950 Low Light

Low light photography with the Nikon 950.

Updated March 8, 2000

Covering:

How well does the 950 work in low light?

What about that "low light focus problem" that everyone talks about?

Tips for using the camera in low light.

Low light tricks and experiments.

Is your camera focusing the way it should in low light?

 

Introduction:

The Nikon 950 has very good low light performance. The ISO boost to 320 means that you can take shots in lower light than you ever could with the Nikon 900 or 900s cameras, and aviod using the flash in lower light situations. It also means that you can use higher shutter speeds in a given situation.

These are my own opinions, your experience may be different.

Picture

Roasting a hot dog at dusk.  1/60 sec, f2.9 ISO 100. With the 900, I would have had to use the flash for this, but with the flash the fire would not have been as visible.

How well does the camera work in low light?

The 950 works exceptionally well in low light, in my opinion.

Picture

(Left) Full zoom shot. ISO 320, 1/15 sec, f4, available light. Without the ISO boost, this shot would have been impossible; the kids were moving too fast, plus this was hand held, plus I was so far away that there was no way to use the flash. There is slight noise in this shot, but it is not apparent because of the subject.

Picture

(Left) The new moon, July 14, 1999. A 4 second shot at ISO 320, f 2.6, TC-E2 teleextender. Again, without the ISO boost, this shot would not have been as good. You can see some noise (more visible on the original), but it still makes a nice shot. A tripod was used.

Picture

(Left) Distant City Skyline. An 8 second shot, ISO 320, f 2.6. This appears much brighter than it did to the eye, the clouds were barely visible.. Some of the small dots in the black area at the bottom are noise, but the larger ones, especially the streak at the bottom (green) are fireflies; that is what I was actually trying to capture. I used a tripod.

Picture

(Above) 8 second shot by the light of a 25 watt bulb. This was taken at night, well after the sun had set. A few "hot pixels" are visible on the original. Unretouched except for resizing for the web.

Low light fun and experiments

Picture

A laser pointer draws a pattern on the ground during an 8 second exposure. Write your name!

Picture

Ghost kid. I use a flashlight to light up the subject during an 8 second exposure, during which he moved once.

What about that "low light focus problem".

The camera actually works quite well in low light, considering the fact that it uses contrast detection to focus. Because of the exceptional low light ability, you will run out of light and contrast for the camera to focus with before you run out of the light to take pictures with. What I mean by that is that while you might be able to take a 4 second exposure that looks great because you accumulate light over 4 seconds, the camera actually has only a fraction of a second to focus, and has to make many contrast measurements during that fraction of a second, so it has a LOT less light to work with. In lighting conditions that require more than about 1/8 second exposures, the camera starts to have trouble focusing, and might require  that you press the button more than once, or even require that you set the focus manually for very low light.  In very low light, you HAVE  to focus manually.

It is very easy to take a bad  or "soft" picture in low light and blame it on the camera. The LCD is very bright even in low light, especially with the low light brightness improvements of version 1.2 firmware and up. . In side by side comparisons, for example. the 950 screen is perfectly readable in light where the 900 screen and my Toshiba PDR-M1 screens are almost totally black. Because of this, there is the misleading expectation that the camera will be able to focus in that low light, but it can't always do it; you wuld not even be thinking about taking the shot with another camera. The other contributing factor is that the camera will let you take a shot at (very) low shutter speeds, and it is tempting to try to hand hold these. The camera will automatically select exposures up to 8 seconds with the flash off, but you should not expect to hand hold these! The old rule for hand held shots is 1/focal length (50mm equivelent) if you are very still and your subject isn't moving. So for the 950 at wide angle, no longer than 1/38 second, and no longer than 1/110 second at telephoto. If your subject is moving, or your are not totally still, your shots will be blurry at even these speeds. A lot of what has been attributed to "bad focus" with the 950 is just "you shouldn't try to take a handheld picture of that at such a slow speed" in my opinion.

That being said, at light levels that require more than 1/30 second, the camera can have trouble focusing. I used to just press, and would sometimes get an out of focus shot (where the camera had focused on the background, for example),. Now I pay special attention to the green light, and make sure that I have a steady lock before I shoot. Sometimes, such as when I took some recent shots indoors in a bowling ally, I am in a hurry, and I just press and ignore the shutter speed rule and the focus lock.  In that case I'll get some bad shots; people moved, I moved, the camera didn't focus... It is my own fault. See the tips section below.

