"Beam me up Scotty" Sigma 35mm f1.4 @ f1.8 10 seconds ISO 2000
When we think about photography generally the first thing that comes into our mind is, "I wonder what the light will be like ... ?"
Today I'd like us to consider what that means to those of us who endeavour to take photos of the night landscape when there is pretty much no light at all. When you begin to spend a bit of time out at night under the stars you quickly realise that there is always some form of light available. Once your eyes adjust to the dark conditions you begin to see shapes and silhouettes all around. Even the stars themselves provide light especially in a very remote location far from city lights.
Still, the challenge remains ... How do we best light our subjects at night and enable our camera to expose to our satisfaction ..?
I want to use the image above to demonstrate how the addition of an artificial light source can dramatically bring life, drama and dimension to a photograph.
This image was taken late one cold July night in Country Victoria in Australia. The fog had descended and it was pretty hard to see the stars in the sky because of it. I decided to add 3 lights into the mix to provide both foreground and back lighting on this abandoned homestead. There was one torch placed on the ground on the far left of the image gently shining diagonally across the brick chimney stacks. Another light was placed inside the building itself to provide some internal detail to the structure. Finally, once the self timer had been set on the camera I ran around to the back of the building and during the 10 seconds of the exposure I shone my torch through the opening at the rear of the structure and also into the sky to attempt to silhouette the roofline. (By the way, without the thick fog this wouldn't have been so effective.)
This is a single exposure but to give you some idea of how it might look with each of the lights in place on their own, check out the images below.
So the next question people generally ask is .... what is this style of lighting called and what type of light do you use ...?
This is called light painting, but the answer to this question is both simple and complex. Simple, because as you will see I use very standard "off the shelf" torches to light paint my subjects. Complex because I also like to use any light source that is available to me at the time ... many times this is completely out of my control.
Firstly I will show you some of the equipment I use to light images like those displayed above.
This is a collection of the main lights that I use to create nearly all my Nightscape images. These were all purchased on ebay at very reasonable prices.
From left to right:
* Z96 LED Video light Dimmable with filter gel
* 5000 lm LED torch non dimmable but zoomable
* 2000 lm led torch high/low brightness zoomable
* 300 lm mini torch on/off only but zoomable
Because most LED lights are balanced to more of a blue colour I like to use coloured gels to add some yellow into the mix. Added to this is the fact that I almost always manually set the white balance on my camera to a rather cold 3450k. This has the effect of exposing more to the blue end of the colour spectrum. I do this so that I can keep a nice deep blue night sky colour.
During post processing of raw image files it's quite easy to adjust the white balance of the image to bring out the warmer yellow colours so it makes sense to give the light source a bit more yellow to start with.
Just to illustrate my point, check out the two images below. Left image standard led torch, Right image with yellow filter.
I did make mention of a more complex side to this light painting process and that is using available light sources to light the scene. This is somewhat complex due to the unpredictable nature of this method. I'm not really talking about available light such as the moon or perhaps street lighting. These are always viable and quite effective, but one of my prefered methods of lighting a scene is with random passing car or truck headlights. These are bright and powerful enough to light a large scene from a great distance, and as a bonus they usually have a nice yellow tint.
You may laugh but check some examples of this unusual technique.
All of the above images were totally lit using passing traffic. As suggested, this method is totally unpredictable but as you can see it has the potential to produce stunning results.
In practice a successful outing to capture a collection of nightscape images often encompasses many lighting methods. Sometimes a simple silhouette of the night sky is enough, other times we need to make use of one or more of the methods mentioned in this article. The most important thing to remember during our preparation in the lead up to a shoot is to always be looking for a creative and inspiring way to feature the beauty and majesty of the night sky and landscape.
Imagine the first image at the beginning of this article without the fog .... nice but not spectacular. There was no fog to be found when I left home. Sometimes things just happen, circumstances unfold before our eyes. Be ready, look for the unusual and make the most of every opportunity. Bring your lights but always look for other lighting options.
But above all else never forget to take a moment and breathe in the silent but awesome glory of the night sky, you'll be glad you did.
My intent is to inspire you to look up and see the beauty of the night sky.