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How to freeze motion in low light - the viewfinder advantage

Tim Marchant (timpsm)

Keywords: tips_and_tricks, digital, exposure, shooting_conditions, wildlife, chimping, postprocessing

Show pages (2 Pages)

In this day of automatic everything, have you ever wondered why, perhaps surprisingly, the brightness of the image seen in the viewfinder is not controlled to be directly proportional to the brightness of the recorded image? 

There certainly are pre-electronic historical reasons, but it is still a valuable feature.  It allows the tracking/capture of an image independently of the chosen exposure/storage.  This independence can be used to advantage.

This article reviews a technique to capture moving objects in low-light by under-exposure and then post-processing to recover the image - but without motion blur.

With it, you will be able to show some crisp keeper shots under difficult conditions from your new gear.


The Objective

My D300s DSLR was a huge step up from my digital point-and-shoot in shutter lag, focus speed, frame rate, viewfinder . . . in every way shooting with my new camera was a joy.  I could capture anything.  I had good gear, it worked great, and life was good.

I chose an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 super-zoom (f/5.6 @ 200mm) because I don’t have the budget for an exotic zoom or a fixed focal-length professional lens - and heck, I was just getting my feet wet with digital after years shooting a film SLR. 

Of course, being human, I soon started to expect even more. 

Being a bird-watcher it didn’t take long to find tough shooting conditions.  Birds hiding in shaded brush and jumping from branch-to-branch are pretty darn hard to capture cleanly.

Most consumer zooms shoot at f/5.6 when zoomed, so that fixes one leg of the exposure triangle.  Next, choosing the highest clean ISO for my camera, I am faced with metered shutter speeds of 1/4 to 1/30 of a second in the woods - and lots of blurry bird pictures.  Also, forget about hummingbirds in the golden light of dawn.

A note here, your camera may be newer than mine, and your woods brighter than mine.  You may get the results you need by increasing the ISO farther than I can, so experiment.  And yes, sometimes there is more than one way to accomplish a given goal, but there is a limit somewhere to every camera and lens combination. 

The following under-exposure technique is used to accomplish my objective - images to help identify birds in the field - where sharp capture is more important than dynamic range or image noise.




Since 1/4-1/30 of a second shutter speed is just not going to capture a sharp image of a moving bird, the shutter speed must be forced upward.  This will result in an under-exposed image - but one without blur.

To force the shutter speed, as you do for action shots, switch from “program” or “aperture priority” to “shutter priority” mode.  Then, instead of selecting a shutter speed to give the right exposure, select one fast enough to freeze the motion.  That will vary from 1/125 for some subjects to more than 1/1000 of a second for others - experiment. 

Ignore the meter which can be showing 2, 3 or 4 stops underexposed at this point. 

Here is where you see the advantage of not tying the viewfinder brightness to the exposure of the image. 

The viewfinder is still usable for tracking, framing, focusing and shooting  - all are unaffected.  Be warned that chimping will show a nearly black captured image.

As a bonus, the faster shutter speed may allow the camera to shoot more frames-per-second, and that can help get the right pose to help identify a bird.

Use RAW mode and shoot away . . . and then take the camera back to your computer to develop what you have captured.  Reset the shutter speed and any other settings before you forget.


Now to restore the correct exposure.  Before you can see the images, you have to set an exposure correction to offset the underexposure caused by the high shutter speed.

Before this correction amount is set, the shots look black - as in Figure 1.  By the way, they also will look black in the transfer utility (so don’t panic).

Figure 1 - “As shot” bird-in-the-bush images viewed in Adobe CS5 Mac / Bridge

To correct the exposure using Adobe Bridge, open any one of the black images.  Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) will launch.  Increase the exposure slider (under the “Basic” tab of ACR) until the image looks right, or choose “Auto.”

In this example all shots were taken with the shutter speed four stops higher than metered (f/5.6, metered at 1/8, shot at 1/125).

Figure 2 - CS5 Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) resetting default exposure to compensate for underexposure set during capture

And now for the really handy part: this compensated exposure will be applied to all shots viewed back in Bridge once you save it in ACR.  To the right of the heading “Basic” there is a pop-down menu, select “Save New Camera Raw Defaults.”  This pop-down is shown open in Figure 2.

Now return to Bridge.  Bridge will use this newly saved exposure compensation when displaying all images in the filmstrip - as in Figure 3.

Figure 3 - Same Adobe Bridge screen as Figure 1, but with exposure increased four stops

Proceed now with your normal workflow to select, process and output your shots.

