During the recent full moon rituals held during the Siem Reap Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk, locals purchased elaborate floating candles from sellers on the waterfront, to offer to the river. While it was lovely to watch, it was a challenge to photograph. Here are some tips on shooting by candlelight.

So what do you do if you’re going to an event at night that’s only going to be illuminated by candles or if you’re lucky moonlight? Can you make great photographs under these conditions without using flash? It’s tricky, but knowing your photographic equipment will really help you when you’re shooting by candlelight.

Given that the riverside in Siem Reap is dimly lit — and with a good chance the power is going to go off — it’s probably a good night to leave the camera at home and just enjoy the spectacle. But photographers never do that, of course.

These days there’s nearly always a way to capture a photograph that you can be proud of, but you need to know your gear. For instance, the photograph above was taken at ISO 2500, with an 85.0 mm f/1.4 @ 1/125th second on a Nikon D600 camera.

Firstly, knowing the relationship between your camera and the ISO rating your camera is set at is critical. If you have a point-and-shoot or a glorified point-and-shoot where you can’t control the ISO… okay, I’d better stop right there…

If you’ve never used film in a camera and are a child of the digital age, ISO was — and still is — a measurement of how sensitive the film in your camera was to light. With film, most people used to use ISO 100 or 200 for normal conditions or photos generally shot in bright light.

Professional photographers would use ISO 800 and above if things were darkish, in the early morning or for sunset, for instance. The penalty for using these higher speed films was called film grain, which was a noticeable pattern of dots on the image.

So how is this relevant now? Well, camera sensors, which have taken the place of film, do have the same drawbacks when it comes to setting the camera at a high ISO. Digital images can still look grainy.

However, there have been huge advances in sensor technology in recent years, with the images shot at high ISO having less grain than ever before, which means you can shoot dimly-lit concerts or events at night, like the one pictured above. But there are still limits.

The reason it’s important to know how grainy your images can get at a high ISO is so that you can find the best compromise to capture these events.

Now, if you have a point-and-shoot and always leave the camera on AUTO, the above scene will trigger the flash 100% of the time. Working with the flash off, the scene will probably be really grainy or blurry. Such is life with those cameras.

However, if you have a DSLR of a recent vintage and a quality lens, you can find the best setting to suit both your camera’s ability to capture high ISO images with little noise and grain, and how still you can hold the camera to be able to use a slower shutter speed and the widest f-stop that your lens offers.

As each camera and lens is different, and people have varying abilities to hold objects steady, there is no set formulae, such as never go above ISO 1600, or never drop the shutter speed below 1/125th of a second, because it all depends on the relationship between the three.

With the image above, I’m pushing all three parameters. On this camera, ISO 3200 is as far as I like to go and I’m at ISO 2500. With an 85.0 mm lens the minimum shutter speed to avoid blur from the camera moving in your hands during exposure is 1/160th of a second.

It’s a general rule that your shutter speed should be around twice your lens length. The longer the lens the more prone it is to motion blur.

Thirdly, my 85.0 mm f/1.4 lens is set as wide as it goes, f/1.4, which means that the objects closest to the camera are in focus, and for those furtherest away from the camera the focus is very narrow. This is what we call a shallow depth of field.

The focus point in this photo is the front basket. The shallow depth of field focusses the viewers eye on what’s important, as well as allowing us to use a faster shutter speed than if we were trying to shoot at f4. At that f-stop the shutter speed would have been 1/20th of a second, too slow for the most steady of hands on an 85.0 mm lens.

So there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to shooting with candlelight. Success comes with knowing the limitations of the camera and the lens, and how steady your hands are!

Details: ISO 2500, with an 85.0 mm f/1.4 @ 1/125th second on a Nikon D600 camera.

End of Article


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