5. December, 2004 - available light photography

This can also be found at Available Light Photography in my essays. That’s probably a better permalink.

I’ve been thinking about photography a bit again, and think that the state of digital photography still has a ways to go. I really like my Exilim S100 since it’s possible to carry just about everywhere, but I still feel the need for speed. To translate this into the film world, the camera feels like shooting with Plus-X film, but with more noise and grain.

And that’s somewhat counter to the way I first thought about taking pictures. My first “real camera” was a Canon FTb, which I got with a 55mm f/1.2 lens, not because I knew what I was doing, but because I got lucky. Combine this with the fact that I liked shooting Tri-X, and then later discovered Ethol’s UFG developer, which only claims to give 3½ stops plus or minus, but worked fine for me pushing Tri-X to ASA 6400, or a full four stops, and I had some impressive tools for taking pictures in low light.

So anyway, when I read about the Speed Demon of a lens that Stanley Kubrick used in Barry Lyndon, I got a little hardware-lust. I obviously don’t have the resources (or talent) of Kubrick, but I still come pretty close to sporting wood over the idea of a f/0.7 lens.

Why the fascination with speed? There are a few kinds of photography I like and think I’m good at. The first is landscapes. No real need for speed there. I also like taking pictures of architecture, and today’s digital cameras are plenty good for exteriors. It would be nice to have a faster camera for capturing interiors, but I could survive by carrying a tripod. But my other favorite kind of photography is candid portraiture using available light, and in that, there’s just no substitute for speed.

I realized this morning that I don’t take a lot of picture of people anymore. Part of the problem is that I don’t like whipping out a camera when I’m talking with someone. It breaks the flow of the conversation and changes the entire mood. The person I’ve been talking to switches to “posing” and the range of expressions you get is suddenly very artificial. A longish lens, combined with fast equipment gets around that problem because you can back off, and capture a portrait without the person being aware of you as a photographer.

Using a flash brings along the same problems. You may get one truly candid shot, but after you’ve lit up your subject like a deer in the headlights, that’s exactly the kind of picture you get.

Some of the best portraits I took in high school were done in available light. One that springs to mind (which I’ll add to this page after I’ve found it and scanned it in) was of a cute gal who wasn’t camera-shy at all, but who fell into a pose every time she realized a camera was on her. I took her portrait from across a basketball court with a 400mm f/8 mirror lens handheld, with her head filling about 5% of the frame. I don’t remember the exact settings, but I managed to get a fast enough shutter speed that there was no shake visible, so I was probably around 1/500 of a second. A little push-processing, enlargement and cropping in the darkroom, and I had what folks agreed was the best picture taken of her all year. That may not sound too impressive on its own, but the photo-editor of the yearbook was dating her, and had plenty of opportunities to take her picture. I got a better shot in a handfull of tries, most of which were bracketing for exposure on a single evening. I’m sure the reason was that I used fast film, a long lens, and was far enough away that I got a completely candid portrait, rather than one that looked posed.

Yes, it borders on the voyeuristic, but when I used to do more of this sort of photography with film, I would get permission after taking the picture, and people were generally happier with the results than if I’d put them on guard by asking first and being obvious about doing a bit of soul-stealing. With digital, you can even let the person see the results right away, making their consent more informed. But the big problem of digital not being fast enough remains.

Another kind of picture I like to take are photos of bands performing. The lighting is dim, and a flash not only disturbs the performance, but also annoys the other people trying to watch it. I still try to take pictures of bands with digital cameras, but the results don’t usually live up to what I’d like to see. I want faster equipment.

That’s a large part of why I still have techno-lust for the Nikon D70. Reading the reviews, it would appear to have almost enough speed for my wants, and the ability to slap some truly fast glass onto it. Well, a guy can dream, right? Of course, if I were to get such a setup, I’d start complaining about how it was too big…

Copyright 2009, Dave Polaschek. Last updated on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 13:57:57.