Letting the Shadows Fall Where They May

To make the most of low light, we sometimes must let the shadows fade to black.

You’ve heard it before. Some say, “Expose for shadow detail.” Others insist we must, “Expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.” Others recommend an average, and still others recommend exposing for the subject and living with blown-out highlights and/or blocked up shadows.

I say, “You’ve got the modern equivalent of a polaroid back on your digital camera, so expose for the way you want the image to look.”

This week, I photographed a “solo showcase” featuring three dancers from the local high school, and my exposure options were more limited than usual. The event was held in the high school’s “cafetorium.” The show was nicely lit for the human eyes in the audience, but at levels well below those of the theater in which I usually shoot.

Low overall light, fast moving subjects, dark background. I chose ISO 1600, which I consider my camera’s highest usable sensitivity rating for dance. I chose 1/320th of a second as my shutter speed; the lowest speed at which I try to capture dance action. And I shot at f2.8, the widest aperture on the lens at hand.

Barbara cast an amazing shadow on the background, but I couldn't coax it out without exaggerating the high ISO noise.

High ISO settings tend to compress the camera’s dynamic range. A well-exposed image shot at ISO 1600 or even ISO 3200 can still look very good, but underexposed images are hard to save. In post-processing, lightening underexposed areas of the frame often results in unpleasant looking digital noise. The high contrast, high ISO situation forced my decision to expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may. In fact, I darkened the shadows on some of these images to mask noise in the background.

When shooting a performance, I play the hand I'm dealt. These images look different from those we produced under more controlled lighting previously, but I think they have a charm of their own.

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Filed under Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Post Processing

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