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 Post subject: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 26th, 2015, 8:29 am 

Joined: July 20th, 2010, 8:43 pm
Posts: 240
Hi everyone,

I am used to taking photos in bright (or at least some) light. I moved to Seattle area and September-April 90% of the time it is complete overcast and often under dense evergreen trees which makes it even worse. I am also somewhat new to adjusting the manual settings, in the past I would just put it on auto and not think twice about it.

I have turned the ISO up, but am reluctant to always have it up. I don't have experience with external flash, but would be willing to invest in something.

Does a tripod make that big of a difference vs. me laying on my belly and using my arms as a tripod?

Tell me about what settings/setup you (would) use in this situation...

I am usually taking picture of small things on the ground: salamanders, fungi, flowers, inverts etc. I currently have a Sony NEX, but I may get a newer Sony soon.

Any ideas appreciated. Thanks!

-Corey


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 26th, 2015, 8:58 am 

Joined: June 7th, 2010, 5:46 am
Posts: 611
Location: Albuquerque, NM
corey.raimond wrote:
Does a tripod make that big of a difference vs. me laying on my belly and using my arms as a tripod?

Tell me about what settings/setup you (would) use in this situation...



A tripod makes all the difference in the world if the subject isn't moving. For an absolutely stationary subject I'd use a tripod, the lowest ISO my camera has, and what ever shutter speed gave me a correct exposure at the aperture I needed for adequate depth of field. (The problem with high ISOs is the noise goes way up and the dynamic range way down, so I only use them when I absolutely have to have a fast shutter speed and the light is low). I commonly use 30 seconds with herps that are not moving. I also would use my self timer or a remote to trigger the shutter and mirror lock-up or exposure delay mode to eliminate mirror slap. Mirror slap isn't much of a problem at 30 seconds, but can ruin sharpness at shutter speeds close to the length of the mirror's vibration, (typically 1/2-1/60 second). If you use auto-focus you'll also need to figure out how to separate focus and releasing the shutter. Either switch the lens to manual focus, use the af lock on the camera, or (the way I do it) dedicate one of the buttons on the back of the camera to af and set the shutter release to only release the shutter.

You'll also need to invest in a good tripod that gets low to the ground. Don't skimp on the tripod. It makes more difference to the sharpness of your photos in low light situations than the quality of your lenses do! A cheap tripod won't cut the mustard.

Now if the subject is moving at all, (including chest moving in and out as it breaths, blowing slightly in the wind, etc.), you'll need flash. Buy one you can use off camera. People that shoot lots of shiny salamanders usually like to diffuse the light. I'm personally not a big fan of the super open diffuse light we so often see in herp photos. I prefer some shadows, but that's just a personal preference. You don't need the super expensive, high end flashes for herps. Those usually have features you'll never use and more power than you need for close-ups. Most manufacturers middle of the line flashes are more than adequate.

Have fun!

edit: just saw you're using a Sony NEX. Is that one mirrorless? If so, obviously the comments on mirror vibration don't apply :)


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 26th, 2015, 12:37 pm 

Joined: July 20th, 2010, 8:43 pm
Posts: 240
Thanks for the advice bgorum. I had heard tripods will make a difference but I didn't realize it was that drastic. I will have to do some research and invest in one. Yes the majority of time the subjects are not moving.

Yeah my camera doesn't have a mirror, but most everything else should still apply.

-Corey


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 26th, 2015, 7:36 pm 

Joined: September 8th, 2011, 5:12 pm
Posts: 341
Location: Oxford, MS
I would say that beyond the camera and lens, a tripod and a flash are the next in line for necessary equipment for a photographer, particularly macro. Even in bright light, a flash can be quite useful for making sure that the subject is evenly lit and removing harsh shadows. Most of the time I use flash, I don't use a tripod because I have a fast shutter speed that will stop any movement by the animal. I would say for 95% of my macro shots, I use a flash. Day or night.

I will echo bgorum in saying don't skimp on the tripod. My tripod set up costs more than many dSLRs. I ended up going through several different tripods before I finally settled on the one I have and I love it. It can put the camera in almost literally any position I need. You don't need to spend as much as I did on a tripod, but there are solid ones in the $100-$200 range that are quite versatile.

