Night Photography: Dealing With Yellow Light

One of the first forms of photography I specialized in during the 2000s was night photography. I haven't done anything in the genre since March or April 2011 when I finished shooting for Those Dark Winter Nights.

I started off shooting in color for my night photography but shifted to using black & white film once I made the jump from 35mm film to medium format film. Possibly due to lying to myself that black & white gives a photograph more soul or something, but most likely because I was cheap back then, and color film cost more than black & white film.

Summer 2002, Wausau, WI
One of my early color night photographs. Taken summer 2002 in Wausau, WI

I've been thinking about night photography lately. I want to get back in the groove of doing it again and have been doing some due diligence to get up and running before I start shooting.

As I've reached a point in my photography where black & white has almost zero appeal to me, I intend for my night photography to be all color, and on film. Big, beautiful medium format film.

Yellow Lights

One of the issues I recall dealing with regarding using color film in urban settings at night is answering the question "Do I try to compensate for the strong yellow-hued street lights or not?"

Duluth Oriental Grocery, Duluth, Minnesota, June 2007

There is an argument to be had here. Yes, most street lights are very yellow in their color balance. Do I shoot without a filter and capture the yellow? Or do I try to adjust using filters or Photoshop to present the image more in line with how someone's brain who isn't aware of color shifts might interpret the scene?

An even more interesting thought I had about this involves the march of technology. Around here, more and more of the yellow sodium-vapor street lamps are getting replaced with high intensity, bluer/whiter lamps. What if I spend all this time trying to balance out the old ugly yellow tones in the lights, but then regret the choice decades down the road once they are all gone because the yellow now serves as a timestamp of an era that no longer exists?

Enough philosophizing. Let's get technical.

Hoya 80B filter vs NiSi Natural Night Filter

So back in my day, the two common solutions to the yellow light problem was to a) Shoot with tungsten balanced film, or b) throw an 80a, 80b, or 80c filter on the lens.

I'm not even sure if tungsten film is available anymore, but don't care if it is. I never really liked using and always went the route of an 80b filter.

But once again the times be changing. Since I last did night photography, it seems a few companies such as NiSi and Lonely Speck have been producing a new* kind of filter. A filter that cuts out light pollution by cutting out the spectrum of light that the sodium-vapor lamps put out. Yay technology! (*I'm assuming they are new. It is possible these used to exist and I just never heard of them. Peace)

While these light pollution filters are targetted towards use in astrophotography, I figured it might be interesting to see if they have a better effect on urban night scenes than the humble 80b filter does.

I call the 80B filter humble because whereas I paid $14 for my 82mm Hoya 80B filter, the 82mm NiSi Natural Night filter runs around $170. Not exactly a budget priced filter, but if the effect is good enough over the classic 80b, I could see it being worth the value. I managed to snag the NiSi filter used on eBay for a considerable discount. Had I not, I doubt I'd ever have bought one, and this part of the post would have ceased to exist.

With an 80b and Natural Night filter in hand, I put my Fuji X-E2 to good use making the first pass at comparing these filters. The first row if the file straight out of the camera (SOOC). The second row is the same file with some very quick color balance done to it.

Science Stuff: Since my goal was to try and replicate what would happen with color slide film, I did none of that shooting to RAW funny business. Straight to jpg with the white balance set to daylight.

First set up is under a sodium vapor lamp. The unfiltered image is about as yellow as I'd expect if I had gotten some slide film back. 80B appears the most natural, and the NiSi has the pink cast. I think that for a digital photographer working from a RAW file, the SOOC images should not matter much and they'll be adjusting the white balance during post. However, because I intend to use slide film for my next generation of night photos, I want the SOOC capture to be as close to natural as possible. If only because they then look the best while on the light table. Oh, and also because I prefer not to have to muck around with the images in Photoshop as much as possible.

Scene 1. No Filter SOOC
No Filter, SOOC
Scene 1, 80B Filter, SOOC
80B Filter, SOOC
Scene 1, Natural Night Filter, SOOC
Natural Night Filter, SOOC
Scene 1. No Filter, Adjusted
No Filter, Adjusted
Scene 1, 80B Filter, Adjusted
80B Filter, Adjusted
Scene 1, Natural Night Filter, Adjusted
Natural Night Filter, Adjusted

After a little bit of cleanup, they all look pretty good, but I prefer the photo taken with the 80B filter. Seems to preserve just a touch of the yellow in the foreground snow. The Natural Night filter looks good, but if you look closely at the white house in the background, there is a magenta shift on it. This seems to be inline with what Blake Rudis found while testing the filter in an urban setting as well.

And here is a similar comparison taken under a more modern street lamp that is more or a natural blue/white hue. Again I feel that the 80B filter wins. And also I seemed to have captured the silhouette of a man hiding in the wet spots on the road.

Scene 2. No Filter SOOC
No Filter, SOOC
Scene 2, 80B Filter, SOOC
80B Filter, SOOC
Scene 2, Natural Night Filter, SOOC
Natural Night Filter, SOOC
Scene 2, No Filter, Adjusted
No Filter, Adjusted
Scene 2, 80B Filter, Adjusted
80B Filter, Adjusted
Scene 2, Natural Night Filter, Adjusted
Natural Night Filter, Adjusted

Coming out of these first round of tests between Hoya 80b vs. NiSi Natural Night Filter I have a preference towards the humble 80B.

But, I am not going to call it yet as actually using film will throw a few more variables into the mix. Such as how the color balance film I end up using (Fuji Provia 100F) differs from my X-E2's sensor. Along with influence on color from any reciprocity characteristics of the film.

So hang tight. Once I get the medium format rig set up that I want to shoot night with, I'll do the same test again on film and see if the light pollution filter performs any differently. If the clouds ever clear up around here, I also want to try the three filters again with a scene with more sky in it.

One Last Thing About Advancing Technology

Earlier I remarked about the last time I set out to do night photos. The month in the date is significant because it happened right before I got my first smartphone in May 2011. It has dawned on me that I've never done night photography while having the option to be able to occupy myself with something else while standing around waiting for the long exposures to complete. An exciting prospect? Or just means for me to have unwanted light trails through the scenes as I was too distracted to block the camera as cars past?

Category Gear & Technique  | Tags: Night Photography