Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to experiment with a really old-fashioned light source; it’s one of those days a lot of people choose candlelight.
There’s something visceral about fire in the human psyche and candles provide a single, pure pinpoint of fire that is both warm and intimate at the same time. You know you’re a real photo geek when a romantic candlelight dinner inspires you to break out the camera and tripod!
One of the really amazing things about new digital DSLRs is their low light performance. Just a few years ago trying to light exclusively by candlelight meant risking a house fire. Today even APS-C sensors like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D (compare) can yield decent results in low light and full frame cameras like the Canon 5D MK II and Nikon D700 (compare) can shoot in extremely low light.
Don’t Worry About Noise
This is one time you can forget about the ISO. Most digital cameras start showing low light artifacts anywhere over ISO 800. But candlelight portraits are one instance when the noise can actually add to a photo, so don’t be afraid to experiment with higher ISOs. If the pictures are too noisy you can always add more candles.
Use a Tripod
Trotting out a tripod for some candid shots may not be the most romantic gesture, but it’s still better than hand-holding at slow shutter speeds. Even a gelled fill flash will spoil the effect, so there’s no real option here.
I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/15 of a second with a human subject as it’s hard for anyone to hold that still.
A white tablecloth actually works quite well as a natural reflector. A mirror will give you sharper shadows and strong directional lighting. Your standard photographic reflector clamped to a light stand will also come in handy to fill in the deeper shadows.
You can use aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard if you want a more irregular effect. If there’s a whiff of breeze, a flickering candle with an aluminum foil reflector can look like a campfire.
There are two ways you can go with candlelight photos: You can expose for the subject and overexpose the candle flame or you can expose for the candle flames and deliberately under-light the subject.
Try it both ways and try different combinations. You can sometimes use LED or incandescent bulbs as background light if you need more depth.
Do remember that a couple pictures of a special occasion is one thing, but a good photographer also knows when it’s time to hang up the camera and enjoy the moment.