Getting creative with light pollution at night
It seems that unless I drive at least an hour away from where I live the bright city lights of home will have an effect on anything that I photograph at night.
I’ve been sitting on this photo of Brush Hills Church for a week. I make many edits of what I photograph. In camera when I get home. Maybe in camera the next day, deleting more and more until finally the images I consider workable go onto my computer. Even then I will cull out a few more photos that I think will never see the light of day. What I am left with are images that I think have potential to either print or submit for stock.
You can’t do much with the composition of an image once you take it other than cropping. If that isn’t right that photo will never be used. However, the light or colors aren’t always how I would like them and THAT is something that I can try to change.
The problem with the church at the top is that there are two different light sources or colors illuminating different parts of the scene. My headlamp lightly lit the face of the church. It’s color is closer to daylight or blue. The bright city lights of Vegreville are behind the church. The camera sees the lights as orange.
If there were only one light source I could go into my RAW converter or if you don’t have one in Photoshop and change the color temperature until the sky looked more natural, ie, blue/black like below.
You can see what happens when I pull the slider down to correct for the tungsten light. The sky looks natural but that old church is suffering from the blues. To my eye that doesn’t work.
I like the color of the church closer to neutral, ie, without a color cast and appearing white. If I correct for the sky the church looks wrong. Correcting for the church gives me an unnatural looking red/orange.
Let’s stop here for a moment and talk about night skies. Our brain does many things without us being aware of. One of those things is trying to make everything look like it might during the middle of the day. An example of this is to sit in your living room during the night with the coffee table lamps on. To look around the room everything looks the right color. Now grab your camera and take a quick shot and look at the preview on the back. If you haven’t fiddled with the color balance settings your camera will display the room and everything in it as orange/red.
That is what happens with the night sky. All of the pretty milky way photos that you see where the dark areas are a rich blue and black have been manipulated in Photoshop or some other editing program. When you first take night photos and come home and view the results don’t be disappointed when you see a brownish colored sky. That’s normal.
Back to the photo. The solution here is an easy and obvious one. I process the RAW image twice. The first time I will pull the color temperature slider down to make the sky more appealing. This image is processed and saved.
I open my RAW converter or do the same in Photoshop and using the same color slider pull it to the right until I see the color of the church appearing more normal, not red, not blue but neutral. This is processed and saved. I now have two different color versions of the same photo.
Opening both images in Photoshop I paste the nicely colored sky photo on top of the other version. I now have two layers in Photoshop. Clicking on the top layer I add a layer mask to it. What that does is simple and extremely useful. I can paint on the layer mask in black or white. When using a brush with black on the mask painting reveals the bottom image. If I reveal too much I click on the white color when using a brush and painting with that will bring back the top image. I paint in black or white but I don’t paint with the brush set at 100% opacity. Doing that will give remove everything or give you hard lines where you didn’t paint so I set the opacity to a lower value. You have to experiment with this setting. If you have a brush set to something like 3% you have great control over how much or little is revealed. Also very important is that your brush is set to a soft feather so that when you paint you don’t have a hard, defined edge.
I continue to paint in the mask layer until I have completely revealed the church below which is the color that I want. Once finished the layers are collapsed or flattened and I’m done.
Of course the best thing is to be using a light source that matches the sky. If only I had known but this is part of the learning curve for me. Seven dollars later I have a gel to put in front of my headlamp that changes the color of the lamp to tungsten. If I had done this I would have only needed to use the color slider once and have been done.
No mysteries here. Sometimes photography is like sleight of hand or magic. If you don’t know how something is done it can seem like magic. Once you understand what’s going on you can become more creative.