Low light portraits

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I need to shoot portraits within a dark church. With reciprocity correction, my exposure times are around 3 minutes. I'd appreciate some ideas on how to take a portrait in such low light conditions. I think that adding light to the whole interior is out of the question.

Also, I'm sure that even the best sitter can't remain motionless for such a length of time (although maybe slight movement wouldn't register on the film???).

I've thought about a double exposure, but can;t think how to make it work without some sort of 'ghost' image.

As ever, any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

-- David Nash (nashcom@btinternet.com), July 09, 2001



Are you allowed to use a flash?

-- edward kang (ekang@cse.nd.edu), July 09, 2001.

You did not say if it was color or B/W. If b/w use a tungsten light source with a snoot. Pat

-- pat krentz (patwandakrentz@aol.com), July 09, 2001.


Sorry about the limited information. I'll be shooting on B&W film. I don't have a flash system, although I would consider buying/renting one if it would help. The only light source I have is a Strand SL Zoom focussing tungsten spot lamp. It's rated at 600 watts, but is meant to kick out as much light as a 1 - 1.2kW lamp.

However, some of the pictures I want to take will be shot with a wide angle lens (on 10x8"), and will include a large area of the church - high ceilings, etc. My portraits may be positioned so that they are quite small in the frame (one example is an organist sitting at a large pipe organ, taking up about 1/8th of the negative area. There is going to be quite a lot of space on either side which may make it difficult to light without the light fitting(s) being in the shot.

My concern is that I don't want to destroy the lighting balance of the existing natural light, and I can't think of how to do this without lighting up the whole of the interior which would obviously take as much lighting power as a Hollywood film set. I think that the nearest power circuits are also just standard non-industrial 13A sockets (I live in the UK).

-- David Nash (nashcom@btinternet.com), July 10, 2001.

I've never tried this...but how about taking the portrait with very focused light...continuous not flash, so you can see where it goes...then darken that part of the church as much as you can and make the long exposure on top of it without the person. Might have to polaroid it a few times to get it to work.

-- John Sarsgard (sarsgard@yahoo.com), July 10, 2001.

Hi David,

Just a quick thought...I remember seeing a photo somewhere taken in very dark light/night-time with the shutter held open while the photographer walked around in the picture firing off a flashgun to light up certain features.

He was careful not to put himself between the camera and the flash so that he didn't appear in the picture.

Hope this helps in some small way, keep us posted on how you go with this.

-- Andrew McPhee (macca27@rm.quik.com.au), July 10, 2001.

A useful variation on John's suggested technique is "light painting." You or an assistant can actually walk around in the background (dressing in black or dark clothing is usually suggested) "painting" the areas that you want illuminated in the image with a floodlight or a hand-held flash. As long as the "painter" keeps moving, does't shine the light on himself or back at the camera, or stand between the "hot spot" and the camera during a flash, neither the "painter" nor the light source records on the film. Then you just pop the portrait subject with a normal flash set- up. Obviously, some polaroid test frames are useful. My own limited experience with the technique has produced varying results, but it's especially good for church interiors. You can "paint" a background altar with extra light, for example, or keep the light away from something like a speaker-amp that you don't want emphasized in the final image.

-- Lyle Aldridge (dridgee@aol.com), July 10, 2001.

You're probably right that the sitter can't sit still for that long. When exposures that long were the norm, portrait photographers used a head clamp. Slight motion won't show, but you'll find that most people will either drift slightly, or make a slight shift sometime during that time.

Your only hope is probably the light painting that's already been described and flash on the person/people. During the painting part of the exposure, they need to stay in their spot just to avoid any light from coming "through" them to the lens durint the long part.

Actually, you might have a chance with just a flash pop for the subjects, then keep them very still - but dark for a long exposure to bring up the surroundings. If you can cut the light on the subjects, but keep the surroundings lit, this has a better chance of success.

-- mike rosenlof (mike_rosenlof@yahoo.com), July 10, 2001.

Just finished a bunch of similar but not exactly the same photos this last weekend. They were night time exposures of a historic hotel with about 15 Harleys out front. I calculated an exposure that would be sufficient for the available ambient light which turned out to be about 2 minutes for Velvia at f16 with reciprocity departure. However the Harleys were not getting a fair share of light and would have been mostly dark. So during the 2 minutes that the shutter was open I simply walked through my picture several times with my trusty old 283 flash and popped each bike twice from just a few feet away. The only thing blocking the flash from being "seen" by the lens was me. Your situation would be similar. Sometime during the exposure your paricipant takes their place and you walk within a suitable range and blast them, then they get up and walk out. The only thing your film will be able to record during all that movement is the 1/10,000 sec pop. Granted since my situation is static I can pop the flash on the same thing more than once to overcome a smallish aperture for flash. You would have to have something that could pump out enough light to illuminate your portion of the scene at f16 or greater. Polaroids are great for this kind of messing around. It does work though. Well I was going to try and include a photo of the photo but the scanner obviously took a vacation while I was on vacation!

-- Jim Galli (jimgalli@sierra.net), July 10, 2001.

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