Low light event shooting with just a pop-up flash?

S0042948I recently had the opportunity to shoot a relatively informal nighttime event. Because of the intimate setting, I wanted to be inconspicuous, and to be part of the fun. So, I took a very small camera with only a built-in flash. It wasn’t exactly easy to get high quality pictures this way, but the results were better than I expected.

If Apple had not updated Aperture to import .RAF files, I would have had a tough time. The lighting was harsh and dealing with shadows when trying to take portraits requires a lot of post-processing. The workflow I was using up until recently with ACR did not work very well for me. Now, using Aperture for initial import and exposure adjustment, followed by CS6 with Topaz and Alien Exposure plug-ins, the quality seems to be hitting a level that is fine for web use and should be good enough for small to medium-sized prints.

DSCF2828There were a few photos I either missed or that wouldn’t be acceptable for a professional due to blurring. The maximum ISO I used was 800, and I had no lighting equipment except for the pop-up flash unit. Luckily, it worked very reliably.

For friends and acquaintances in a non-critical setting, the advantage of having a camera that totally allowed me to be one of the crowd made it a very different experience than it would have been with a DSLR and off camera flash. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the results are the same, but for the particular purpose I had in mind it seemed to work well.

Some of the well-respected real-world reviewers have now covered this camera, including Steve Huff and Ming Thein. Both finished their reviews with satisfactory results and moved on, but after more than a month of using it I am still noticing new things that may help people who either recently picked up the X20 or are thinking about it. I have to admit my other cameras are gathering a bit of dust even though they are in some ways more capable (and definitely more expensive) pieces of gear.

DSCF2869If you are considering using it routinely, you need to know that you will have some noise even at base ISO, but also that it is usable in the same way that film grain is considered pleasing if done right. I would recommend using a subtle NR tool like Topaz deNoise, as I did for all these images. Either the moderate or light default settings usually work well. ISO 800 in low light required moderate levels of NR, and I found that added grain from the Topaz software looks better than either the residual Fuji imaging/processing artifacts or the more obvious grain in Alien Skin Exposure film simulation modes. I used a grain setting of 0.78 for many of these photos except for the ones taken before the sun went down with ISO under 200. For those, I added just a bit of grain (~0.15) that produced a little texture that I liked when viewing at the equivalent of a 8×10 print size.DSCF2870

These color pictures were mostly run through the Astia film effect in Alien Skin Exposure, and the monochrome images were converted with a yellow filter setting, sometimes with a little highlight boost. I also started to use the BW with yellow filter camera setting to produce a preview that makes it easier to judge over/under exposure at a glance in either direct sunlight or in dark rooms without looking at the histogram. I like to set the highlight tone to +1 for this as well. It isn’t possible to recover highlights as much with these raw files as you could with a larger dynamic range sensor. ETTR is a bit trickier than with bigger cameras, but it can be done.

The optical viewfinder, even with 85% coverage, is great for immersing yourself in the scene and to time a shot to catch an expression you are looking for. If you need to check the exact composition from corner to corner, you have the LCD for that. I have heard people complaining about 85% or 90% coverage with optical viewfinders like this when compared to what you would get in a rangefinder camera or with an EVF, but even 85% is very useful if you are using it for timing people shots after choosing a focal length for framing the scene using the display. I’m finding it’s the best way to do it, at least for me.

This Fujinon lens appears to be very well designed, and the range of 28-112mm with a maximum aperture of 2.0-2.8 is perfect for portraits and grouped people shots. I have not noticed issues with distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, or even any serious diffraction limited performance up to f/8-11 or so.DSCF3129

The main reason I haven’t bought one of the current compact APS-C sensor cameras like the X100s (or even the full-frame RX-1) is because they give up longer focal lengths in order to retain both optical quality and somewhat compact size. I am seriously tempted to try out the Ricoh GR though, for a different use – it makes a clear transition to pure snap-shots with its 28mm fixed lens, and it is really pocketable. The X20 on the other hand is almost like a micro-sized DSLR with a 28-112mm wide aperture lens.

In the end, the booklet produced was just the right size for iPad viewing, which is what folks are doing. I wouldn’t print it at coffee table size, but that wasn’t the goal. You can check it out in the iTunes store.


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