Twilight was creeping slowly over Singapore, and we were travelling on a bus to see the Night Safari. As we pulled up at the traffic lights, I looked out of the window to see two exhausted construction workers taking a break and checking their phones.
Photography is often about overcoming problems: too dark, too bright, too contrasty, moving too fast, and so on. We were inside a bus, so the light was already a problem. The sun was fast going down and the buildings were blocking any sunlught that might have helped my cause. Add to this the fact that the bus was about to move off as I pulled out my camera, and you can see the problems I faced! In fact, it was made even worse because I only had a long telephoto lens with me, and zooming in with it closed the aperture down, thus letting in even less light!
I keep my cameras in Aperture Priority mode most of the time unless I am doing night photography, or want a special effect. Seeing as I only had a best aperture of f5.6 to work with, and fading light, I bumped up the ISO to 3200 in order to increase the shutter speed. After all, the bus driver was creeping slowly forward in readiness to GO on green! I only had one chance to get this right.
Even at ISO 3200, I was only achieving a shutter speed of 1/40; and the rule of thumb is to at least set the shutter speed to one tenth of the focal length of the lens so as to cut down the chance of blur due to movement and camera shake. Seeing as I already had the zoom fully extended to 200mm, and couldn’t move any closer to the subject, 1/40 sec was nowhere near fast enough, especially on a bumpy bus. Bumping the ISO to 6400 was an option, but it would also have introduced quite a lot more digital noise into the final image, and would have erased even more detail. Knowing that the sensor on this particular model struggles to preserve acceptable image integrity at ISO 6400 and above for reasonable sized prints, I decided to stick with ISO 3200.
I held my breath, stiffened my arms, folded my elbows into my chest, and braced myself as best I could against the back of the seat in front of me. Fortunately, it was enough to achieve an acceptably sharp image.
Good technique can overcome a range of obstacles. Of course, it would also have helped me immensely if I’d packed a different lens! But it’s also important to know your equipment and be prepared to compromise if necessary. I wanted a sharp image under difficult photographic cirumstances, but didn’t want to blow away any more details by increasing the ISO further. So, I had to do the best I could with what I had and leave the rest to technique and some luck!