Digital night photography: Sky color secrets

Gather outside — by Joe Reifer

My previous post on getting a night time feel in your digital night photographs focused on exposure. Today I’m going to talk about sky color. After shooting with various film cameras at night in a variety of conditions, I settled on a color slide film with reasonable reciprocity characteristics, and nice tonal rendering for night work: Kodak E100VS — a daylight balanced slide film with intense reds and blues that produces lovely tonal gradations in the sky. If you prefer a tungsten balanced film, Fuji RTP 64T is superb.

When post-processing digital night work with Canon digital SLRs, it was sometimes difficult to achieve the E100VS look — especially in the skies. A few years ago I was on a workshop with Craig Tanner of The Radiant Vista, where I learned the power of Photoshop’s Selective Color layer for subtle alterations to image tonalities. Adapting this technique to night photography post processing, here are some basic starting points for creating richer blues in night time skies.

  1. Start with a RAW conversion color balance in the 3200-3800K range, depending on the blend of moonlight and artificial light and/or light pollution
  2. Create a Selective Color Layer in Photoshop
  3. For each color, drag the Black slider on the bottom both ways to see if that color will be effected
  4. Experiment with adding/subtracting Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta within each effected color
  5. For more intense skies, choose the color Cyan, and start with +10 Cyan, +10 Magenta, and -10 Yellow
  6. You may also want to choose the color Blue, and add a little bit of Cyan and Magenta

Sometimes you can warm up the foreground in an image by selecting the color Red and subtracting Cyan and adding Magenta. Experiment with the sliders on a layer — don’t be afraid to overdo it slightly, and then reduce the effect with the layer opacity.

Using a Selective Color Layer can sometimes offer more refined, subtle control over image tonalities than the heavy hand of Hue Saturation Brightness (HSB) adjustments. With a little bit of practice and experimentation, you’ll arrive at some settings that work well for your images, and then you can create a Photoshop Action as a quick starting point for your adjustments.

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