Low Level Landscape Lighting used at Cyclops Arch in the Alabama Hills of California
What is Low Level Landscape Lighting?
Low Level Landscape Lighting (LLLL), or the shorter form Low Level Lighting (LLL) is a method of lighting the landscape for Landscape Astrophotography that is more uniform and controllable and has less light pollution than light painting.
LLL is a name proposed by a group of landscape astrophotographers in 2016 to differentiate LLL from light painting. LLL has been used for a number of years in nighttime photography, but was not as widely used as light painting until recently. For years this technique has been grouped under the general term "light painting" for lack of its own term. As the technique matured a new name was proposed to distinguish the technique and has gained acceptance.
Hoodoos illuminated by Low Level Lighting in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
When is LLL useful?
LLL is most useful when photographing small to moderately large landscape features. These range from small features such as hoodoos, trees, and arches up to large features such as buttes or waterfalls. Extensive landscape features such as mountains or valleys are best imaged with different techniques.
Why use any lighting on the landscape at night?
The simple answer is to better demonstrate the area of interest. LLL when done properly can accentuate landscape features at night and demonstrate them better than in the day. Why? It is because you control the light. Within the limits of the landscape you determine the angle and character of the light. In the day you do not control the light. The best you can do is show up at the right time. There are a number of alternative techniques you could use at night. You could obtain a long exposure of the foreground using starlight. Starlight, however, is a diffuse light source, coming from all directions, and it creates an effect that flattens rather than highlights landscape features. You could simply let the landscape features appear as silhouettes. This can be interesting in some compositions, but this can become repetitive and usually obscures many of the most interesting features. You could blend a night sky image with a foreground image taken at dusk or dawn. This can be effective, however it takes many hours and limits you to one composition per night of this kind. It can also look unnatural unless done well. With LLL you can obtain multiple compositions each night.
Low Level Lighting - Valley of Dreams
Low Level Lighting, Ancient Bristlecone Pine
Differences from Light Painting:
LLL is a method for lighting the landscape at night that uses extremely dim constant lighting during a nighttime photographic exposure, attempting to match starlight. LLL is more similar to “outdoor” studio lighting than to light painting. This is accomplished with constant lights mounted on tripods or light stands. The term Light Painting carries connotations of using a flashlight or hand held beam to illuminate landscape or other structures during a photographic exposure, frequently by direct illumination.
Advantages over Light Painting:
Light Painting has significant limitations in lighting landscape at night including variation in light from photo to photo, non-uniform illumination, and limitation of your night vision or dark adaptation. It may also require multiple attempts to "get it right", and each photographer may want to do their on style of light painting. LLL uses constant faint lighting throughout the exposure. Once it is set up it is left on. Advantages of LLL include consistent lighting from photo to photo, much more uniform lighting within a photo, and much better preservation of your night vision. It does not need to be adjusted from photo to photo, and there is no guessing of how long to shine a light on a subject as in light painting. A single lighting setup will serve multiple photographers and eliminates the need for numerous individual episodes of individual light painting. A major advantage is that it creates little or no visible light pollution. You cannot even see the light until your eyes become dark adapted, and then you can barely see it. You can still enjoy the wonders of the night sky.
Creating the proper lighting of the landscape will allow you to properly expose both the landscape and starry sky together in one exposure and with minimal light pollution.
Low Level Lighting - Valley of Dreams
Remember, you are trying to match the brightness of your lighting to the brightness of the stars. This will allow you to match the exposure of the landscape to the exposure of the sky. You are matching starlight. IT DOES NOT TAKE MUCH! The most common mistake I see (and make myself) is using lighting that is too bright. Typically, after I set up the lighting I cannot even see it until my eyes are dark-adapted. This is my rule of thumb – when you are setting up the lighting, if you can actually see the light on the structure, then it is too much.
Typically you set up the LED light panels on a tripod or light stand, and leave them on for the whole photo session. In this way, LLL is more like outdoor studio lighting. You will use a primary light but can also use a fill light, accent lights, and back lighting. All of these need be very dim. It is best to locate the light about 45-60 degrees off to the side of the camera position, and it is advantageous to place them at least a 100 feet (30m) from the focal point if the landscape allows.
