Lighting

The Color of Night: The Proliferation of LEDs and its Effects on How We Photograph

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that it’s gotten much cooler at night in recent years––about 3000 degrees cooler!

The nighttime world has transitioned from one that was overwhelmingly lit by yellow-orange sodium vapor lamps to one lit primarily by daylight-balanced LEDs. It’s happened quickly and it’s had a huge impact on night photography, especially in urban areas. Even night photography in national parks is impacted, as the distant glow on the horizon shifts from orange to white.

While there’s no doubt that LED lighting is more energy-efficient, and generally easier on the eyes, it is making for much more mundane and ordinary-looking night photographs.

Figure 1. Trona Pinnacles, California. November 2014. Canon 5D Mark II with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 6400. White balance: tungsten. Foreground lighting with a Four Sevens Quark 123 LED flashlight. Sky glow from mostly sodium vapor lights in the nearby small city of Ridgecrest.

Back in the 1990s I was living in San Francisco, and much of my night photography was done in and around industrial sites in the Bay Area. My friend Tom Paiva and I explored the abandoned piers along the Third Street corridor in the south of San Francisco, and the Southern Pacific rail yards across the Bay Bridge in Oakland. We were drawn to the strange machinery and architecture of these sites, but most of all it was the odd mixture of high and low pressure sodium vapor, mercury vapor and metal halide lights that we found so irresistible. We sought scenes lit with multiple light sources that created surreal colors when combined with long exposures on our film (Figure 2). These were exactly the kind of situations that I tried hard to avoid or to correct for in my commercial architectural work.

And there’s the rub––mixed lighting can be both a curse and a blessing depending on the situation at hand. To the artist, it makes for worlds of possibilities, and to the commercial photographer concerned with color accuracy, nothing but headaches.

Figure 2. Petaluma, circa 1994. Shot on Fuji NPL color negative film (tungsten), exposure unrecorded. A combination of sodium and mercury vapor lights illuminates separate parts of this image making for areas with radically different color balances—not to mention that crazy purple sky. Note the light on either side of the pole in the foreground.

Photographing mixed-lighting scenes with digital cameras and adjusting the white balance in post-processing allows for great flexibility in how an image is presented, and in turn the feelings or moods it elicits. We have it easy today being able to fine-tune (or even dramatically shift) the white balance after an image is made, and local adjustments make it even easier to “correct” for different colored light sources in the same frame.

Not too long ago that would have been an unimaginable luxury. Back in the days of 4x5 transparency film, I shot assignments where I would have to make multiple exposures on the same sheet of film for each light source. Testing was required to find the right filtration to put in front of the lens for fluorescent, incandescent, sodium, halide and other light sources, and if daylight was involved, windows would often have to be blacked out and then exposed for separately with all of the other light sources turned off. All of this had to be done while making sure the camera didn’t move between exposures. The gas discharge lamps often took 5 to 10 minutes to warm up after being turned off, so testing and exposing Polaroids and film might have taken 2 or 3 hours for a single image. In some instances, I could filter the lights directly and make a single exposure, but putting filter sleeves on a sea of fluorescent tubes in a large office space wasn’t much fun either. This is what it was like in the days before digital photography and even Photoshop.

But, back to our future …

In the images below of an old textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the overall scene is lit with high pressure sodium vapor lights, and there’s a metal halide light out of sight behind the building on the right side of the frame. The interior is lit with either incandescent or possibly more sodium vapor lights.

In each version, I’ve set the white balance differently by using Lightroom’s eyedropper tool to click on an area lit by one of the light sources. As is usually the case, my preferred white balance is somewhere between the neutral points used in the first two examples. After using the eyedropper tool to check various white balances (Figures 3a and 3b), I pick the one that is closest to what I want and then use the temperature and tint sliders to further refine the color (Figure 3c). In this kind of situation, the “right” white balance is the one that looks best, not a perfectly neutral setting.

Figure 3a: Pawtucket Textile Mill. December 2015. Nikon D750 with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 10 seconds, f/8, ISO 400. White balance neutralizing the metal halide light: 3100 K, +15 Magenta.

Figure 3b: The same image with the white balance neutralizing the sodium vapor light: 2050 K, +4 Magenta.

Figure 3c: The same image with the white balance set to personal taste: 2450 K, +7 Magenta.

Figure 4: An LED streetlight casting multiple shadows in Los Angeles, December 2013.

