Low level lighting

You go for a stroll at night and glance at the stars and then notice what could be a good photograph.

You set up your camera and take a shot; you examine the LCD on the back of the camera and the resultant photo is not what you imagined. The stars look great, but the foreground is black and blacker. You adjust the exposure, and the foreground looks better but you have overexposed the sky.

One of the first skills that a photographer learns on the ladder of increasing skills is the ability to look at a scene and then to determine if the photograph is going to work. Are you going to lose the highlights or have the shadows descended into darkness? The more advanced photographer then explores the concepts of ‘available light’.
 The purist thinks of this as using what they are given and living with it. Also known as ‘available darkness’! Back in the film days this meant ever- increasing darkroom skills or ever- increasing frustration. In the digital days this means stretching what little image you might have.

 My preference on the term ’available light’ is to use whatever light you one can to make the photograph. That is, add any light necessary. Photography doesn’t work without light.
The celebrated photographer W. Eugene Smith was a proponent of this technique, and his work is worth looking at. Creating pools of light in the darkness was one of his strong points. Even is this means adding artificial light.

In the beginning, a photographer would be tempted to turn on their popup flash or to turn on all the lights in a room to help fill in the shadows. But this seldom works that well in the outdoors.

Outdoors is too big for many a scene to be artificially lit; or the amount of light needed will would be too overwhelming—and when trying to do with landscapes, this is difficult.

A number of years ago I attended a seminar with Dave Black, the sports photographer (https://daveblackphotography.com/).

He demonstrated a number of light paintings using small LED flashlights for smaller still life photos. Then he showed some nightscapes and explained how he lit barns for night shots with the stars showing. He used a 2 million candle power light and with a would give 5 or 10 seconds exposure, with his light and then let the camera record the stars with the remaining 30 seconds of exposure.

He showed some very nice photos, but then explained that a little problem soon developed.

Many public parks started banning the use of such bright lights; and in places where they lights were permitted, their use was strongly restricted.  People were objecting to the lights, complaining about that photographers were ruining the scene and also that the lights were interfering with the natural fauna.

About 10 years ago, photographers Wayne Pinkston and Royce Bair started doing what they called ‘low level lighting’. This is where they used small light panels to gently illuminate a scene. The nightscapes had a nice balance between the stars above and the scene below. —see Landscape Astrophotography and Nightscapes by Wayne Pinkston (waynepinkstonphoto.com).

Royce Bair has an excellent E-book on the subject of night photography: Into The Night Photography.

When capturing nightscapes, you will quickly discover that the stars are usually brighter than the foreground. Silhouetted foregrounds look nice but …., just as with your early photographs, you will desire a bit more detail in the foreground; a black foreground against a nearly black background very quickly loses its appeal.

I will compose my shot with my camera on a tripod, set the exposure for the stars or the background subject, and then set up my light(s). I will then adjust the amount of light my lamp gives out and adjust the lamp brightness as needed.  The example photos accompanying this are illuminated by a small Ulanzi brand LED light. The brightness is variable, and I have the choice to vary the colour through the spectrum or to change the lights colour temperature of the lights. 

I take several photos and change the colour between each photo. That means, back at the computer, I will then light paint again using masking, layers, and blends. I also take one shot with no added lighting, just in case. 

I also light paint some photos with a small LED flashlight. It was bright enough that I had to count down the flashlight exposure ( ’one steamboat, two steamboat)’. Whichever way you light the your shot, move the light away from the camera a bit to help give the subject some shape and to make sure that mosquitos and other flying insects don’t show as streaks of light. (fireflies are fun to photograph). With several photos, you can easily layer your photos in Photoshop and paint in the light where you want it by using masking. As in the examples shown.

Another photograph had me blocking some of the light from my Ulanzi light. Even at 1%, the light was too bright for the scene. I put my fingers over part of the light. You might need several shots and do some reviewing of your photos before setting your exposure and light levels.

Another great source of more information concerning low level lighting is to review are the YouTube videos of Richard Tatti, Nightscape Images, NightscapeImages.com.au

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