Canon 5D Mark III: Low Light Performance

With the plethora of museums and galleries in the Los Angeles Area, there are abundant opportunities to photograph fine art. However, most museums prohibit the use of flash to prevent the bleaching of color pigments. Tripods are also not permitted, as they can be a hazard to foot traffic.

This poses a dilemma for photographers: most works of art by master artists are very old and delicate. Color pigments on these pieces are often dark and faded, and museums purposely keep artwork dimly lit. Under these circumstances, the only way to take memorable photos of masterpieces is to use fast glass and a very light-sensitive sensor.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (or LACMA) houses one of the finest art collections in Southern California, so I paid it a visit this weekend and tried to challenge the low-light performance of the Canon 5D Mark III. The following are all hand-held photos taken in relative haste to be unobtrusive to the swell of weekend museum visitors.

The first challenge was a piece by Flemish painter Jan Steen, who utilized a very dark color palette representative of Dutch masters of the 17th century in the vein of Rembrandt.  When viewed with the naked eye, the details of this painting, completed in 1668, are very difficult to discern. However, even without direct lighting, this photo of Samson and Delilah taken by the 5D Mark III in fully automatic mode actually appears over-exposed!

Canon 5D Mark III, 1/50 Sec, f/2.8 ISO 1600

 The  photo reveals much of the detail invisible to most observers, including the expressions of the soldiers in the background. Next time, I will try to coax more even more detail by lowering the ISO to 800 and speeding up the exposure.

Cut that hair!

 The next challenge was an embroidered silk dragon emblem displayed in the Korean pavilion. Again, due to age, this piece was very dark, and appeared devoid of color. The Mark III was up to the challenge, even when the auto-exposure was set to a high ISO 2500. In the photo, it is possible to distinguish details in color and detail simply unobservable with the naked eye.

Canon 5D Mark III, 1/50 Sec, f/2.8 ISO 2500
From the previous photo, this detail of the emblem's center reveals the subtle shades of blue thread forming figurative waves. It is possible to count the number of stitches forming the circular heart of the piece, and even the dragon scales!

Silk Embroidery Details

This third piece is an ink on paper scroll that is dated to the year 1470, attibuted to Japanese monk painter Yogetsu. The monkey is reaching for the reflection of the Moon in a pond.  This piece, representing man's futile attempt to grasp the unattainable, was particularly poignant and beautiful. It hangs in a recessed wall gallery in near-complete darkness inside the Japanese pavilion. For this photograph, the 5D raised the ISO to an incredible 5000, unattainable by most current DSLRs.

Canon 5D Mark III, 1/80 Sec, f/2.8 ISO 5000

Incredibly, despite the noise introduced by the high ISO, it is still possible to clearly read the artist's signature red seal, which is visible in the bottom right area of the scroll.

Artist Seal in Ancient Japanese Script

If you are like me, you like to view your images as soon as you return home from a shoot, and the best photos become prized memories for years to come. So far, I have been amazed by the quality of images produced by Canon's 5D Mark III. This short series illustrates how this camera can provide new dimensions for low-light photography that we may have believed were not possible.

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