But there are occasions where I'll use a tripod and a flash when I want to get creative. For example, this shot:

ImageNorthern Red-Legged Frog by J.P. Lawrence, on Flickr

The frog wasn't really moving, so I could have a long exposure to soften the water and waterfall. To do so, I had to use a tripod. I used a flash remotely triggered in order to get the proper angle of light I wanted. Given that this was in a gorge, the sides of the frog would have been relatively dark, but I wanted to be sure the side of the frog facing the camera was well lit. This flash was also diffused, and personally I like that look since hotspots (particularly on amphibian skin) drive me nuts and distract from the animal. But as bgorum said, that's personal preference.


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 27th, 2015, 6:40 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 10:14 pm
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Location: San Antonio, TX
As the others have pointed out, tripods are a good solution for slow (non-) moving amphibians in cool areas, but they can't solve all problems. When shopping for a tripod, remember that a good ball head is as important (to me) as a good tripod. My ball head costs as much as my tripod legs, although together they cost less than $400 IIRC.

A good solid tripod when used properly can let you get the camera to remain motionless for as long as you need. But it doesn't make the animal remain motionless. Some animals simply won't sit perfectly still for 3, 5, 10, or 30 seconds. And it isn't that they get up and run, it is it subtle movements like breathing, gular flapping for respiration, blinking, the imperceptable swaying of the branch they are sitting on, or bobbing up and down slightly in the water. You don't see it with the naked eye necessarily, but it blurs your photos. I would have to say the herp photos you can get a 30 second or even a 5 second photo of are very limited.

So the solution is to have more shutter speed for which you need more light. Yes flash can be distracting if not used well, but if you learn to use it well you can overcome many of the problems people object to (reflections, harshness, etc). Tricks like rear curtain sync, diffusion and manipulation of the angle of the flash can make a big difference as can just powering down the flash a bit.

But don't overlook the value of higher ISO as well. Yes, it used to be true in film days and early digital days that higher ISO meant loss of image quality. In some cameras it still does. But most modern cameras with a decent sized sensor can take high ISO pictures now that were impossible a decade ago. I regularly use ISO 800 or even higher for herp shots when I need shutter speed. It does have to used judiciously, but it can give you excellent results. The other advantage to using higher ISO with a TTL flash is that you can use less flash power which reduces the negative consequences of the flash.

Not the best shot I have, but here's a shot I found quickly. I shot this shot at ISO 800 of a singing Northern Laughing Treefrog (Litoria rothi). Obviously I couldn't use natural light and long shutter speeds because the frog was moving as it called (and it was 2 hours after dark!).

Image

The fact is I didn't need high ISO for this shot and really didn't mean to use ISO 800 since I was using a diffused flash, but if I hadn't told you it was ISO 800 I doubt you would have suspected it without really zooming way in a pixel peeping. In this case I happened to have taken a low light landscape shot a few hours before and hadn't reset my camera.

So play with higher ISOs in a variety of conditions and find the limitations of you camera. I have friends who never shoot below 400 and often shoot at 1600 and you would never look at their photos and suspect they were using high ISOs.

This Yellow-blotched Forest Skink was shot deep in the shade of a rainforest canopy and needed flash. I didn't have my tripod and even if I had I couldn't have set up a 30 second exposure because it wasn't sitting still enough. It was also a fair distance away from me and I had to shoot with a 400mm lens. Solution? ISO 1600 and some flash. I doubt you would have poo-pooed this photo as grainy, etc. and I doubt you would have looked closely for grain if I hadn't mentioned it was shot at 1600.

Image

Even if you end up with a big of grain visible, a good shot with a bit of grain is many times better than one with a blurry subject or a missed photo opportunity.


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 27th, 2015, 8:11 am 

Joined: July 20th, 2010, 8:43 pm
Posts: 240
Thanks for the thoughtful responses, this really helps!

I had read that having the ISO up is a big no; but I hadn't noticed more blurriness when I turned it to 600/800.


-Corey


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: December 28th, 2015, 9:16 pm 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 10:14 pm
Posts: 3298
Location: San Antonio, TX
corey.raimond wrote:
I had read that having the ISO up is a big no; but I hadn't noticed more blurriness when I turned it to 600/800.


