The Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College is one of the most challenging tourist sites in Ireland to photograph. Crowds of tourists. Low light. Bans on flash and tripods. The Long Room is one of the most unique and stunning sites in a nation full of unique and stunning sites. From the musty smell of centuries old books to the gorgeous wood and marble, it is sure to be a place you will recall long after the rest of your trip becomes a faded memory. Especially if you can capture art-worthy images to hang on your wall. So how can you best photograph dimly lit locations without a tripod or flash?
First and most important, ditch the zoom. Zoom lenses are handy in allowing you to frame a photograph quickly and easily. But that ease comes at a price in terms of quality and low light ability. A prime lens does not have the large number of moving parts that a zoom does, allowing for more precise glass and crisper photographs. Prime lens also have the ability to have larger glass that allow for wider apertures and thus more light reaching the sensor. There are high-quality prime lens available for very reasonable prices. My bread and butter is the 85mm 1.8, a lens I purchased for under $500.
As you explore a location with low light, seek out the areas of bright light, especially those in the soft glow of a window. Softer light, meaning light coming from a large source, provides feathery shadows. While especially flattering light for portrait photography, this light also highlights and adds drama to inanimate objects like bookcases. Understanding light and how a camera captures light and shadow is the cornerstone of photography.
Set your camera to aperture mode. The most important tool in capturing any great photograph is understanding how your camera works. Shooting in low-light without a flash becomes a dance between shutter-speed, aperture and iso. Set your aperture wide (at least 2.8) and focus in on your subject. Before you shoot, take a look at your shutter speed. If your shutter speed is less than the size of your lens, you need to bump up the iso. (For example, if you are shooting with an 85mm at 2.8 and your shutter speed reads 1/60th than increase your iso speed so the shutter is at least 1/125th). If you shutter speed falls below the size of your lens, you will get motion blur and your photographs will not be crisp. If you bump your iso too high, your image will appear grainy. This is why it is a constant dance. Take your time and make sure that your settings are right.
Finally, make sure that you are holding the camera properly. Elbows in to the chest. Left hand under the lens. Lean slightly into the camera so it rests on your forehead. Stance wide. You want to keep as perfectly still as possible in order to keep motion blur to a minimum. If there is a place you can lean against, like a wall, all the better. In low light situations even the tiniest of wiggles can render a potentially great photograph unusable.
The Long Room at the Old Library in Trinity College is one of the world’s great libraries. If you are visiting Dublin this is a must see stop. Be prepared and take your time and you will be sure to get great photographs.