1 April 2015

A friend asked me to photograph the baptism of her daughter. What to do?

I told her that my camera, a little Canon Powershot G15, was not even close to adequate for low-light photography. She replied that she had a “good” camera, a Nikon, and she would lend it to me.

I told her that I’d never done anything like this before, and that I didn’t think my skills were up to the challenge. She was not deterred.

So I agreed.

A week before the baptism, I asked to practice with her camera to get a feel for the controls, but she was so busy with other things that it didn’t happen. I’d naïvely assumed that her camera would be a APS-C Nikon DSLR with a kit lens, and as such would be several stops faster than my G15. However, when I finally got my hands on it about an hour before the ceremony, I discovered it was a Coolpix P520 travel zoom. Now, while certainly better than my G15 in many ways, for example, having a longer zoom and an EVF, a quick web search revealed that it was about two stops slower than my G15 (see below). So, if my G15 wasn’t adequate for low-light photography, the P520 would be even worse.

I’d have to shoot with my little G15, inadequate or not.

The baptism was in Parroquia de la Natividad, the large 16th century church in Tepotzlan just south of Mexico City. The one piece of good news was that this church doesn’t have a wooden screen between the large main door and nave, so more light enters than in many Mexican colonial churches. Nevertheless, the EV100 was about 4.

I started in aperture-priority mode at f/2 and ISO 800, which gave me exposure times around 1/30 second. I checked the images on the LCD, and they had so much motion blur, especially on my friend’s child, that they were useless.

I thought for a second about using flash. I have a little Speedlite 270EX II, but the church was too big for bounce flash and I wasn’t yet ready to give in and use direct flash. What little light there was in the church was actually of quite good quality.

So, I needed to reduce the shutter speed. Increasing the ISO beyond 800 would indeed have reduced the shutter speed, but on the G15 this would have simply reduced the dynamic range without improving the noise floor. So instead I switched to shutter-priority mode at 1/60 second and kept the ISO at 800. Since my lens only opens to f/1.8-f/2.8, these images were typically under exposed by one or two stops, but I fixed that later in Lightroom. On reflection, I could equally well have used manual mode. I think 1/60 second turned out to be a good compromise. Only about one third of my subsequent images had motion blur, and the rest were usable if a little noisy. My friend was certainly happy with them, and that’s what counted in the end.

Example A


I said the Nikon P520 was about two stops slower than my Canon G15.

And f/16 is two stops slower than f/8.

© 2015 Alan Watson Forster.