Camera Techniques for Low-Light

Shooting video in low-light conditions is now much easier thanks to larger and higher quality sensors, but it still presents several challenges.  Luckily there are several camera techniques that can improve your video even further. These techniques are arranged in order of preference. If camera technique one doesn’t fix your light issue, move to number two and so on.

1. Add more light or move closer to the source.

This may seem obvious, but it gets overlooked. Moving even a few paces closer to a light source can make a huge difference in the amount of light captured. Or have your interview subject hold a reflector board  in their lap (or in a pinch a white piece of cardboard). This can help even out skin tone and reduce shadows. If you shoot in low-light conditions frequently, an on-camera LED panel light is indispensable.

2. Open up wide.

Wider apertures allow more light to enter the lens through the iris. Lower numbers mean a wider aperture. For example shooting at f1.6 will allow lots of light through your lens whereas f22 will allow very little. Remember though that depth-of-field increases with a wider aperture. That means that you will need to take greater care to focus and auto-focus is best left ‘off’ or the focus may be unreliable.

3. Lower the shutter speed.

The standard is to shoot 24p video at 50 frames per second and 30p video at 60 frames per second. However you can go lower as long as you avoid shooting a subject with a tremendous amount of motion. The lowest I go is 25 frames per second although this can cause somewhat of a strobing effect, so care is warranted.

4. Raise the gain/ISO.

Gain and ISO both describe the same function. They electronically increase the sensor’s receptivity to light. If the gain is raised too high you will notice digital noise enter the picture. Follow steps one through three above before raising the gain.

5. White Balance.

Dim indoor lighting conditions often have a dramatic shift toward the red end of the spectrum. If you don’t correct for this, the picture will be muddy and lack definition. White balancing won’t entirely solve a major low-light issue, but it can certainly help. Sometimes it’s difficult for the camera to ‘auto white balance’ in low light conditions. Either use a white card or surface and manually white balance or choose the preset that looks best to your eye under the conditions.

6. Shoot Wide.

With most zoom lenses, the more you zoom in, the less light will enter through the lens. That’s because the lens aperture will automatically get smaller as the lens grows longer. Stay as wide as possible to let in the most light.

7. Lower Your Frame Rate.

Most video is shot either at 24 frames per second or 30 frames per second. If you shoot at 12 frames per second you will let in twice the light you would at 24 frames per second. The trade-off is that the video will look very jerky and strobed. If there is no other way to get the shot however, this is one more way of correcting a serious light deficiency.

7. See Like an Insect

A few camcorders offer an infrared shooting mode. For example my Sony A1u has an infrared light (invisible to the human eye) which is picked up by the sensor in infrared mode. However the image looks like a night vision camera in a bad horror movie. This is good if you need to remain unobtrusive but for most other situations, just add a camera mounted LED panel light.

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