Low light photography–Day of the Dead

El Di­a de los Muertos “Day of the Dead” 2010 from Peter Phun on Vimeo.

iEl Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead is an annual Riverside event that has seen growth in popularity each year it is held.

On November 2nd this year, Mission Inn Ave between Orange and Lime Street was closed off right in front of the public library for this event.

This was my first time attending this celebration for the dearly departed.

Since I had recently bought a Canon 5D Mark II, I was excited to put the camera through its paces to see how it would handle the “available darkness“ of 6 pm.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only person with that in mind.

There were more cameras than people there especially when you consider there were lots of cellphones, Blackberrys and other smart phones as well.

Those who turn up dressed and made up to resemble skeletons are more than happy to pose for pictures. Mission Inn Ave is one dark place. My camera was set to Auto White Balance and my Speedlight was the main light. I metered for the ambient light and made sure my Speedlight put out f2.8 worth of light for 1:1 ratio. ISO 1600 35mm lens 1/13 sec @ f2.8

Technical challenges

It just doesn’t get any more basic than this. “If you can’t see well enough to focus, you might not need to worry about getting the right exposure.”

“What would be the point of having properly exposed images if none of them are sharp and in focus?”

Attendees get into the spirit, wearing makeup and posing for pictures. Auto White Balance with off-camera flash on the left. ISO 1600 1/13 sec @ f2.8

Using Flash

Most competent photographers will tell you the use of flash should be subtle.

It shouldn’t be in-your-face or glaring and obvious, casting ugly shadows all over.

That usually means off-camera flash because that allows you to aim your flash where the light is needed and feathered so it doesn’t indiscriminately scatter all over.

It also means you should drag the shutter as much as possible to allow the ambient light in to preserve the integrity or ambience of the scene.

I used the STE-2 and my 540EX on 1/64th power for some of these pictures.

  • ideally, I would have used a yellow gel over my flash to match the output of the very yellow sodium vapor street light but I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps next year.
  • if this was a paying gig, I would get 2 assistants whom I can communicate with via headsets. Their jobs would be to hold Speedlights on manual power and stand where I tell them so I can trigger the lights via radio remote.
Closeup of a table showing the offering to the dearly departed. Camera set to Custom White Balance, available light and no flash.

Using Available Light (darkness in this case)

Just because I have a camera that can shoot at ISO 12800, it doesn’t mean I should.

Using such a high ISO should be a last resort.

More important than exposure in this situation is White Balance.

The present generation of digital photographers shooting RAW who never shot transparency film will not appreciate what I’m about to say.

RAW processors like Lightroom and Aperture will not take care of your color or white balance mismatch issues if you don’t match your light sources with what you set for White Balance on your camera.

White Balance Dilemma

Automatic White Balance was making my subjects all jaundiced and yellow. See how this white tshirt looked because of the sodium vapor street lights.

Using flash without a color correcting gel to match the color temperature of sodium vapor lights gave me results like what you see in the picture below.

See the couple on the right behind my main subject. Their skin tones looks very close to normal because my camera was set to Custom White Balance. The rest of the scene lit by my flash which wasn\’t gelled is eerily blue because the color temperature of flash doesn\’t match the predominantly sodium vapor lit street.

I was getting a meter reading of ISO 1600 1/30sec @ f2.8 in the brighter parts

Things to consider:

  • Due to the low shutter speed, I didn’t even bother bringing out my 80-200 zoom even though its aperture is f2.8
  • My fast 50mm f1.4 lens was my main lens
  • I also relied heavily on my 17-35mm f2.8 lens
  • A monopod might have been helpful since I could use it to hoist a light or my camera and shoot over the crowds. A tripod in such crowded situations would have been impractical.
On Custom White Balance, skin tones look very close to normal. Next year, I will bring color correcting gels or filters for my flash so that I can control the contrast in a scene like this.ISO 1600 1/30 sec @ f2.8

On the whole I’m pleased with how the 5D Mark 2 performed. I thought my results were more than acceptable.

Let me know what you think.