These shots were taken on a sunny morning but before the sun cleared the ridge to the east.  The subject was hiding in some evergreens, and she was not staying still at all, but bobbing and hopping from branch-to-branch.  Post-processing was done with CS5 for Mac.

The recovered images are surprisingly good.  The 1/125 shutter speed avoided the motion blur that would have been very visible at 1/8 or 1/15 which the meter called for.  It also gave me more frames-per-second than 1/30.

Once finished working with this set of underexposed images, re-reset the exposure compensation back to zero - and save it using “Save New Camera Raw Defaults” again.



There are disadvantages to underexposing to freeze motion.

First, chimping is hard or impossible depending on how many stops you underexpose.  At four stops all you see is a black screen.

Second, by under exposing you are giving away dynamic range and increasing noise in the final image.  This technique, after all, is the opposite of “expose to the right.”  Chimping will show the histogram pretty hard over to the left.

Third, if your post-processing software doesn’t make it easy to preview shots without having to open them individually, that can really slow down your workflow.  It just gets frustrating staring at all-black frames and having to open and correct each one while trying to remember which one had the right pose or wing position.

Adobe Bridge and ACR work great once you learn the trick of setting an exposure compensation as above.  I looked at ViewNX2 for a similar default exposure correction, but was unsuccessful.  Is there a ViewNX2 expert out there who may know?




DSLR’s have a number of advantages over simpler cameras.  In this article, a DSLR’s manual controls and optical viewfinder are used to manage low-light shooting situations.

Photographers moving up to a DSLR can be frustrated that their f/5.6 zoom-equipped camera can’t automatically produce crisp images in all conditions.  The persistent ones will discover that you can do a lot more once you take manual control of your shooting.

When you are shooting moving subjects in low light with a DSLR, you can still get the shot without blur.  You need to manually choose a faster shutter speed than the camera would choose in its automatic modes.  You also should shoot RAW.  And you then need to recover the correct exposure in post-processing.

There are disadvantages to this technique, particularly noise in the image, but that is preferable to a blurry subject.  The right post-processing tool support is also critical.

You can still frame and shoot with the available light because the viewfinder doesn’t darken to match the exposure you choose - and in this case that’s a good thing.


Tim Marchant

(17 Votes )
Show pages (2 Pages)

Originally written on September 12, 2014

Last updated on February 21, 2019

Tim Marchant Tim Marchant (timpsm)

Salt Spring Island, Canada
Basic, 416 posts


User on September 4, 2015

Without trying this myself, by comparison, I don't think there would be much of a difference between your method and just jacking the ISO by four stops. You're still going to get increased noise and contrast but at least you'll be able to see the image on your camera and as you begin post processing. Processing in Adobe Light room as opposed to Bridge offers some noise reduction and selective sharpening to balance things out.

Larry Johnson (larry_j) on August 13, 2015

I will try this. Quite often, I am only trying to get enough of a picture to assist in identification, but I have not tried underexposing to this extent. Thanks

Thomas Otterbein (thott) on August 9, 2015

Perfect tip! Just try it with my D7200 with -4 EV. Greetings Thomas

Min Chai Liu (mcliu19) on January 30, 2015

interesting article , never tried before

John A. Meiers (Dakotaboy) on October 13, 2014

Fellow Ribbon awarded for his efforts to make easier to reach landscape information at Nikonians

Being fairly new to digital cameras I find this information very helpful. It will benefit us novices who don't quite know enough about our Nikon DSLR to adjust on the fly out in the open

Denny Beall (CPR) on September 29, 2014

Good article. As photographers we often just need to "get the shot" and this demonstrates a way that works to do that.

Thomas Adderley (The SGM) on September 24, 2014

When in doubt I use my tablet which allows me to upload off the SD Card right on location. This affords me the photo reference for adjustments. Sometimes use my small laptop for the same purpose but the tablet is lighter.

Clive Liddell (cliddell) on September 17, 2014

Hi Tim, Interesting exposure suggestions! In ViewNX just select all underexposed images and make the necessary exposure (and other) adjustment on the first selected image and press Ctrl-S. Regards Clive LIddell

Randall E Myers (megustanfotos2) on September 16, 2014

Thank you!

Bob Gudramovics (BobG55) on September 13, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Great article, didn't consider this workflow until now!!

Stephen Blakesley (lajolla) on September 12, 2014

Thanks for the article. I use the optical viewfinder for Nikon DSLR's, and NOT the rear-screen live-view settings. I think this article needs some proof-reading.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on September 12, 2014

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his most generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest

Good article.