LEDs in the Modern World

In my recent travels, I’ve noticed that in both large cities and small towns around the country, most places have almost fully transitioned to LED lighting within the last 2 or 3 years. Lighting technology has evolved quickly, and early adapters—such as the city of Los Angeles (Figure 4), which converted to LED in 2012 and 2013—now find themselves with outdated fixtures that use multiple diodes and cast weird repeating shadows. Newer lights are brighter, and don’t require multiple diodes for adequate brightness. Even my tiny hometown of Hinesburg, Vermont, has completely transitioned to LED streetlights, casting the town in a naturalistic—but boring—neutral glow.

I had the great fortune to lead National Parks at Night’s Easter Island and Morocco photo tours this winter, and observed that relatively poor and extremely remote Easter Island (Figure 6) has converted to LED lighting, but Morocco, which generally has better infrastructure, is still lit mostly by sodium vapor. Granted, there’s only one town on Easter Island, while Morocco (Figure 5) is a country that is slightly larger than California with several major cities! I guess it’s not a fair comparison, but it was interesting to see. I haven’t been to Cuba since 2015, but I’m guessing that when Gabe returns next week, he’ll report that Havana still glows orange at night!

Figure 5. Essaouira, Morocco. March 2019. Nikon D750 with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 13 seconds, f/11, ISO 100. White balance was set to auto, which used 4350 K, +36 Magenta. I adjusted it to 3950 K, +37 Magenta by clicking the eyedropper tool just above the archway in the foreground. The orange light is high pressure sodium vapor, the green is from mercury vapor, and the archway was lit by either metal halide or LED. The window in the tower is most likely an LED bulb.

Have you noticed the Color of Night in your town lately? Has it changed, and if so, was it for better or worse? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Figure 6: Tahai, Rapa Nui. February 2019. Nikon D750 with a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.2, ISO 3200. White balance was set to auto, recorded as 3550 K, +2 Magenta, and adjusted to 3300 K, +6 Magenta. Six vertical images, merged to panorama in Adobe Lightroom. The Moai at Tahai are just at the edge of Hanga Roa, the only town on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. They are the only Moai that are (indirectly) lit by artificial light, and one of them told me that they were not pleased at being lit up all night every night. Most of the light in this scene is from LED street lighting, but there is one sodium light casting a yellow tinge on the right side of the image. The rock platform in the foreground on the left was lit with a Luxli Viola set at 3200 K.

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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Out of the Blue: The Importance of Twilight to the Night Photographer

Twilight is one of the most beautiful times of day to shoot. It is also the perfect time to finalize compositions and setups for your eventual night photography.

The famous “magic hour” for photography extends for over two hours on either side of the setting and rising of the sun. As the sun moves closer to the horizon, it bathes our subjects in a beautiful warm and soft light considered by many to be the prime time to shoot daytime landscapes. Then, as it dips below the horizon after sunset, the exceptionally warm light illuminates the sky, and the clouds become brilliant and saturated.

As time moves on and the sun sinks even further below the horizon, soft, blue light provides an otherworldly glow. This has come to be known as “blue hour”—and it’s an amazing time to start your night photography.

Shades of Blue

Hawaii in the blue hour. Nikon D4. 15 seconds, f/11, ISO 400.

To better understand twilight and its relevance to the night photographer, let’s a take a look at the different moments that occur around sunset (these moments also occur in the opposite order around sunrise). Following are definitions of terms compiled from the U.S. Naval Observatory website:

  • Horizon—Wherever one is located on or near the earth's surface, the earth is perceived as essentially flat and, therefore, as a plane. The sky resembles one-half of a sphere or dome centered at the observer. If there are no visual obstructions, the apparent intersection of the sky with the earth's (plane) surface is the horizon, which appears as a circle centered at the observer.
  • Sunset (and sunrise)—The times when the upper edge of the disk of the sun is on the horizon. This means the ball of the sun is no longer visible, as it is just below the horizon.
  • Civil twilight—The center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. This is the time of day just after the actual sunset.
  • Nautical twilight—The center of the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon.
  • Astronomical twilight—The center of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon.

As photographers, we are concerned with light. Specifically, usable light. We are also concerned with being in the right place at the right time! During twilight and at times of the setting and rising sun, the light changes very rapidly. We must be prepared, having scouted and found our ideal shoot positions, or a series of ideal positions, subject matter and viewpoints. This is crucial for the night photographer, because once darkness settles in, all of those things are much harder to find.

Civil Twilight

Civil Twilight color at Jekyll Island in Georgia. Canon EOS 10D. 30 seconds, f/19, ISO 100.

From the time the sun sets until approximately a half-hour later is civil twilight. This is when color starts to hit the highest clouds in the sky. We should rename it “Photographer’s Twilight” for the millions of photographs taken at this marvelous time of day. This is usually when we take what we consider “sunset” shots.

