When we were new photographers, one of the most terrifying feelings was being in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime moment at a wedding ceremony or reception, but our cameras couldn’t focus because it was dark. The lens would keep jutting in and out, but it wouldn’t lock. Our palms would start to sweat, because our photos were blurry, the moment was slipping away, and we we were about to miss it. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone! Focusing in dark light is hard, but as professionals, it’s our job to get the shot — whether the house lights are up or down, whether someone is standing where we want them to… or not. That’s why we’re sharing our top five tips for getting sharp focus in dark places. So you can get crisp images no matter how dark the situation (pun intended), never miss an important moment and keep your palms as dry as this joke.
At a wedding reception, during open dancing, the house lights are usually down. It’s really dark, and people move really fast. When we’re in the middle of the dance floor, there’s a lot of action happening all around us; and we don’t always have time to turn quickly and lock focus on an erratic (and maybe intoxicated) subject, before the moment is gone. For this reason, we shoot with back-button focus, which is a custom setting that’s different than how the camera comes out of the box. Most cameras are, by default, set to work this way: when you press your index finder halfway down on the shutter release button, the camera locks focus when you press your finger all the way down, the shutter fires. In other words, the focus is locked and the shutter is released using the same button. This is a problem in dark places, like wedding receptions, where things are happening fast (and all around you), because you might not have time to wait for your camera to focus… and fire… for every shot. You might need to snap-snap-snap! in order to capture the moment. That’s where back-button focusing is key.
Back-button focus separates two things that normally happen with the same button. Instead of focusing and firing with your index finger, the focus function gets moved to a back button on the camera near your thumb (hence, back-button focus), while the shutter release stays where it was before, near your index finger. Now, you can lock focus with your thumb and if you stay the same approximate distance from your subject — say, two feet away — you can fire the shutter over and over again without refocusing. Then, you can even turn around, take a picture of someone else (who’s also two feet away, just in a different direction) without needing to refocus! How cool is that?!
Note: If you’re right in the middle of the dance floor action, we recommend using a 24mm lens (or locking your zoom lens at 24mm). The wider your lens, the more forgiving your focal planes will be.
On most cameras (like our Canon 5D Mark IV) the center focal point is the strongest. Typically, during a portrait session or on a wedding day, we toggle around and use lots of outer focal points, too. Not just the center one. However, sometimes, with more entry level cameras, with less advanced focusing systems, you might find that the outer focal points struggle to lock focus in low light situations. In that case, you might want to stick to the center focal point. Fortunately, with back-button focus, it’s easy to lock focus on your subject using the center focal point and then recompose your frame (to get the composition you want) before firing the shutter.
When photographing people, our first preference is to focus on the subject’s eye that’s nearest to the camera. However, in dark places, like wedding receptions where there’s not a lot of ambient (existing) light in the room, sometimes our cameras have a hard time locking focus anywhere on our subject’s face, because there’s not enough color contrast in the dark room for the camera to pick it up. So instead, oftentimes, we look for contrast on our subject’s clothing and focus on that. For example, if our subject is a man, we’ll focus on the contrast between his white shirt and dark-colored tie, on his chest, near the lapel, where the white shirt meets the dark coat, or on the shirt collar itself, near his neck. If it’s a wild reception and he’s wearing sunglasses, we might even be able to focus on the contrast between the shades and his cheeks! For a woman, we focus on her shoulder area or blouse, wherever her skin meets the fabric of her dress. Since the black and white contrast of a man’s shirt and his jacket is the strongest (and largest surface area), when we’re photographing a man and woman dancing together, we’ll usually choose that. Remember, if you’re only a few feet away and shooting with a wide angle lens (like a 24mm), your focal plane will be more forgiving, so you should be able to focus on one person dancing and easily catch the second person in focus, too.
During toasts, especially at outdoor receptions without string lights, where the only ambient light is coming from the candles at the table, and the subjects are facing away from the center of the table (where the candles are) to watch the toasts at the head table, sometimes it can be almost impossible to get guests’ reactions in focus because there’s almost nothing illuminating their faces. If you can’t focus on their face and the contrast trick doesn’t work, our next (rare) step is to focus on an object close to them. Once, at a wedding, Jordan couldn’t get the camera to lock focus on one of the parents during toasts, but he really wanted to capture their reaction. None of the tricks above were working, so he focused on an object about one foot in front of where she was sitting. At that point, he knew that his focus was locked about ten feet from anywhere he was standing. he was about eleven feet away. So, to get her in focus, he just took one baby step forward, and she was in focus, because the distance between him and his subject hadn’t changed. It was still ten feet. That’s another benefit of back-button focusing. Again, this type of situation is very rare, but it has happened, so it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket just in case!
Last but not least, if you have a flash on your camera, enable the AF Assist Beam. The AF Assist Beam is a red flash of light, that’s emitted from the front of your flash, when you press the focus button. The flash of light provides just enough light, for just enough time, for your camera to lock focus. It’s a really helpful feature when you’re photographing subjects at relatively close distances. It won’t work, for example, if you’re photographing someone across the room. It’s a flash of light, not a supersonic laser beam!
* Our favorite flash is the Canon 600 EX-RT because it allows our on-camera flash to control multiple off-camera flashes and the signal between them almost never drops or cuts out. They’re very reliable and fire almost every time. We didn’t have the same experience (years ago) when we were using Pocket Wizards as the communication mechanism between our flashes. The signal dropped much more frequently and, thus, the flashes didn’t fire as reliably, which was really frustrating at weddings when the on-camera flash would fire, but the off-camera flash wouldn’t, for example. We were really happy when Canon decided to build this function directly into the EX-RT!
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