Low Level Lighting for Nightscape and Milky Way Photography

 In Picture

Recently Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have considered banning night photography workshops — these aren’t parks that I run workshops in but nonetheless I have concerns. While those parks still allow night workshops, they may stop allowing that usage of the park in 2018. In the meantime, the parks enacted a new rule that prevents photography workshops from using light painting, a technique that involves moving a flashlight’s light across your subject to illuminate it. This ban could eventually extend to all night photographers visiting those park or perhap all national park. This is concerning. It’s concerning because traditional light painting isn’t needed and there’s a better technique.

The Maple Hill Church under stars and fast moving clouds. Minnesota.

Example of Maple Hill Church illuminated by flashlights using the light painting technique.

I stopped doing light painting several years ago in favor of a technique that is now called Low Level Lighting or Low Level Landscape Lighting (abbreviated LLL). Low Level Lighting uses LED light panels gelled to the color of a campfire to subtly illuminate the ground during a night sky exposure. Most of the time, the lighting is so dim that unless you know it’s there you likely won’t notice it. Because cameras have high sensitivity to light when shot at the typical ISO you use to capture the night sky, the low level lighting shows up in the shot. Several reasons lead to my abandoning light painting in favor of Low Level Light, but listing some of the disadvantages of light painting may help you see why I and many others have abandoned it.


  • Light painting is annoying to watch. It feels fun when you’re doing it, but watching someone else’s lights flash back and forth on a structure while you wait your turn is pretty annoying.
  • Light painting tends to spill over into surrounding areas. People forget to turn off their flashlights and move them around. It takes just seconds of a bright flashlight to ruin a shot.
  • Light painting is seldom repeatable between exposures. When you want consistent exposures as you work out the exact lighting you want, light painting seldom gives it.
  • Light painting looks artificial. While almost all lighting looks artificial to some extent, light painting often looks streaky or blotchy.
  • Light painting feels obtrusive to other visitors to the area. In the places that I run night photography workshops, there are seldom other people at the locations we go to. But, at the busy parks out west I can totally understand this. And if you don’t know what it going on it could be alarming.
  • Light painting requires you or members of your party to stand in a certain spot and wait for all the cameras to start before you start waving around the flashlights. During complicated setups several people may be tied up running flashlights.

I could go on with all the problems, but Royce Bair covers it in detail. Low Level Lighting overcomes all these problems and provides additional advantages. Some of the advantages include:

maple hill church lit with low level lighting

Using three light panels, we lit the church quickly and evenly. The light remained the same so we could shoot from different angles.

  • Consistent output. Once the lighting is in place, the shot is repeatable and the lighting doesn’t change. This is great if you are with a group because you can move around and try different angles and someone isn’t tied up with the lights.
  • Lights stay where they are placed and stay at the same level.
  • Using light stands, you can get the lights high into the air to provide more natural angle for the lights.
  • It’s much faster to set up low level lighting for nightscapes. With light painting, there’s lots of experimenting until you get the exact look you want. With LLL, you place the light and you see exactly what you are going to get. At the Maple Hill Church shown here, I went from about 30 to 40 minutes of trying to time all the flashlights exactly right to get a good shot to about 5 minutes of setup time with the LLL.
  • Because the lighting is consistent, it doesn’t bother people. Also, if any photographer shows up, he or she can start shooting right away.
  • It’s easy to turn off the lighting and then turn it back on and it will be exactly the same.
  • When you need brighter, consistent lighting you can get that using the same light panels you use for LLL. For example, when shooting night portraits.
  • You can set up lighting in the traditional arrangements and achieve the same results.

There are many more reasons as well. For example, light painting violates my standard Outdoor Photography Ethics whereas Low Level Lighting for Nightscapes does much better under the ethics guidelines.

There are several ways to achieve Low Level Lighting, but my favorite way is to use gelled LED panels. Neewer makes an inexpensive panel that works well for me. I have two different styles and three total panels. I also use light stands and umbrellas when needed (in bug season be prepared to have an umbrella full of bugs!). Even the headlamp I use tends to look more yellowish than other LED headlamps (I don’t use this for lighting. I use it for when I make a selfie and have a headlamp pointing into the sky). I teach the Low Level Lighting technique at all my night photography workshops.

I usually don’t give this out except to students, but this is an important issue. If giving out my equipment list helps you transition from light painting to Low Level Lighting, then I think that’s good for all of us. Here’s my lighting equipment list: Northern Night Sky Lighting Equipment

Low Level Lighting for Nightscapes Examples

low level lighting at night on a canoe

For this shot, I had the canoe lined up and two lights. Each light is a 160-bulb LED panel. The setup is one on each side of the camera about seven feet high. Both are set at a low setting. I tested the lighting and got it where I wanted it. Then I just waited for the International Space Station to fly overhead. When it showed up, the Low Level Lighting was ready to go.

low level lighting used to light up a canoe

For this shot, one LED was used. It was lofted about seven feet into the air and bounced off the trees behind the canoe. The goal was to create a diffused lighting just to make the canoe stand out against the dark water. This was taken on my Night Skies of the Gunflint Trail Photo Workshop.

Milky Way over old sentinel tree in Tetons

For this shot, two lights on stands were used. One was set up to fill light from the left and about 50 yards away from the camera. The other was camera left and snooted to cast a beam of light across the ground to the trees.

canoe under the northern lights and low level lighting

This shot was created as part of an lesson plan on my Northern Night Skies Photography Workshop. The exercise was designed to show how Low Level Lighting could light up the foreground enough to make it stand out against the night sky. In the picture below, you can see the light on the light stand. It’s set up at about seven feet and turned on at its lowest setting. The picture below makes it look much brighter than it actually was. Imagine the brightness of a dim night light illuminating a bedroom. It’s even dimmer than that.

students on a night sky photography workshop learning lighting

If you want to learn how to create Low Level Lighting for Nightscape shots, I’d love to teach you. If you already use light painting, I hope you consider switching over to Low Level Light for your night photos.

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  • Holly

    Thank you for another very informative newsletter. I was just starting to research light painting and thanks to your timely newsletter, I now know how to go about this using a much better technique. I hope one day to be able to take one of your workshops. Love your work.

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sunrise over the tombolo on lake superiorCreated with a ND grad filter