Hi Zack - great site! My question relates to low light photography. I can't seem to get the hang of it (things like wedding first dances etc). I don't like using the flash to avoid the deer in headlights look so I try and use as low an aperture as I can get (the lowest I can get is on my 50mm) and a high ISO. The pictures are never sharp. Could you give me some tips on what I should do or what settings I should ideally be using for it? Thanks :)
Low light, a lot of times, equals bad light. Just because a camera has the capability to shoot in low light that doesn’t mean the resulting photo is going to be beautiful. Think full sun at high noon. Easy to shoot in because there is so much light but is it good light? Not really.
When you are in low light and you are having issues with sharpness there are five things at play here. Work on eliminating as many of these issues as you can.
Let’s look at a basic set up at the same exposure value and how all five of these issues can cause problems with getting sharp photos. I’m going use a hypothetical situation of shooting in low light at ISO 3200 with a 50mm 1.8 lens shooting 1.8 @ 60th of a second.
1) Slow shutter speeds. The rule of thumb when hand holding a camera and wanting to get sharp pictures is you don’t want to handhold the camera at shutter speeds less than 1/focal length. Roughly this would translate into 1/50th would be your slowest “safe” speed for the 50mm lens in this situation. 1/60th is pretty much the bottom edge of shutter speed here. You’ve got to be rock solid in holding that camera.
The longer you go in telephotos the higher the shutter speed you will want. A 200mm lens would mean you’d want to be near 250th of a second at the low end. Not only do telephotos magnify the image, they magnify the movement of the image. This is where IS and VR lenses can come in handy even at “fast” shutter speeds like 1/60th of a second.
2) Subject movement. At 1/60th a moving subject will blur thus killing sharpness. You can get a sharp shot at 1/60th in this case if you are standing dead still and your subject is standing dead still. As soon as you introduce a bit of movement on your end and a bit of movement from them then your photos will not be sharp unless the love of God is with you at that very moment and both you and your subject are moving in the same direction at the same speed. God loves you all the time but it’s sometimes hard to see at 60th of a second intervals when your images are soft. :)
3) Shooting wide open. Lenses are never that sharp at their wide open aperture. Photo nerds and pixel peepers will point you to resolution charts that will show the sharpest point of a lens is somewhere in the middle of its aperture range. But that means shooting the first dance at f8 or so. That’s sort of silly. We’re talking maximum sharpness in a scientific test. Not in real life situations. The most wide open aperture isn’t going to be as sharp until you close down just a bit from there. Typically you buy a 1.8 lens because it will start getting sharp at f2 to f2.8. Need to be sharp at 1.8? You buy a 1.2 lens. At that point though you’re selling your first born.
Another thing that kills sharpness when wide open is focusing on subjects further from your lens. If you shoot 1.8 from three feet away it’s going to be pretty sharp. Shoot 1.8 on something or someone 12 or more feet away and it won’t be that sharp. I had a 24-70 2.8 zoom that was sharp at 2.8 as long as the subject was within 10 feet of my lens. Any further away than that and I’d have to stop down to f4 to get a decently sharp image.
4) High ISO and noise. While most cameras today can shoot a pretty decent image at ISO 3200 and up, and while the noise is palatable, it’s still noise and can kill the fine details in an image. Those fine details make up sharpness. Once you start to “blur” over those fine details with noise then the sharpness starts to go.
5) Quality of Light. There is sharpness and then “perceived” sharpness. This often comes down to the quality of light falling on your subject. Typically low light is flat and muddy. There is a lack of good contrast from highlights to shadows. Everything in your frame is covered in this flat muddy light and the details of the image are then… well… flat and muddy. It might be technically “sharp” but it just looks flat and muddy.
Take the same scene but add a light to add some contrast and the resulting image will have more contrast and you’ll perceive it to be “sharper” than the image with the flat muddy light because there’s a “snap” to the light. There’s better contrast. Edges are more accurately defined. Details are lit better. The image is “sharper” because the light is “sharper”.
So. Let’s go through this scenario again of using a 50mm lens at 1.8 @ 60th of a second at ISO 3200 in low, flat, muddy light. How do we get sharper images in this hypothetical situation?
Faster shutter speed. ISO 6400 will now give us 1.8 @ 125th of a second. Better for hand holding but now with more noise thus still killing fine details. And we’re still in crap light.
Stop down the aperture. Let’s stop down to 2.5 for decent sharpness from this lens. That’s 1 stop less light. Slow the shutter to 30th of a second to get the same exposure. Oh wait. We’re going slower with shutter so more motion blur. Ok. Increase ISO one stop to 6400. Oh wait. Adding more noise. Still in crap light. Still at 60th of a second.
Decrease ISO. As you lower ISO (to get less detail killing noise) you need to open your aperture even more or slow your shutter speed down. Well, if you are shooting with a 50mm 1.8 you can’t open any more. Besides, the more open the aperture becomes the less sharp that lens can be. Slowing your shutter speed down and there’s motion blur. Still in crap light and now you’re even less sensitive to the crap light. See where I’m going with this?
Ultimately you’re kind of hosed and you’re making compromises. At some point ultimate sharpness is thrown out the window because you are at the limits of all of your gear. You can buy better lenses that will be sharper at 1.8. You can buy a better performing camera body that will give less noise at higher ISOs. Let’s say you do this. Better lens. Better camera. Yay! Sharper, to a point, images. But what hasn’t changed at all in this situation?
YOU ARE STILL IN CRAPPY, MUDDY, FLAT LIGHT!!!
