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Low Light Special Effects: Unique Photo Ops:
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Images (#13 and #14) are pictures I took of a small neon sign at a convenience store. I used a 200mm lens and manually focused (you can’t use autofocus for this) until the lights became a complete abstraction. Neon signs don’t produce the round spheres, the circles of confusion, but their colors are so saturated that I like this beautiful combination of soft color. In addition to creating abstracts, you can combine images like these with other photos. Using the Blend modes in Photoshop, the results can be quite striking. Photos (#15 and #16) were both combined with the same neon color abstract.





A unique variation of this is to move the camera as you shoot the out of focus lights. I did this when I shot a decorated Christmas tree at night (#17) and you can see the circles of confusion surrounded by the blur of the ornaments.


Streaks Of Color And Light
As I have mentioned throughout this issue, long exposures are often necessary to gather enough light to make a good exposure. At the same time, a shutter that stays open for more than 1/8th of a second can record movement in unique ways. Depending on the speed and direction of the movement as well as the colors of the subject, the results can be quite artistic. These are images that are impossible for our eye/brain combination to record, and this makes the photos especially intriguing.

When photographers talk about capturing light streaks, we usually think of traffic lights at night, such as a rescue vehicle with flashing lights (#18). However, there are many other subjects that give you the opportunity to be creative. For example, I photographed (#19) in a subway in Prague, the Czech Republic, from a tripod. Everything is sharp except the train and the people waiting for it. This is a 15-second exposure at f/16 and ISO 100. Notice how the blurred train seems semi-transparent and that we can see the pattern on the wall across the tracks through the blur of color.



I took a picture with the same idea, (#20). I positioned the camera and tripod at the bottom of an elevator shaft in a tower, also in Prague. The lights come from the interior of the car, and with another 15-second exposure, this time at f/22 and ISO 100; I recorded the dark interior of the elevator shaft structure plus the streaks of light. How did I know the correct exposure settings for a picture like this? I didn’t. In fact, I had no idea. It was such a unique and contrasty situation—one I had never encountered before—that I didn’t have a clue what to use. Therefore, I made an educated guess and then adjusted the shutter speed and lens aperture based on the results from the LCD monitor. I used Manual Exposure mode so I could override the meter, because in this kind of unknown circumstance, I had no idea how accurate or inaccurate the meter would be. I didn’t want it taking control.


A dance performance is always fun to shoot with a slow shutter speed, but when the dancer is holding lights or candles as they twirl, the effect is amazing. The folk dancer I shot in Turkey (#21) is an example. This is a .4 second exposure and I used ISO 1250 at f/4. It was extremely dark, and in post-processing I used the fill light slider in Adobe Camera Raw to open up the deep shadows. In so doing, the digital noise became quite pronounced, especially in the dark regions of the image. Therefore I used Dfine 2.0 by Nik Software ( to mitigate the problem. It did an outstanding job.


Also in Turkey, I used a 1/4 second exposure at ISO 500 to capture a Whirling Dervish (#22). I was using a 24-105mm zoom, and during the exposure I changed focal lengths from a more telephoto position to a wider angle. I prefer to zoom from long to short like this because the focus holds throughout the movement. If you start from a wide angle composition and zoom to a tighter shot, more than likely the image will not be focused when you look closely at the telephoto portion of the picture. In this case, the streaks of color and light didn’t come from movement since the background was stationary. It came from using the zoom lens, and in this case—since I was in an audience—I didn’t use a tripod.


Camera movement is a lot of fun when shooting flowers and gardens. You need low light, of course, because if the sun is out you won’t be able to use a slow shutter speed required for this technique. Even if you lower the ISO to 100 and use f/22 or f/32, the speed of the shutter will be too fast for sunlit flowers. For the abstract I made of irises, (#23) I visited the flower section in a large supermarket. This indoor environment guaranteed the ability to use a shutter speed slow enough to enable me to twirl the camera and create an abstract image. I used .5 seconds at ISO 250 and f/5.6. Because the indoor illumination was from mercury vapor lights (which are similar to florescent), I used auto white balance to give me the correct colors. Had the flower been outside in the shade, I would have used daylight white balance (which I use for all of my outdoor shooting).


Multiple Flash
When the light level is very low, the shutter speed can be open long enough to fire a flash more than 1 time for a variety of effects. For example, you can highlight a subject from more than 1 angle with a single flash as I did in one of the statues on the Charles Bridge in Prague (#24). This was only a 2 second exposure, but in that time my wife and I illuminated the statue from 2 angles with 2 flash units. Pushing the test button on the flash fires it when it is used off-camera and you don’t happen to have a wireless trigger. Note that I also captured some of the ambient tungsten lighting that was shining on the medieval religious sculpture, too.


In Dublin, Ireland I was presented with a different situation. There are a group of very dramatic famine figures—sculptures representing the suffering of the Irish people during the potato famines of 1848 to 1852—and you can photograph them individually or as a group. For an individual portrait of one of the figures (#25), I opened the shutter of the camera for 15 seconds. I was alone this time, so I needed the extra time to light the artwork. For one exposure, I placed a blue gel over the flash head and fired it. Then I moved behind the camera and illuminated the sculpture using a yellow gel over the flash head. I had no idea what lens aperture to use, so I did a few test shots and, based on the LCD monitor, adjusted the f/stop to give me the exposure you see here. The sky was almost dark when I shot this, but the long exposure accumulated what light was left and that’s why I was able to capture the cobalt blue color seen just before dark.


To capture the entire group of figures (#26), I had to use another approach. The statues were arranged a few feet apart from each other, and I thought it would look much better if they appeared to be huddled together. I took individual flash pictures of each on separate frames using off-camera flash. I couldn’t use the multiple flash technique because when I would re-position the camera in front of each sculpture, the shutter would be open and it would be impossible to refocus. When I photographed the collection of statues, I put them together in Photoshop at home. Since they were shot against a black background, it was easy to do.


For a fun experiment, I photographed my wife in a Venetian costume (#27), with multiple flashes and with a 15 second exposure in a darkened room. I turned the sconces on to add some atmosphere, but to prevent too much ambient light from ruining the shot; I used f/19 and a low ISO of 160. We began the exposure with my wife sitting on one end of the sofa, and I opened the shutter and manually pressed the test button on the flash to fire it. Then she moved to the other side while the shutter was still open. I also changed my position and used the flash again. Doing this against a black background, like outdoors at night, means that nothing will be seen through the subject. In this case some of the detail in the wall as well as the back of the sofa can be seen through my wife, making this look ghost-like.


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