Red Lights Are Evil

Red Lights Are Evil

We generally have a positive and encouraging approach with people we meet.  But when something needs to be said...  well, you know.

A little while ago, I was in Badlands National Park shooting what I thought was going to be epic clouds, and stars under the moonlight.  A group of ladies showed up and parked their cars a little ways away. Then they got out of their cars, turned on their red headlamps, and walked past me (on my right) looking out into the area where I was shooting.

Additional Lighting: Red Headlamps

After my image exposed and I saw the horror, I kindly walked over and asked If I could make a suggestion. They said sure... I told them about the bleed in the red headlamps and that it would be very nice of them to use a dimmer white light. I also mentioned in the kindest way possible that if the white light gets into the scene you can fix it much easier in PS than you can the red light. They nodded and said ok but I could tell they weren't buying it... They ended up leaving a few minutes later.   It must have been some kind of a group shoot because there was one person who was the leader and the rest were taking direction from her.  Anyway with 5-6 red headlamps looking into my scene, this is what I got (see top right image).

Additional Lighting: None

For comparison, here is a test shot taken right before the group of ladies showed up...NO RED LIGHTS.

This illustrates the tremendous impact that red lights have on nightscape images.  Certainly, all the grass below and peaks above are affected.  Some might say the clouds are affected as well.  Either way, the impact of the red lights is definitely dramatic.  While this example had several red headlamps, just one can have a significant impact as well - with you asking later on, "where did that red light come from"?

Many people have heard that red lights (often used in headlamps) help preserve night vision so when they give night and milky way photography a try, they often bring out the red lights.  If you're shooting alone, I say go ahead - feel free.  But if you're shooting with anyone else, I'm here to tell you...  PLEASE DON'T USE THE RED LIGHTS!

Please either leave 'em at home or just don't use the red part when you're out in the field.  Why do we say this? Because...  Red lights are evil!  They may be good for astronomers but they potentially ruin nightscape images and they turn a fun photography event into a frustrating one.  Using night friendly alternatives help to keep frustrations down and help everyone have a good time and go home with more great shots.

Common MisConceptions

Grand View Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Thanks to ©JannLedbetter

  1. Red lights aren't seen in night photographs This is the big one.  If anyone in the area is using a red light, that red illumination will find its way into your picture.  One quick review of photographs captured with people using red lights shows this.  Red light travels surprisingly far and cameras do an exceptional job of picking it up - which makes post-processing unnecessarily difficult and can even ruin some images.
  2. Red lights help night vision - I haven't seen or done any official testing on this but what I'm seeing is that red lights are generally so bright that they feel just as damaging to night vision as a white light with a lower intensity.
  3. People using red headlamps are treated like anyone else - Everyone is treated with respect but people using red headlamps are asked to turn them off and keep them off as much as possible.  And the frustrations mount quickly because when photographers see a red headlamp, they usually know they'll go home with fewer good shots because of it.  So for people looking for a peaceful outing, a red headlamp would be a poor choice.  

What You Can Do - Review Equipment Before Going Out

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before going out in the field, the best thing you can do is to review your gear to make sure it lets you set a good example with good lighting practices.  Do you have a low intensity white light?

  • Headlamp 
    • Make sure you're using a dimmable (or low intensity) headlamp with white light.
    • See our headlamp review here
  • Photo Lights
    • Camera Lights
      • Use gaffing tape to avoid leaving a residue on your expensive camera gear
      • Cut tape into small squares to cover little lights on camera & remotes
      • Cover up any lights that stay on for long or look bright (not the lcd)
    • Remote Lights
      • Use the same approach to cover up lights on your remote control transmitter and/or receiver (again, not the lcd)
  • Camera Settings:
    • Lower the intensity of the LCD screen to the lowest possible setting

What You Can Do - Be Considerate Out In The Field

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah
Thanks to ©MaxPaul

Being considerate might go without saying but this is where being specific about what that means can help a lot.  Here are a few items that come to mind.

  • Keep headlamp off when you're not using it or are approaching photographers
  • Ask if anyone is shooting before turning on a light or approaching
  • Don't use your LCD screen more than it's really needed
  • Be very polite & diplomatic