Low Level Lighting - Corona Arch
The angle of light creates shadows or relief in the rocks or landscape structures and adds a feeling of depth. Lighting a structure from the camera position creates a very “flat” looking image. You also need to get the light source off of the ground. The closer it is to the ground, the worse the shadows from stones and bushes. When hiking I carry 2 small lightweight tripods for lights, and these are typically 42-50 inches tall. I try to elevate these even further by placing them up on large rocks when possible. When hiking lightweight equipment is a must. If I do not have to hike a long distance I also commonly use a 10-foot tall lighting stand. It is also very lightweight and easy to carry, and is wonderful in eliminating harsh shadows on the ground. It is also very desirable to get some distance between the lighting source and the area of interest. The farther away the light, the softer and more uniform the lighting appears. As always you have to work within the limitations of the landscape.
I use the dimmer to turn the light down very low, usually to the minimum, or near minimum. There is usually some adjusting and rechecking the scene. I set up the lighting, walk back to the camera, do an exposure, check the results, and go back and readjust the brightness of the lighting. Sometimes I do this several times. It is easier with two people, but it is not hard to do alone. If the light is still too bright even on the lowest setting I will cover the light with a white cloth, such as a white handkerchief or napkin. If it is still too bright I will double up or triple up the thickness of the cloth. It is easy to damp down the intensity this way. I may use tape or rubber band to keep the cloth in place. After you get it set up, you can take multiple exposures, move positions, adjust camera angles, obtain multiple panorama images, etc., and always be sure of the same uniform lighting. This makes it possible to use lighting for panoramas. If I am placing a light behind or under a structure and another in front of a structure I may use slightly different filters to make one light slightly warmer than the other. It may help to add a feeling of depth.
Low Level Lighting - Cyclops Arch, Alabama Hills
Many LED lights have a cool color temperature and are too blue resulting in an unnatural color to the landscape. Fortunately most of the light panels come with warming filters. You can also purchase light panels with an adjustable color temperature, but these are more expensive. Many of the light panels that have warming filters or diffusion filters use small magnets to attach the filter to the front of the light. These magnets lift them the filter off the front of the light, and there may be a “blue” light leak around the edges of the filter. This can look unpleasant if you capture image some of this blue light. I use black gaffers tape to tape around the edge of the filter to stop the light leak.
You can make your own warming filter For LEDs that do not come with them or if you want to adjust the color temperature yourself. These are easily made from Theatrical Gel (see below). You just cover the light with a sheet of gel and tape it in place. These come in many colors but the ones useful for this purpose are in the yellow to orange range. A 20 X 24 sheet of gel usually costs about $8 USD at Amazon or B&H Photo Video. Several useful ones are listed below.
Low Level Lighting used at The Three Sisters, Goblin Valley State Park
Examples of Specific Lights and Filters:
Remember less is generally better. The more a light can be dimmed, the more useful it can be. These are all dimmable, and useful for LLL.
LED Light Panels: (These come with Warming Filters)
Light Panels with Adjustable Color Temperature:
Genaray LED-6200T 144 LED Variable-Color On-Camera Light (currently testing this one)
Smaller Light Panel: (Comes with a Warming Filter)
Omnidirection Lights: (you may need to make a homemade Warming Filter)
Lighthouse Mini Lantern from Goal Zero (warm light and adjustable from 7 to 210 lumens)
Lighthouse Micro USB Rechargeable Lantern from Goal Zero (small, warm light, adjustable from 7 to 170 lumens, waterproof)
CREE 40426 110 Lumens Bright Light CREE XLamp Warm White (warm light, max 110 lumens, but may need several layers of white fabric to damp down the intensity even on low)
Ozark Trail Lantern (inexpensive but moderately bright, 25 to 75 lumens, needs a warming filter, and usually needs a a couple layers of cloth to damp the light intensity down even on low)
Theatrical Gell for Warming Filters: (listed from the most warming to the least warming)
Small Light Inexpensive tripods for lighting:
Also of Interest: (testing)
More Equipment for LLL is discussed in discussed here:
Omnidirectional Lighting by Royce Bair
Milky Way Nightscapes - ebook by Royce Bair with descriptions of Landscape Lighting Techniques
Wayne Pinkston ©2017
Low Level Lighting Used at Trona Pinnacles, California.