Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Low Level Lighting BLENDS

The Milky Way above Temple of the Moon in Capitol Reef National Park, photographed with Low Level Lighting, and then blended with an additional foreground exposure (using overhead starlight) to increase foreground detail in the shadow areas.

I love doing both Low Level Lighting and starlight blends. My colleague, Wayne Pinkston and I co-authored the Low Level Lighting technique (or LLL). LLL gives one the drama or character that one can achieve with moonlight, but without washing out or lower the contrast of your Milky Way sky. Starlight blends allow you to increase foreground detail (especially in the background areas) that one cannot achieve with LLL, and many think that starlight blends look more natural, even though they are "flat" due to the overhead lighting effect of starlight. By blending my LLL exposures with the foreground portion of a longer starlight exposure, one can achieve the best from both techniques. Let me explain in this tutorial...

1. A single exposure (15mm lens on a Canon 6D • f/2.8, 15 sec, ISO 8000)

2. Same EXIF, but with my LLL, and stacked 18 times to reduce noise. I like the drama and "character" one can achieve with LLL — it's similar to moonlight, but you get to control the direction of the light, and it doesn't wash out or lower the contrast of your Milky Way sky.

3. Longer foreground exposure, using overhead starlight (f/4, 120 sec, ISO 6400, with Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on), then blended with the sky exposure in number one. I like the detail I get in the foreground, but I often do not like the "flat" lighting this technique gives you. (One remedy is to do a Blue Hour blend rather than a starlight blend, as these twilight blends have more of from-the-side directional light.)

4. My LLL exposure (from 2.) blended with the foreground exposure from number 3. This gives me the best on both techniques: more foreground detail (from the longer starlight exposure) AND more "character" from the LLL.

NOTE: As of May 25, 2021 there is no longer any artificial lighting allowed in Capitol Reef National Park due to a new Superintendent’s Compendium.

This includes LLL (Low Level Lighting) — even though the intensity of LLL on the monument is equal to the light coming from a Quarter Moon that is about to set.

Capitol Reef now joins Arches, Canyonlands and Grand Teton National Park (and Natural Bridges Nat'l Mon.) in this artificial light restriction.

ALTERNATIVE BLENDS: Where LLL is not allowed, a blended exposure of the starry night sky (as in #1), with a longer exposure of the foreground lit by overhead starlight (as in #3), produces beautiful results. Many feel this has a very natural look. I agree; but I also think it has a flat, and somewhat drab look.

An alternative is to use a Blue-Hour blend from a twilight exposure that is taken about 30 minutes to an hour after sunset, or a similar period prior to sunrise. The advantage of a twilight exposure is that it has directional light: the west side of the sky (after sunset) is brighter than the rest of the sky, and the opposite is true for a morning twilight. When these brighter portions of the sky are perpendicular to your foreground landscape features, they produce shading and sculpturing to your landscape, giving it more interesting "character." The disadvantage of this technique is the waiting: You have to shoot your Blue-Hour exposure and wait until the Astronomical Dusk to shoot your starry night sky exposure (or shoot your starry night exposure and then wait for the morning twilight exposure). With a starlight foreground exposure, you can take that foreground shot immediately after doing your starry sky exposure. Here is a tutorial for doing a Twilight Blend...

A Blue-Hour exposure of three obelisk spires in Capitol Reef National Park. Photo taken about an hour after sunset with a Canon 6D, using a 15mm Irix lens • f/4.5, 25 seconds, ISO 800, Daylight White Balance.

Same image processed to a warmer, more natural color balance. (Some people like to keep the bluish or purplish color balance that come with a twilight or Blue-Hour exposure. I do not.)

Milky Way sky exposure taken about 1-hour later, during the Astronomical Dusk: f/2.8, 15 seconds, ISO 8,000 • 8 exposures stacked to reduce noise.

Last two images blended together in Photoshop layers. Click on any image to enlarge.