San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event. The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras. I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues. Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.
Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement. Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.
The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking. A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.
Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject. Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.
In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.
For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly. Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots! Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people. Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.
Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques. Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera. Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.
By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.
Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light? Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about photographic techniques? Find them all here: Posts about techniques. And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.