Redline Challenge: tips and tricks for shooting 'light in the dark'

Pro action photographer Lorenz Holder explains his winning recipe for perfect exposure when shooting sunset and night-time photography with flash.
A snowboarder performs a jump on a snowy outcrop, with a golden sunset in the background.

Canon Ambassador Lorenz Holder captured this image during the summer in Norway when the sunsets last for hours. Lorenz positioned lights to the left and right of the jump, taking care to get some detail in the landscape beyond as well as the sky. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOD 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 70mm, 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO160. © Lorenz Holder

Shooting in darkness may seem daunting, but it's a challenge that Lorenz Holder relishes. The Canon Ambassador and Redline Challenge mentor is renowned for his fine-art style sports shots, but it's often a location that inspires him as much as the action. He gives careful consideration to what time of day and year would suit a scene best, and regularly opts for low-light conditions because of the extra control it gives him.

There are all sorts of approaches you could try when tackling the Light in the Dark Redline Challenge. Here, Lorenz shares three of his favourite techniques, to inspire your creativity and help elevate your low-light images.

The bottom half of a woman silhouetted against a green neon reflection on the surface of a wet road. Red reflections from a car's brake lights are on the road beside her feet.

1. Balance ambient light with flash for pro-looking shots

Sunset is a great time for photography because it adds interest and colour to your images, but you'll need to set up well in advance as the light won't stay the same for long. You also need to be flexible. "Look for the right weather and adapt your shooting plan to suit the conditions," Lorenz advises. "Many times I've set out to do a recce of a location, but the sunset ended up being perfect on the day. You have to shoot it right away or you'll miss it."

For full creative control over the camera settings when shooting with flash at sunset, Lorenz recommends shooting in Manual exposure mode. Unless the flash is small or very far from the subject, he keeps the ISO low in order to get the best image quality. Then he sets the aperture to correctly expose the athlete with flash and get the depth of field that he wants.

"I always like to close the aperture a little bit," Lorenz explains. "If you open it too much (to f/2.8 for instance) and use flash, it doesn't look natural – it's as if somebody is standing in the studio and you put a sunset poster behind them."

As a rule, Lorenz makes the backdrop about -2EV darker than the subject lit by flash in order to make the subject stand out. But because every scene is different and the distance between the flash and subject varies, there can be a little trial and error to begin with.

Lorenz recommends taking some test shots at different settings and checking them on your camera screen. "You just have to try a shot and see what you get. The displays are really good on Canon cameras and if you have a touchscreen, you can zoom in with your fingers to see if it's a strong image and how the details are rendered."

The Canon Redline Challenge logo.

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Have you got what it takes to push past your limits? Enter the Redline Challenge and master 'light in the dark' for your chance to win the latest Canon kit and mentoring from pro photographer Lorenz Holder.
A snowboarder is upside down mid-jump, his gloved hand braced against a snow-covered tree, while the sun glows orange against a teal sky behind him.

Lorenz shot this colourful image in Finland during December. The sun was only up for a couple of hours a day while the sunrises and sunsets merged, meaning Lorenz and his subject had to work extremely fast. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 70mm, 1/60 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Lorenz Holder

A brightly-clothed snowboarder is caught mid-air, with a fairytale landscape of snow-covered trees all around him.

The objects in this magical scene are actually snow-covered trees. Lorenz put one flash behind the snowboarder and used the white snow as a natural soft box and reflector to illuminate the subject perfectly. He also put a smaller flash on the left of the frame, closer to the camera, to bring out the bumpy texture of the foreground. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 130mm, 1/100 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Lorenz Holder

2. Slow sync your fast action shots for a sense of speed

To give your low-light action images a standout, almost surreal effect, consider blending flash with a slow shutter speed. The result is a striking image that not only freezes your subject, but also captures any movement as a blur. The underlying technique is similar to shooting a flash-lit subject at sunset – the exposure of the subject is controlled by the flash power, aperture setting and ISO value, while the shutter speed governs both the brightness of the background and how much movement is captured.

"You don't freeze action with the shutter speed, as you would during the day, you freeze the action with the flash," explains Lorenz. "And then, because of the longer exposure time, you get more ambient light. You control how much you want to show in the background with the shutter speed, so if you want to reveal more detail, you can expose a little longer."

