Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blue Hour Light Painting in Grafton, Utah

Grafton Schoolhouse in Grafton, Utah ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
Canon 5D MkIII • EF24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 34mm • f/5.6, 25 sec, ISO 200 • 5 lights
Last week, Phill Monson assisted me in a "NightScape" workshop in Zion National Park. The weather for the third night was overcast, so we scheduled a "blue hour" light painting session in the ghost town of Grafton, Utah.

Location and History: Grafton began as a pioneer farming community that was first settled in 1859. Continued flooding of the nearby Virgin River caused most of the families to resettle in locations on the other side of the river, and by 1944 Grafton became a ghost town. The nearest inhabited town is Rockville, and Zion National Park is only about eight miles to the northeast. The adobe schoolhouse, in the above photo, was built in 1886. It was also used as a church and a public meeting place.

Light Painting: I set up a main light about 100 feet to the right. This was an 85-watt Westcott circular fluorescent bulb (5500º K, producing an equivalent of 300 watts). It was placed in an old, 18" Smith-Victor reflector (that had been spray painted with metallic gold paint to warm the color balance), and powered by a Vagabond Mini Lithium power source. The fill lights, on the left side, were a Calumet LED Light Panel (with a warming filter) and a Coleman-style LED lantern (the GE Chromalit 3D). All of these lights were stationary, and placed on light stands, except the lantern, which was on the ground next to the light panel. Phill provided the handheld backlight to the bell tower with a Black and Decker lithium halogen spotlight. I lighted the inside of the school through a back window, by painting the ceiling with a handheld Brinkmann Max Million III Rechargeable Spotlight (Q-Beam). Both of us were standing behind the schoolhouse. The stationary lights remained on for the full 25-seconds camera exposure, but the handheld lights were on for only eight seconds.

Faux HDR: Almost everyone knows that a high dynamic range (HDR) image can be created by blending three or more exposure value (EV) images within Photoshop or software, i.e. Photomatix Pro. This is difficult to do when you are shooting a light-painted scene. An alternative to three or more different camera exposures is to produce those from the camera's RAW file, in post production. Some call this "faux-HDR". Others may call it "false" or "fake" HDR, but the results are very close to regular HDR imaging.

To produce the above image, I made three different exposure value images from the camera raw image: the unadjusted image (0 EV), another that one-stop underexposed (-1 EV), and the third one-stop overexposed (+1 EV). I could have gone 2-stops either way, but one stop was sufficient for this image.

Three exposure values from the same camera raw image (cropped for this demo).
Additional Blending: The three exposures were then combined in Photomatix Pro to produce a natural HDR image ("Natural Fusion"). As you can see (below), this greatly increase the shadow detail without blowing out the highlights. Wanting to show more of the texture and warmth of the adobe brick, and increase the separation between the roof and the dark blue sky, I choose to produce the more garish, tone-mapped "Painterly 5" version as well. By layering (blending at 50% opacity) the "Painterly 5" version over top of the "Natural Fusion" version, I was able to produce an image that combines the best of both versions, and still retain a more natural look. The building perspective of the final, blended image was then corrected in Photoshop using Edit > Transform > Distort.

The Natural HDR has much more shadow detail than the original exposure.
The tone-mapped HDR ("Painterly 5") has great texture and warmth, but is too garish.
Blending these two HDR versions in Photoshop combines the best of both, and the final result is the top image.

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