Low-Level Lighting and Milky Way Photography with the help of the Luxli Viola RGB Light.

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I’ve long been a fan of light-painting photography. In the 1980s I’d seen the “Space Writing” images by Mann Ray and the night-time photos of helicopters taking off by Life photographer Andreas Feininger. Around the start of the last Millennium, I saw photographs by Troy Pavia, where he would use various color filters to illuminate moonlit subjects across the American West. As I got further into Milky Way photography, I was looking for some lights so I could try my hand at this kind of photography.

I contacted Ken Lee, who’s an expert at this type of photography, and I asked him about he used to light his photos. He was told me he had a hand-held, pistol styled Protomachines LED2 RGB light. But the LED2 was a discontinued model. An upgraded model, the Protomachines LED8 Full Color Photography Light was available. The LED8 was what I was looking for – a small, fully controllable RGB light. The LED8 was entirely hue and saturation adjustable, with a white light mode that was adjustable from 2500K to 9200K, and brightness adjustable over a range of 7 stops. The only catch? It was over $500. Not what I wanted to spend to try out some new techniques.

Ken mentioned that Protomachines had a less expensive RGB model – the Radium full-color photography light wand. The specs for the Radium are very similar to the LED8 color spectrum wise, with just a little less brightness adjustment. Only four stops for the radium, but that’s fine for me. The price for it was closer to what I wanted to spend, just over $250. The only catch for me was the Radium, not surprisingly for a light wand, was 12 inches long. I wasn’t sure I wanted something that long in my already overstuffed camera pack.

Luxli Viola RGB LED Light

Ken has also suggested the Luxli Viola Multi-Color On-Camera LED Light. The Viola is a panel, only 5″ x 3″ x 1″ in size sans battery. That’s precisely the size I wanted! And it was controllable by Bluetooth. It was running around $300 though. Still a bit more than I wanted to spend, especially when a color temperature adjustable LED panel could be had for $50 or so. I already had a couple of these panels, and I bought some color gels, so I could get a few colors from the lights I already had. It was an inexpensive way to try out some color-gelled lighting.


And then in the fall of 2018, I saw the Luxli Viola for $200. It had nearly everything the more expensive RGB lights I had been lusting after had, but the price was much closer to my dream price. So I bought one.

Photographing Thor’s Well

I first visited Thor’s Well with my friends Aaron King, Brendon Porter, Drew Armstrong during a weeklong photography tour of the Oregon Coast in November 2017. I had met Brendon and Aaron through their PhotogAdventures.com podcast and YouTube channel that they had started a year before. Drew met them through the podcast as well and had been a guest on the show. The four of us spend a week traveling from Crescent City, CA, to Cannon Beach, OR. Since I’m the native Oregonian in the group, I acted as our tour guide.

One of our goals was to photographs Thor’s Well. If you’re not familiar with Thor’s Well, it’s a collapsed lava tube that opens to the sea. Ocean water fills the tube up when the tide is right, forcing seawater to spray 20 feet or more into the air above the collapsed part of the lava tube. It’s a true natural wonder, and it’s worth stopping by to see.

I had been to Thor’s Well and the Cape Perpetua area as a child, but I’d never tried to photograph it before, so it was going to be a new experience for all of us. We decided to stay in nearby Yachats, OR, so we could shoot it at both sunset and sunrise. We were lucky as the tides were near low when we started photographing it. This gave us plenty of time to shoot before the rising tides made it unsafe to stay in the area.

Inspired by Michael Shainblum

Michael Shainblum has an amazing time-blended photo that he took at Thor’s Well a while after sunset, with stars hanging in the sky above. (Photo below.) Inspired by Michael’s photo, we decided we wanted to give that a try for ourselves. Having had the great fortune to meet Michael a couple of days earlier at Secret Beach only further motivated to try. (And not only is Michael an excellent photographer, but he’s a really great guy too!)

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The mighty Thor's Well after dark. #Oregon

A post shared by Michael Shainblum (@shainblumphotography) on

Michael Shainblum’s awesome Thor’s Well after Dark.

We had wanted to stay out long enough to catch stars that night. But the tide was coming in and waves were starting to get too high, so we got out of there. We came back in the morning hoping to get some stars, but we were slow getting out of the hotel. The stars disappeared into the rosy-fingered light of Eos (Dawn) shortly after we arrived at Thor’s Well.