A stark grey sculpture of concrete and metal is framed against a night sky full of stars, while a snowboarder is captured mid-jump at the side, upside down and with one hand against the concrete.

Lorenz discovered this location in a university district in Austria. He used a simple lighting arrangement with one flash either side of the frame to balance with the ambient light and freeze the athlete. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/100 sec, f/7.1 and ISO160. © Lorenz Holder

Second-curtain sync flash, when the flash fires at the end of a long exposure, is popular for action photography because it creates a blurred trail behind the flash-lit subject rather than in front, giving a more natural-looking result. However, Lorenz recommends sticking with first-curtain flash with longer exposures because you will be able to time the point at which the subject is captured with more precision. "I want to freeze the action when I push the shutter button," he says. "If this happens as the second curtain is closing, then I have no control because I don't know where the athlete will be when the flash fires."

A tripod is essential for keeping the background sharp during a long exposure, but Lorenz likes to attach his camera to one regardless of the shutter speed he's using. "I know that I can handhold the camera in low light, but when you're shooting action it's easy to accidentally miss your framing. So I really try to get everything locked off at the start."

A snowboarder is mid-air above a snow-covered ramp, against a landscape of tall, snowy trees.

This ramp is actually designed for ski jumping, but Lorenz asked the snowboarder to use it as if it were a half-pipe, launching up it before landing back down onto the jump. Lorenz positioned one light just behind the jump to give its far edge some definition and to illuminate the jump next to it, putting a second light on the left pointing in the boarder's direction of travel. As well as lighting the athlete, this brings out the texture on the side of the jump and highlights the spray of snow above it. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 50mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Lorenz Holder

An old-fashioned wooden building is framed against a night sky of circular star trails, while a translucent snowboarder wearing a red hoodie is caught mid-jump in front of the building.

Using an exposure of almost 11 minutes enabled Lorenz to record star trails above the action in this shot. If the athlete, frozen by the flash, had been wearing a white jacket less of the background would have been visible, but Lorenz's choice of red makes the boarder stand out more. Taken on a Canon EOS 40D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) at 565 sec, f/5 and ISO320. © Lorenz Holder

3. Use a long exposure to record time and space in your night sky shots

Another way to add impact to action shots in the dark is to shoot at night and capture the stars. As with the other techniques, you need to set up the flash so that your subject in the foreground is correctly exposed at your chosen aperture and ISO value, while the shutter speed determines the appearance of the sky.

If you shoot with a short exposure (less than 30 seconds) then the stars will be recorded as dots. Extending the time that your shutter is open, however, will give you stunning, elongated star trails. "I have one image shot on a pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere with no light pollution," Lorenz recalls. "I used the flash to freeze action and then I had to wait another 10 or 15 minutes for the camera to record the star trails. It's exactly the same technique used for the sunset shots, but rather than two seconds the exposure lasts a few minutes."

A woman stands holding an umbrella in the middle of a concrete flight of steps lit by streetlights.

Redline Challenge: tackling 'Light in the Dark'

Action photographer Lorenz Holder unpacks the first Redline Challenge and offers advice on how to push your creativity.
A snowboarder slides along the wooden handrail of a bridge between two snow-covered banks; he and the bridge are perfectly reflected in the water below.

For this shot, Lorenz put his tripod-mounted camera on a small rock in the water, positioning it as close to the surface as possible to get as much reflection as he could. The bridge and snowboarder were lit from either side by bare flash units. Lorenz rarely uses soft boxes or reflectors outdoors, preferring instead to use the hard flash for added contrast and a bold, striking look. Taken on a Canon EOS 40D with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 35mm, 1/160 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Lorenz Holder

To achieve an exposure longer than 30 seconds, you'll need to use your camera's Bulb setting – look for the B on the mode dial, or select Manual mode and scroll through the shutter speeds until you reach 'BULB'.

Whichever technique you try, Lorenz suggests that you keep an open mind and think about the different techniques you could use to unlock a scene's potential. "Photography is a little bit like cooking," he says. "You have your big, trusted bag of techniques, but occasionally you think, 'Oh yeah, that would be perfect,' and experiment with new stuff. You need to try to understand the potential of a scene and then use the lighting to adjust the recipe. I think cooking is a good comparison."

Angela Nicholson

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