Yes, you read the title correctly. Well, almost. If I’m being completely honest actually I used four small wearable LED lights, and admittedly it was a fairly small castle. But you’d be surprised how little light you need with modern mirrorless cameras, a long exposure and a fairly high ISO. These little LED lights really can pack a punch in certain situations (mainly in complete darkness!).
The most difficult part honestly was finding someone insane enough to hike up to a ruined deserted castle in Winter with me and stay out after nightfall to photograph the stars. Luckily, I know some fairly crazy people who are into photography so that turned out to be less of a problem than I thought it would be and I was accompanied by my friend Nicolas, a drone pilot and photographer.
If you’ve watched the TV show Game of Thrones you’ll be familiar with the fact that Spain has a lot of castles due to its rich history. Most of them were defence forts from the El Cid/Moorish conquest days and are often found in ruins. Generally though, you don’t need to go too far to find one. This particular castle had been on my list to visit for a while, and was pretty convenient, being just over an hour’s drive away from the city of Valencia.
I planned everything in advance using PhotoPills so I knew exactly what time the sun would set and in which direction. From using the app I also knew that there would be no moon that night, and no hope of seeing the Milky Way (which is good to know because then we wouldn’t be left wondering when it might appear and staying out in the cold and dark later for no reason!).
We parked in the village of Sueras in the Province of Castellón, and after asking directions, found the trail up the steep hill to the castle. Anyone who has visited Valencia will know how difficult it is to find directions and information regarding hikes and trails in the region. A top tip if your Spanish is good enough is to ask in the local bar or cafe! The signs said thirty minutes walk. It was not thirty minutes. An hour later we were still trudging uphill carrying all the gear we needed. Luckily we had allowed plenty of time.
Arriving at the castle, sweaty and tired, we had a little scout around and then broke the drone out for fun and a little more reconnaissance. We were lucky to be the only ones at the castle. We quickly discovered that the main part of the castle, the keep, was no longer accessible, and the steep cliff around the back meant that possible positions to shoot from were very limited.
After trying out a few different compositions and enjoying the spectacular sunset I settled on my favourite point of view and dialled in the exposure and focus that I would need once night fell. You can see the scale of the castle from the following drone video and the bags of materials left behind from the construction work which I tried to hide naturally in the composition as far as I could.
Now came the fun part. I have got quite interested in light painting over the past few months and thought it would be fun to see if we could light up part of the castle in the photos. Without the lights, the castle was fairly dull and didn’t stand out much from the background. I’d brought a flashlight, a headlamp, and four wearable LED lights, the KYU-6 from Spiffy Gear. These little lights are actually incredibly bright (in a dark situation) and there are many advantages to them. They are rechargeable firstly, and secondly, you can control both the output colour and the brightness. Of course, we set the lights to maximum brightness on orange/red colours and then Nicolas placed them strategically along the back walls of the castle.
Like the stars it was nearly impossible to see any light from the LED bands with the naked eye, however, the camera could pick up the light incredibly well. I used my Canon EOS R with a Laowa 15mm f/2 lens. The exposure was 20 seconds at f/2 with ISO 3200. Obviously stronger lights would yield more dramatic results but I’m very happy with how the images came out, and it was fun to experiment with them. You can see the placement of the lights better in this black and white Behind The Scenes photo taken on a smartphone.
Here is another finished image of the castle lit only by the KYU-6 lights taken at a slightly earlier time just after blue hour was fading.
Hiking down from the castle proved to take even longer than the ascent with rough and rocky terrain to navigate in the dark. Once again the humble KYU-6 saved me, as my flashlight ran out of battery halfway down. Amazingly the little LED wrist lights still had enough power to light our way safely back down to the car.
In terms of post-production, the only thing I did was balance the exposure between the sky and foreground in ACR, and bring out the oranges and reds of the castle in the HSL panel. In Photoshop I cloned out any of the white bags visible from the renovation work being done to the building.
All in all, it was a fun afternoon and a good experiment. It proves that you can do some pretty cool things even with lower powered small LED lights! I certainly plan to use them again on location in the future for some atmospheric light painting.
Drone video/still and bts images by Nicolas Petisce. You can see more of Nicolas’ work on Instagram.