Turn the Lights Down

Photos and words: Brian Ho (thegaleria)

As dusk falls and the sun slips away, photographing people becomes a sensuous play on light and shadow.

I love photographing people and it is something I do day in, day out as a wedding photographer. Some years back, a fellow photographer shared with me this book, Tête-Bêche, a pictorial book with still shots from the movie set of In the Mood for Love (directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai) and I was immediately captivated by what was possible with seemingly impossible lighting conditions. The overly dramatized and moody feel has ever since become my personal favorite and a hallmark of my photography. While what ia presented is mainly people photography, you can easily extend the idea to any subject of interest. The way you observe and compose a shot, be it people or not, is no less different. Taking pictures in low light should be an affair that is easy, practical and requires no need for cumbersome equipment. Contrary to popular belief, leave your tripod and flash at home. All that is needed is your camera, a steady pair of hands, a good pair of walking shoes and above all – a keen eye for observation relying only on the use of ambient light.

Looking for a light source
Low light photography isn’t about taking photos in pitch dark locations. It is impractical to think that you can get decent photos from such impossible conditions. The key to low light photography is looking for a light source. The light source can be anything from street lamps, spot lights, lights from a passing cars, lights from an opened window, table lamps and so on. The important thing is to understand how light works for you. Observe how the light falls on your subject, take note of the contrast and shadows it creates, and above all, experiment until you get it right. With enough practice, you will soon be able to identify the kind of light that gives you the kind of mood you’re looking for. As you can see, this has nothing to do with camera technique but more on instinct and a keen sense of observation.

Keep it Steady
Lugging a tripod around is cumbersome. However, there are times where you wished you had one with you. In the absence of a tripod, there are various ways to prevent blurry shots. Lean the side of your body or your hand against a sturdy support like a wall, lamp post or floor base and use this to keep your camera steady. Prop your camera against a surface. When holding up a camera, rest both your elbows on your stomach and voila, you have an improvised tripod!

(Bottom right image)
Yik Shiong & Lin Li
London, 2009
It totally slipped our mind that it was a Friday night as Oxford St and Regent St were packed with shoppers and party-goers. We found a back alley at Regent St and decided to take a rest. Then, I realised what a perfectly-lit back alley this was, with a row of street lamps and a glass window showcase that reflected light; even the floor seemed to be reflecting light from below.

Shadow Play
Use shadows as creatively as you can. You can either use it as part of the image or you can use shadows as the main composition. I’ve seen some very beautiful images taken only of shapes and shadows.

Ken & Yen at Farol Da Guia, Macau Ken first spotted the shadow cast from the spotlight at the lighthouse and we wanted to try something creative with shadows. This was a very quick moment when Yen turned around perhaps to take a peek at what I was doing.

Keep It Shallow
Shallow depth-of-field is one of the hallmarks low-light photography. It keeps the main subject isolated from the environment and the slightly out-of-focus feel simply adds to the mood. Cinematographers like Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love & Chungking Express) uses this to good effect.

Give your photos a sense of depth and perspective. In the image on the right taken on the streets of Prague, I used the long cobbled-stone street with the street lamps at the side to give the image a sense of depth. The diminishing perspective of the street towards the far horizon plus the fact that the couple were walking towards that direction gave this photo a sense of three dimensionality. Again, a very shallow depth of field was used.

(Left image)
Rick & Ishir at Hradcany, Prague

The shallow depth-of-field was partly by choice and partly due to circumstances. You rarely get a lot of depth-of-field to play with in low light conditions. I liked the well-lit Coliseum-like backdrop, so I had Rick & Ishir stand at a location that was fairly well-lit (under a street lamp). I kept the depth of field deep enough so that some details of the background could be faintly distinguised but at the same time shallow enough that I could hand-hold the camera and retain the moody feel that is characteristic of low light photography. All this was done just by relying on ambient lighting.

Black & White
One of the important elements of low light photography is contrast. In the same way, Black & White photography shares the same characteristic too. This is the reason why low-light photos in most cases look excellent in monochrome. They are devoid of colors and rely solely on contrast, shapes and shadows. Most cameras have at least a black & white setting which you can fiddle with. Give it a try!

Movement & Motion
While blurry and out-of-focus shots is not something most people would favour and something most photographers would rather avoid, it is however the best technique to suggest motion.

Equipment Does Matter
It is important that you use a camera that will help you get that shot in low light. Using a DSLR with a fast prime lens is the recommended modus operandi. Canon’s EOS 1000D and 500D are such cameras which boast light bodies with all the features you need. Lens-wise, a 50mm f/.8 II is the most versatile. The 35mm f/2.0 is also a very good alternative. These lenses are cheap, lightweight, easy to carry around, fit nicely in your handbag and they excel in low-light photography. You wouldn’t want to leave home without them.

(Right image)
Rick & Ishir at Hradcany Prague

We were taking a stroll back to Charles Bridge when I caught a glimpse of Rick and Ishir under the faint street lamp lights. The diminishing perspective of the long street along with the shallow depth of field and the long row of street lamps gave this image a unique sense of depth. It was as if they were walking into the picture