Cook’s Chasm at Night

The following June, Aaron, Brendon, and I returned to Cape Perpetua. We were still dreaming of shooting Thor’s Well with the night sky. The Milky Way is behind the coastal headlands there during June evenings. We needed to be there later in the night. So we returned to the area about 1 AM as the Milky Way was still just behind the edge of the headlands. But the tide was just past high, hitting +9.5 feet just before we arrived. Not only would Thor’s Well been submerged by the high tide, but it is plain unsafe to be out at Thor’s Well at any time of day, let alone in the middle of the night when it’s a high tide. Especially one that high.

Thor's Well and Milky Way. © 2019 Kirk D. Keyes, Keyesphoto.com
Thor’s Well and Milky Way. © 2019 Kirk D. Keyes, Keyesphoto.com

Only a few hundred feet from Thor’s Well is another tide-driven water spout named “The Spouting Horn.” The Horn is inland from Thor’s Well and above the lava bench that the high tide washes over. Aaron had the awesome idea of using Low-Level Lighting Techniques to photograph the Spouting Horn instead. So we shot the Horn from across Cook’s Chasm. There is a landing at the bottom of the trail to the viewpoint of the Spouting Horn. This spot placed us higher above the sea and in a much safer location than it was at Thor’s Well. We ended up photographing the Spouting Horn until astronomical twilight began at around 3 AM.

Thor’s Well Precautions

First a few cautionary words about being at Thor’s Well. When you are at Thor’s Well, you need to pay attention to the tides. The Well sits on a bench of basalt that extends away from the headland and into the sea. Waves will wash across the bench. The waves will try to wash you out to sea. There is no nice sandy beach there. There are some two or three-foot-high rock outcrops that people can stand on, but they only make it easier for the waves to knock you over. You will not want to be out there when the tides are getting high, like the fellow in the photo below.

This photographer looks a little worried as he's caught in the surf at Thor's Well. Photographer Unknown. Photograph posted outside the Luna Sea Restaurant in Yachats, OR.
This photographer looks a little worried as he’s caught in the surf at Thor’s Well. Photographer Unknown. This photograph is posted outside the Luna Sea Fish House restaurant in Yachats, OR.

Tides, Swells, and Sneaker Waves

In addition to the tides, the ocean swells will have an effect on safety. If ocean swells are high, they can make even a low tide dangerous. And of course, there are sneaker waves that randomly cross the ocean. There is no way to predict when they will arrive. I hope you are getting the idea that being at Thor’s Well isn’t a cakewalk.

An unlucky photographer is swallowed by the surf at Thor's Well. Photographer Unknown. Photograph posted outside the Luna Sea Restaurant in Yachats, OR.
An unlucky photographer is swallowed by the surf at Thor’s Well. Photographer Unknown. Photograph posted outside the Luna Sea Fish House restaurant in Yachats, OR.

If this is not enough to make you think twice of going there when conditions are not ideal, stop by the Luna Sea Fish House. It’s in nearby Yachats, Oregon. I highly recommend having a meal there!. But make sure you check out the photos posted on the outside wall of their building. They show the incoming waves swallowing a couple of photographers. One of these waves appears to be several feet over the head of a photographer, picking him up and engulfing him. It can be a very hazardous place.

Shooting Thor’s Rainbow

Aaron, Brendon, Drew, and I returned in November 2018, again with the idea of getting a Milky Way with Thor’s Well. We were there with several listeners of Aaron and Brendon’s podcast for their 2018 Photog Adventures Listener Adventure.

Thor's Rainbow. Photographed at Thor's Well, Oregon, with the Luxli Viola RGB LED light panel. © 2019 Kirk D. Keyes
Thor’s Rainbow. Photographed at Thor’s Well, Oregon, with the Luxli Viola RGB LED light panel. © 2019 Kirk D. Keyes

This night, the tides were on our side and the swells were low, only about a meter high. Low tide occurred just after 6 PM – it was predicted to be at a hopefully safe low of -0.8 feet. We arrived at 7:00 PM and shot until 9:30 PM as the tide was coming in but still not coming over the bench.

Planning with PlanIt!

Arriving shortly after sunset, we photographed for a while during blue hour. We looked for compositions that would work with the Milky Way. I used the PlanIt for Photographers app on my phone to determine where the Milky Way was going to be after dark. We set our cameras up before it was dark enough that we could see it.

