haven’t mentioned it, the ceilings were purposefully designed to annoy a flash photographer. When you try to bounce flash, you want a nice, flat, white ceiling. This was not flat, and it meant I lost half my flash coverage to an atrium. I didn’t have space to set up a light stand, and I didn’t think I had them with me.
To make up for that, I put a second flash on another table, to the left of the singers, and again pointed it at the ceiling. This one I put into slave mode, which meant that it would fire when it saw another flash. This worked well, adding light to the scene and allowing for light across the board.
When I got my images back into Lightroom I wasn’t entirely unhappy with what I saw. The images shot at high ISO were very noticeably noisy and the colour was pretty awful. However, in the Develop module of Lightroom I managed to get the noise down to acceptable levels. See below (ISO 12800, f/5.6 @ 110mm, 1/200s:
The noise is noticeable especially in the shadows in the books and dress. You can also see the issue I was having with the backlit window blowing out and being generally unattractive and distracting.
The two images below were shot with flash:
ISO-800, f/16 @ 135mm, 1/200s.
ISO-800, f/8 @ 200mm, 1/200s.
So my lessons for shooting at ISO-12800 are as follows:
1. It’s better to get sharp, well exposed pictures with noise than badly exposed, blurry pictures at lower ISOs.
2. Shooting at high ISO is a last resort, but may be necessary if you have no control over the lighting.
3. Off camera flash can absolutely save your bacon, and my lighting set up cost less than £100 total. Learning how to use it effectively is the biggest obstacle to better pictures.
4. Noise can be managed (but not removed) in post processing.
5. Switching to black and white will save you time trying to fix colour noise.
6. If you’re shooting in the dark with a zoom, pick a focal length and use it as a prime to stop yourself getting bogged down in adjustments.
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