You should try to figure out the limits of your camera. Take it outside in nice bright light and photograph the same contrasty object with no flash at a series of ISO values (200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc). It is good if the object has some black and white areas side by side.
Then look at them on the computer zooming fairly close to a contrasty area (light and dark near each other). Compare the dark areas in particular to see where you begin to see noise (extra colors in the dark areas). You will see that at some high ISO, noise begins to degrade the image.

When used carefully with modern camera sensors you can get away with quite high ISOs.

Here's an example of where I tried it at a zoo while testing my camera. I shot the same (bad) photo of a cantil at ISO 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, and 12800).

Here's the ISO 200 shot -
Image

Here's the ISO 12,800 shot
Image

Frankly, I think both shots would be usable for most situations.

Here is a very noisy image for comparison. Look at all the colored "speckles" in the dark areas and even the light areas.
Even though the image is noisy, it was a once in a lifetime shot for me so I was very happy to get a noisy image instead of nothing.
When I photographed this owl, it was well after dark and I couldn't only see the silhouette of the bird. Otherwise it was completely dark. The ISO was 16000!

Image


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: January 6th, 2016, 9:26 pm 
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Joined: June 10th, 2010, 11:35 pm
Posts: 1918
Location: San Jose', Northern Catcrapistan
Just a thought and that is to carry a neoprene sheet such as those used for a drawer liner. You can lay it on rocks, gravel, etc... to protect the camera from the substrate. I've shot down to 1/5 sec resting the camera on the ground or a rock and using my left hand to control lens angle.

Here's 150mm at 1/8sec and f5.6:
Image


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: February 5th, 2016, 12:17 pm 
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Joined: July 8th, 2010, 10:14 am
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Location: Eastern Washington
One of my problems with dark settings and high ISO is focusing before the shot. This is easier for shots that have a closer subject matter but harder to focus with long exposure on things that are further away.

Any tips?


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: February 5th, 2016, 9:21 pm 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 10:14 pm
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Location: San Antonio, TX
One useful trick that can help your camera focus in the dark is to use one of those novelty laser pointers with the projected "shapes". I found one once that projected a tic-tac-to board shape and it was a perfect shape for a camera to focus on. Anything that projects a series of lines would be perfect. One with an arrow, for example would work well.

And it can be used when you don't want to shine a regular flashlight on the subject in fear of it moving. Of course, don't shine the laser in/near the subject's eyes and turn it off before you shoot.

I used it to focus on these Cozumel Golden Bats in a cave in southern Mexico. I couldn't turn on a light because they would fly. The flash doesn't cause them to fly generally because the light is of such short duration.

Image

Of course, you can always just manually focus in dim light.


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: April 8th, 2016, 7:00 pm 
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Joined: October 12th, 2011, 2:03 pm
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Location: Antelope Valley, CA
chrish wrote:
One useful trick that can help your camera focus in the dark is to use one of those novelty laser pointers with the projected "shapes". I found one once that projected a tic-tac-to board shape and it was a perfect shape for a camera to focus on. Anything that projects a series of lines would be perfect. One with an arrow, for example would work well.

And it can be used when you don't want to shine a regular flashlight on the subject in fear of it moving. Of course, don't shine the laser in/near the subject's eyes and turn it off before you shoot.

I used it to focus on these Cozumel Golden Bats in a cave in southern Mexico. I couldn't turn on a light because they would fly. The flash doesn't cause them to fly generally because the light is of such short duration.

Image

Of course, you can always just manually focus in dim light.


I always wondered if a laser pointer would help my camera focus in low light. It certainly sounds easier than holding a camera, a flashlight to focus with, and an off camera flash.


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 Post subject: Re: Ideas for low light macro
PostPosted: April 12th, 2016, 2:51 pm 
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kit fox wrote:
I always wondered if a laser pointer would help my camera focus in low light. It certainly sounds easier than holding a camera, a flashlight to focus with, and an off camera flash.


It will, but it needs to project horizontal or vertical lines for the camera to be able to pickl up the pattern and focus.
Of course, you do have to be careful not to shine it in an animal's eyes!


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