So what if you could change the quality of light in this situation. What if that better quality of light happened at 1,000th of a second? That would stop motion easily right? What if you could get a nice contrast between highlights and shadows? What if you could shoot the same scene but at ISO 800 at 2.8 and then drag the shutter a bit to pull in some room light?
All of this is possible…. with flash. The “deer in headlights” look that you hate is because the flash is in the wrong place. You don’t want the flash on your camera. You need it off your camera. Once you can introduce better light into this bad low light situation then you can lower your ISO, stop down your aperture a bit, and your flash is operating and freezing action around 1000th of a second so action is getting frozen onto your sensor.
Real sharpness and perceived sharpness have all now increased as well as having a better quality of light hitting your subjects. And let me tell you, getting into off camera lighting can be done for a lot less money than 1.2 lenses and top of the line high ISO performing camera bodies.
Okay, I'm asking this on here because I'm sure others have thought about this. I've been thinking, for a while, about medium format digital and with all the options out there, I'm curious what ultimately made the choice for you to go with a PhaseOne system over Hasselblad or new Mamiya systems (or, for that matter, one for the RZ, which for some reason I remember you owning), the Lecia S (HAHAHAHA), and whatever else is out there. What were the deciding factors? Sync? Sensor? Price point? Etc.
I can tell you that choosing a medium format system was one of the most frustrating gear decisions I’ve ever gone through and I find myself, at times, second guessing my decision. I can’t state enough how helpful the folks at Capture Integration were in helping me through the process.
You have Hasselblad, Leaf (Mamyia), and Phase One as the main players. Yes, there is Leica but as you said… Hahahahaha! The S is a good camera but, yeah, no. I’m not getting into that route. You’re stuck with that body for life and I don’t care for the S body at all.
Pentax has one out now that I was really interested in until I saw that it had such a slow sync speed. That killed it for me.
I ultimately went with the Phase One IQ 140 based on these things.
A) Modularity. If you buy a Hasselblad digital system the back is married to the camera body it’s on. To switch it to another camera body, even another Hasselblad H body, you have to send it in. You can’t have a spare body on hand and seamlessly move the back onto the back up body. You also can’t put the Hasselblad back on a 4x5 camera or on a Mamyia etc. It is married to the camera body you buy it on. End of story.
With the Phase I can use an adapter and put it on my Cambo 4x5. I can have it fitted to a Hasselblad body if I wanted to move to that system. It’s currently set up for the Phase DF body which is a Mamyia 645. I can get a used Mamyia AFD body and pop my back right on it. With it being currently set up for the Mamyia 645 system then I have that entire range of lenses to choose from.
B) The Schneider leaf shutter lenses are effing gorgeous and with the IQ back and the DF body I can sync at 1,600th of a second. A full stop faster than the Hasselblad at 800th of a second.
C) The IQ screen is the best in the medium format market. Every other screen on every other back is the worst piece of shite you’ll ever see. They are only good for checking the histogram. You might as well think that you are shooting film because the screens are such garbage. I was fully prepared to buy a used Phase P back until I saw the screen on the IQ. That said, the screen on the IQ doesn’t hold a candle to the final image. You still have to trust that the detail and tonal range you are wanting from this camera is there because the screen doesn’t show it all.
D) The build quality of the Phase is the best on the market. Leaf backs are nice but feel a little cheap and they have cooling fans so there are vents in the side where crap can get into them. Not that I’m shooting in the rain with this thing but you can drop a Phase back and not kill it. And if you get caught running out of a rain storm the Phase back is more likely to survive since it is sealed.
D) Leaf, Phase, and Hassy all have their qualities and characteristics unique to each system. Some feel that Leaf backs are better suited for portrait photography due to their processing engine for skin tone reproduction. I honestly couldn’t see a massive difference in that when I tested them.
The only second guessing I do is not based on the back but on the camera system. I love the Hassy H body and lenses. They feel better in my hand than the unruly DF body. Their “true focus” system is also something I would find useful but I’ve heard people go back and forth on how well it actually works in real world shooting conditions. The beauty of the Phase system is, if I get the hair up my ass to do so, I can have my back fitted for Hasselblad and switch to the H4x body. I have the option to do so.
Also think about the resale value. I can sell my back to a Hassy shooter because they can then have it fitted to their system. Or to an RZ.
I didn’t go with the RZ because it’s just such a freaking beast of a camera. I love those cameras. Don’t get me wrong. But in day to day shooting I think the x100 spoiled me and I just don’t want that big of a camera body and lens system. AS great as it is. Plus, the Phase isn’t 6x7. That format is what makes the RZ shine IMHO.
So… Yeah. Phase kicks it. I go back and forth about the body it’s mounted on but overall I can’t get over the quality of the final image. I shot with it this weekend and going through the images I can’t believe how sharp it is. I can’t believe how close to medium format film it is and sometimes surpasses. It’s un freaking real.
People ask all the time about the D800 in comparison. Look, just because the mega pixel count is there doesn’t mean the beauty is there. It’s still a small chip with small lenses. 35mm format lenses only resolve detail to a point and then they can go no further. These Schneider lenses are built to resolve at 80 MP and beyond. The detail they capture is nothing a Nikon lens can do. I’ve looked at the files side by side. The Nikon doesn’t come close to resolution and dynamic range and DoF loveliness that a medium format chip creates.
I’m —this— close to selling my Canon kit. (-) this close. I just need one good telephoto lens for the Phase and I’m most likely done with DSLRs. Phase and Fuji. Eff the rest of them. The Canon 135mm f2 lens that I have right now is the only reason it’s in my bag most of the time. And… it’s a back up to my Phase. If it goes down the 5d is a good back up. So, I’ll prolly keep one 5d2 body, a 35mm, an 85mm, and the 135 for back up.