Notice the cloud positions. Are they low clouds? These will receive light for only about 15 minutes after sunset. High clouds? They will retain color for longer. While not “night photography,” this is a great time to begin scouting, planning and capturing the beautiful light of the end of the day.

Bonus:

The end of Civil Twilight is the best time to shoot cityscapes. The fading light of the sky matches the emerging city lights perfectly.

Last of civil twilight on a cityscape—Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Nikon D700. 4 second, f/8, ISO 400.

Nautical Twilight

This is the blue hour. Nautical twilight begins when civil twilight ends and lasts for roughly another half-hour to 45 minutes. The light is beginning to fade and we are transitioning into night. This is the time for finalizing locations, compositions and focus. It’s much easier to set your camera up in this dim light as opposed to starting from scratch in the dark.

Bonus:

In addition to readying yourself for the stars, this is a great time to photograph straight-up landscapes. The dim blue light at this hour serves to create haunting and peaceful scenes. Nautical twilight is also a great time to begin light painting; it’s dark enough to allow for light painting but bright enough to safely move around the scene.

Car trails and fog at nautical twilight. Nikon D4. 4 seconds, f/16, ISO 200.

Astronomical Twilight

The moment you have been waiting for! Astronomical twilight begins approximately 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours after sunset. It is the beginning of dark, dark. No sky light. You can now begin to get your star-point shots.

Start by testing your exposure and checking your focus. A good starting point is 30 seconds, f/2.8 or f/4, ISO 3200 or 6400. (For more info on star-point exposures, check out Lance’s blog post, “What’s the Longest Usable Shutter Speed for Astro-Landscape?”). Next, how does your white balance look? Does your foreground complement the sky? Check to ensure your long exposure noise reduction is turned off for shorter exposures.

Once astronomical twilight ends, the sky is as dark as it’s going to get. Now you’re firmly entrenched in “nighttime.” You can certainly continue with star-point and Milky Way shots, but now is a great time to get those really long star trails. Depending on the phase of the moon, exposures into the hours can be achieved after astronomical twilight.

Astronomical twilight at McDonald Lake in Glacier National Park. Nikon D4s. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Tackle the Twilights

As you can see, knowing the exact times of the different twilights is necessary for planning and executing great photographs.

There are a great many places on the web as well as various smartphone apps that will give precise twilight times for any given day of the year in almost any location worldwide. One of our favorites here at NPAN is PhotoPills. This app will help you plan not only your night shoots, but also full-moon shots, sunset and sunrise excursions, and Milky Way captures.

Take some time to become accustomed to the terms and rhythm of the twilights to greatly expand and enhance your photographic experience!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

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Experimenting with Uncommon Light Sources in Night Photography

One of the joys we have as night photographers is having extra time to make more deliberate choices about lighting for our imagery. Our common tools include flashlights, speedlites and larger flashes. But it certainly isn't limited to the usual, right?

Let's explore some alternate lighting experiments I've conducted:

Adjacent to Sand Arch in Arches National Park, Utah © Matt Hill

The above image combines me choosing to record another photographer's light painting while adding my own twist: toy LED "Rocket Copters." I had thrown them in my bag, knowing that I would be able to make some UFO-like descending lights.

Central Park in January © Matt Hill

Point light sources, such as battery-operated Christmas lights, are often used to make glowing orbs, but they are also fun to drag along the ground to illuminate and write with light simultaneously. This aided this photo in becoming an obvious long exposure. Without it, the only clue was the rising fog in the rear left.

Toy sword inside crashed plane in northern Arizona. 

At a trade show in Las Vegas, someone left a toy sword in our booth that lit up green. The kid in me was like, "YEAH!" The photographer in me was like, "I'm gonna use that for tonight's shoot." And I did.

Toys with cheap, colored LEDs in them can sit well in small places and provide that perfect color glow to make a scene.

Arches National Park © Matt Hill

A tablet is also a gorgeous source of light, with both very consistent and controllable output. On my iPad mini I have an app called Rave Magnet. It cycles through all chroma as you wave it around, making beautiful color gradients. The effect is excellent for light writing and painting.

Downtown Denver

Sometimes the tools you have can be repurposed. The above was my two flashlights in plastic bags, dragged along underwater.

This was the most exercise I'd gotten in weeks. My friend and I threw this light back and forth for eight minutes while the camera popped off sequential exposures. Stacked in post.

Have fun. Look at the world of light-emitting objects in a new way: How can I make cool new photos with that?

See more about Matt's photography, art, workshops and writing at MattHillArt.com. Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.

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