Glow Sticks

While we waited for total darkness, Brendon and I tied 5 blue glow sticks to the end of some 30 test-lb. fishing line. We left a long lead on the line and then tossed the glow sticks into the Well. I looped the line around a nearby rock and tied the end of the line to my belt so we’d be able to retrieve the glow sticks. Since I weigh about 100 times more than the weight of the glow sticks, so I wasn’t worried about being pulled in by them.

I had hoped that five glow sticks would be bright enough to illuminate the water inside the Well. I hoped that the inside would look like the blue glow of Cherenkov radiation seen in a water-cooled nuclear reactor. The glow sticks did add some blue light, but it was not as bright as I had expected. The inside of the Well is way bigger than I had thought.

Luxli Viola 5 Viola 5" On-Camera RGB LED Light. Photo Courtesy www.Luxlilight.com
Luxli VIOLA-5 Viola 5″ On-Camera RGB LED Light. Photo Courtesy www.Luxlilight.com

Luxli Viola and Low-Level Lighting (LLL)

After shooting compositions with the Milky Way for a while with just the glow sticks in the well, I got out a Luxli Viola 5″ Multi-Color On-Camera LED Light that I had just bought.

The Luxli Conductor app for remotely controlling the Viola. The color temp is set to 3800 K and Brightness to 71%.
The Luxli Conductor app for remotely controlling the Viola. The color temp is set to 3800 K and Brightness to 71%.

The Luxli Viola is a lightweight 5″ LED panel. It is designed to mount on top of your camera using a hot shoe adaptor. The Viola has manual knobs to adjust the white balance from 3,000K to 10,000K Color Temperature. Or they can dim the light from 100% down to 0%, in 1% brightness steps. Power is via a standard Sony NP-F battery or a DC with an AC adaptor. Combined with the Luxli Conductor Bluetooth 4.0 LE app, you can control all the settings from your phone. And best of all, it provides fully color-adjustable light – you can make any color of the rainbow with it!

Luxli Conductor App

The Luxli Conductor app has special effects functions – we used one for this photo. With the Viola set to the “Rainbow” function, it can cycle the Viola through all the colors of the rainbow plus a few extras!

The Luxli Conductor app set to FX "Rainbow" mode. You can set a range of colors that the light will cycle through. Here are the settings I used at Thor's Well - it is set to go from Green to Red, and the speed is at 90% Maximum.
The Luxli Conductor app set to FX “Rainbow” mode. You can set a range of colors that the light will cycle through. Here are the settings I used at Thor’s Well – it is set to go from Green to Red, and the speed is at 90% Maximum.

For my Thor’s Rainbow photo, I narrowed the color range to cycle from green through blue and violet around to red. I left out orange and yellow. The speed that progresses through the colors is adjustable in the app. Since the waves only splash up for about 2 seconds or so, I set the “Speed” to about 90% of the maximum rate and put it on a continuous loop.

I’d forgotten to bring down a light stand for the Viola, so we set it on the rock bench that photographers typically stand on when shooting the Well. This bench is to the east of the Well. We wanted to frame to the southwest to get the Milky Way behind the Well. So I placed the Viola there to model the splashing waves and the rocks around the Well. We feathered the light by tipping it upwards, so the light falloff from the Viola illuminated the rock foreground less than the waves that splashed up out of the Well.

Waiting for the Right Wave

Now it was just a matter of waiting for the right wave, one that splashed enough water, but not too much! Occasionally, the water would toss the glow sticks up into the air so they were visible. The glow sticks did show up in some of the photos as bright blue streaks in the glowing blue water.

We tried several variations of colors that night, setting the Viola to red, which looked really cool with the blue from the glow sticks. I also brought a headlamp that had individual red, green, or blue LEDs. We set it to red or blue for a few photos to get some cross lighting of the foreground rocks. We got so many cool photos that night. It’s hard to believe, but we got so many cool photos lighting up Thor’s Well that we almost forgot that the Milky Way is in every shot!

Luxli Love

I’m delighted with the Luxli Viola. Every aspect of the shot involving the Luxli Viola worked as expected. The app never crashed that evening, and the Viola responded to every command I gave it.

The photos we got this night exceeded all our expectations! I think this is a light that every nightscape photographer should think about getting.

kdk 1/13/20

Kirk Keyes