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Dealing With Street Lights When Shooting Twilight Exterior Shots?

Published: 02/09/2016
By: larry

StreetLightAndy in California asks:

I'm curious to see what are people do for Twilight shots when the street lights are on? Sometimes the street lights turn on before it even gets dark and ruin my shot. The whole scene becomes really orange, and there is no way I can fix it even in post production because I lose information from other color values.

What is a good time to go before the light turns on?

The ideal time for shooting twilight shots is from 15 minutes before sunset to 15 mins after sunset. You don't want to wait until it's "dark".

I have a street light across the street from my office and tonight I noticed that it did not come on until 19 minutes after sunset and when it came on it did not have an uncorrectable effect on the image (click on the photo above). This shot was taken about a minute after the street light came on. It is directly out of my Canon 5DMkII set to Auto WB and no corrections of any kind made. While the effect of the street light does show, I claim that I could take this into Lightroom and crop out the street light, do a few minor adjustments and create an acceptable twilight shot. That said, I'd be inclined to shoot the twilight shot about 5 minutes earlier that this. Before it got this dark.

My guess is that you are shooting way too late. This is a very common mistake. The longer you wait after sunset the more the street light will dominate the color balance.

The process I suggest is as follows:

  1. Arrive at the property early. That means early enough to get all interior lights on and still be ready well before 15 min before sunset. Use LighTrac or the TPE app to know exactly when sunset is going to be. This step ALWAYS takes longer than you think it should. I usually have to have help from the homeowner to even find all the light switches.
  2. Start shooting at 15 minutes before sunset. The best twilight shots are usually earlier than you think they will be.
  3. Shoot in RAW. This will give you more options in post. Correcting the WB is not going to destroy your image.
  4. Shoot over a time span of about 30 minutes (15 min before sunset to 15 min after sunset) and take a shot every few minutes. This should give  you a chance to getting a good image before the street lights come on. If your street light is like mine, it won't even come on until you are finished.

Does anyone else have suggestions for Andy?

4 comments on “Dealing With Street Lights When Shooting Twilight Exterior Shots?”

  1. If you can get set up earlier, you'll have enough daylight to overpower the lamp (or the lamp might not even be on), and you can use that shot as a color layer later on. If you don't have that luxury, one big thing you can do is brush in a color correction for the bottom half of the image that's being lit by the street lamp. Just click on the sidewalk for your WB, maybe warm it back up a bit, and you're done. On the upper half just desaturate orange/yellow enough that it's not distracting, but leave some warmth so it's realistic. Or if you have time, do the bottom-half correction, desaturate orange in the whole scene, and clone out the whole lamp and post so nobody will ever know it was there.

  2. Sometimes you can shoot early enough that the streetlights aren't on yet but you can still get a decent level of light from the interior, which you can enhance in post if needed. In such cases, the sky will probably not be dark enough, so you will have to either enhance it in post or replace the sky. This might not yield a really dramatic twilight shot, but it can still be attractive and some clients may prefer this to a darker, more dramatic effect.

    In some cases, depending upon the location and strength of the streetlights, an alternative might be to add a substantial amount of supplementary lighting to the exterior, which can sometimes help to overpower the streetlights to some degree, making it easier to correct any unwanted color imbalances in post.

  3. A twilight shot may also require additional interior lighting to get all of the windows lit up correctly. You may also run across different color temperatures from room to room due to a mix of CFL, LED and incandescent lamps. Some small work lights can be very useful. There are lower wattage lamps available for work lights so you don't wind up with completely blown windows from the inside.

    It's always good to get the image perfect in the camera, but it's not always possible. Try for that single image and get frames for the perfect sky, the best light on the exterior and the best window exposure to composite or brush in some corrections during post production. If you can tether a laptop or tablet to your computer, try that so you can see a larger rendition of what you are capturing on a (hopefully) calibrated monitor.

    Remove all filters from your lens before shooting.

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