Low Light tips.

* The most improtant tip is... If the light isn't solid green, the camera will still let you take a shot, but you WILL get a blurry shot; the camera did not focus. It took me a very long time to learn this, and it still gets me when I am in a hurry. Hint, if you can't learn this, try shooting with the monitor off; that mode will not allow you to shoot a shot unless you are in focus.

* Always be aware of the shutter speed in lower light. Use a tripod when you need to. If your camera uses less than 1/60 second, you are in the "danger" zone of having soft shots, and you WILL get soft shots unless you control the camera's motion and your subject's motion. You just need to be aware of this continuously.

* You can boost the ISO to keep the shutter speed up at the expense of some noise. ISO 100 has virtually no extra noise, 160 has some, and 320 has visible noise, but no worse than the grain on ASA 400 film.

* On really long exposures, there will be some noise in dark areas. On shots that are mostly bright, this noise will not be visible. On shots with large dark areas, their will be some "Hot" pixels; especailly visible if you take an 8 second exposure at ISO 320. There is nothing wrong with the camera (in that they all do this). You will have to use software such as QIMAGE to get rid of these, clone them out in your photo program, or subtract a dark frame.

* If the camera has trouble focusing, try pointing it at a more contrasty object at the same distance, locking the focus, then pointing it back at your subject. You can use manual focus too. Remember that the camera only uses the vertical component of the picture to focus. It you can't see the subject well on the LCD, either can the camera, and it will have trouble.

*  This is obvious, but why aren't you using the flash?  There are of course plenty of situations where you can't (too obtrusive or  subjects too far away are my usual reasons).

* If you are out without your tripod, you can still sometimes get a long exposure shot. The swivel on the camera makes this possible; I'll rest the camera on a car or stump or wall, and use the swivel to get the camera pointed at the subject. If you can't rest the camera entirely on something, lean against a wall or better yet put the camera against the wall, and hold your breath. I have used a cars, fence posts, chairs and picnic tables. The swivel and sometimes a small rock. makes it all possible. I have tiny tripod, but it is so short that it is hard to find a place to set it, and I like to travel light. Watch out that you don't scratch your camera on a rock.

* Even if you are using a tripod, the act of pressing the shutter can mess up a time exposure with bright objects. I made a cable release out of a bottle cap, but I rarely carry all that stuff. I use two tricks to get around this. 1) I'll use the self-timer to get the camera to rest for 10 seconds before going off. 2) I'll put my hand in front of the lens, press the shutter, then take my hand away 1/2 second later. You don't loose too much light on an 8 second exposure (this is called the "hat trick" for astronomical photos, because you are supposed to use a hat to cover your telescope while the vibrations die down). I used the hat trick on the shot on the new moon above because the moon itself was bright enough that if it moved during the beginning of the exposure you would see it.

 

Do you think that your camera has more trouble in low light that it should? (material duplicated from the firmware 1.3 page)

Because of the exceptional low light ability of the Nikon 950, there are constant reports of "low light focus problems" as people try to use the camera in very low light. If you think that your camera has a problem, you can conduct a quick test to see how low it can go.

Since the term "low light" is very subjective, here is how to test your own camera's low light performance so we can compare. This will measure the EV of the dimmest scene that your camera can focus on.

* Pick a high contrast target. The object should be a few feet away to avoid the minimum focus distance of the camera. The object has to have some vertical component, since the camera only uses vertical features to determine focus. I used a dark wood shelf against a white wall.

* Use default ISO.

* Turn off the flash

* Set aperture mode wide open. (important, this turns off auto ISO on ver 1.3)

* Camera in S&AF single focus mode.

*  Place the high contrast area in the center of the viewfinder. Start focusing!

* Reduce the light until you can just focus reliably. Take a shot.

* Examine this shot in Play mode to get the shutter speed and f-stop.

Use the formula EV=log(f*f/t)/log(2) to calculate the EV of the scene, or report the values to me.

My camera will focus all the time down to EV=5. It will focus most of the time with a few retries down to EV=3. At EV=2, it will rarely or never focus. If your camera will not ever focus at EV=5 with contrasty objects, then it might have a problem. If you are talking about focus in lower light, or with a diffuse subject, then you probably don't have a camera that is any worse than mine is anyway!