a teatray in the sky

shooting in the dark

Posted in 5D Mark II, Photography, Technique and Development by firthefirst on March 22, 2010

so perhaps you were reading yesterday’s post and wondering, wait, I thought John was going to discuss whether the 5D Mark II could light up the 30D in (relatively slow) sports shooting.  I was, but as Tina noted in her comment, we were both pretty exhausted so nah.  I did also promise you I’d talk about how the 5D Mark II does in low-light portrait shooting.  so I’ll put yesterday’s peanut butter with today’s jam and give you a 5D Mark II sandwich.

the lead image is a shot of Tina at farragut north waiting for the metro, shot with available light.  I’ll let you ponder the import of that sentence for a little bit. 

for those of you who know DC, you know the metro is as dark as a Russian winter.  you’d have to be either a bat or a naked mole rat to enjoy living down there.  NYC-ers, no contest, ours is darker.  but you get rats the size of infants, so it’s all even.  if you’re sitting there going “so what” I want you to go to your local underground station with your pocket cam, ratchet the ISO up to 400 or 800, and attempt to take a non-blurry shot that doesn’t look like it’s raining red, green, and blue dots all over.  see what I mean?

rumors of the 5D Mark II’s “see-in-the-dark” capabilities are not greatly exaggerated.  I shot Tina at ISO 3200, f/2.8, and did only minimal noise reduction (you can still see some in the shadow area along her cheek) and contrast boosting in order to keep the shot from losing crispness.  this is mind blowing.  previously with the 30D, I didn’t like going past ISO 400 for portraits but often had no choice.  my photos from Will’s wedding reception had more work done on them than Pamela Anderson’s chest – take a look on facebook and see how plasticky and Barbie-like everyone looks.  note the smearing in the hair, how you can’t see individual strands.  now look back at Tina above and note her un-marred skin tone and all the individual stray hairs you can still see. 


does that mean I’m going to shoot at ISO 3200?  nope.  I’d still rather throw on the 50 f/1.4 and get two extra stops wide open; keeping the ISO down at 800.  files at ISO 3200 and 6400 are noticeably less malleable than those shot at 1600.  there’s not as much color data, less sharpness and capability to sharpen, and harsher rolloff into highlights and shadows.  below is one shot at ISO 400, f/1.4, no noise reduction applied at all and it is clean.

what does shooting people that aren’t moving have to do with shooting people that are moving?

the 5D Mark II had two key advantages over the 30D during daylight sports shooting.  much quicker autofocus lock time, and much cleaner high ISO.  this means you can shoot safely at a higher ISO and ratchet up either the aperture or dial down the shutter speed, or even both.

however, the one quirk/drawback to the 5D Mark II is a huge one.  even using the center focus point, focusing in near-dark situations (ISO 3200 or 6400) the AF takes what feels like minutes doing this routine:

sit for a while doing nothing.  begin to focus.  acquire focus.  lose focus.  sit for a while doing nothing.  start to focus again. fail to find focus.  wait for you to manually ballpark the focus.  acquire focus.

I don’t mean it occasionally does this.  it does this for maybe 50% of the shots, unless there is direct light hitting the subject.  but usually the reason you’re shooting at 3200 or 6400 is because there’s almost no direct light hitting the subject. 

it’s a bit reminiscent of the Crysis crisis: let’s design a videogame with such incredible graphics that no computer can render it properly, so no one can enjoy the incredible graphics.  wait what?  Canon: let’s design a camera with such incredible low-light capabilities that our AF system can’t read properly, so no one can use the incredible low-light capabilities.  unless, you know, you want to MF [manual focus a.k.a. manually fondle] in the dark.

so what you see is what you get, really.  I never expected the 5D Mark II to rival a 1D, or even the 7D.  I don’t think I’d hesistate to shoot outdoor activities, but I’ll have to attend some indoor volleyball sometime to try it out in more demanding conditions, and get Stephen to compare it to his 40D.  if I were a betting man, my hard-earned benjamins would be on the 40D.


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