Adios Yellow Glow: How LED Streetlights Will Change the Look of Night Photography


LED streetlights are the wave of the future, but in addition to being the environmentally friendly choice, doing away with high-pressure sodium streetlight has one other significant (at least to photographers and filmmakers) side effect: it completely changes the look of night photography.

Night photography in big cities like LA and New York City is almost iconically orange. But that quintessential streetlight glow is disappearing — particularly in LA, where the city just underwent the world’s largest LED streetlight retrofit — and No Film School‘s Dave Kendricken maintains that it’s going to change everything where filmmaking is concerned.

These before and after pictures provided by the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting certainly seem to prove his point:


Of course, the changes are more than merely aesthetic. In addition to the likelihood that your tungsten white balance setting will get a lot less action, Kendricken points out some practical concerns:

The interesting thing about non-tungsten artificial light sources is that they often produce a non-continuous or incomplete spectral output. This can affect the appearance of certain colors under that output. More simply, you can’t really put colors back in that weren’t there to begin with, even by gelling such a light source or color correcting in post.

You can dive a lot deeper into how exactly this change — which, given the significant financial and environmental benefits, will likely sweep across all major cities before long — will affect photographers and filmmakers over at No Film School (it’s a phenomenal article that is well worth a read).

But even if you’re not interested in the details, one thing is for sure: the look of nighttime photography in big cities may soon change forever.

(via Gizmodo via PopPhoto)

Image credits: Photographs by the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting

  • Sky

    Well, good for photography, not so much for pure visual aspect – now everything will be gray instead of yellow. ~_~

  • C

    Everything will be their actual color, instead of everything being yellow. Yes, roads happen to be gray.

  • Shaina Kuiper

    It’s great if some streets have LED lights, because color correcting for all yellow lights is near impossible.

    But replace everything and it becomes a dull mess. The second picture posted of LA in the article looks great, this is what I’m hoping things will be.

  • Kyle Clements

    Yay! Now filmmakers will be able to light the actors with tungsten, and make shots with actors in an urban exterior shot teal and orange, just like the rest of every damn movie…

  • skurge2144

    This article was… enlightening.

  • Tarmo

    Yes, finally.

  • NICK

    I always hated that yellow light

  • Ian

    I actually prefer the look with the LED lights.

  • Bret Scovill

    Just as long as we don’t retro back to mercury vapor. The only part of the visible spectrum that causes depression.

  • night photographer

    Robbing even more people of the starry nights. Light pollution is horrible already in the cities. This will just make it that much worse!

  • Mik Rose

    I see nothing wrong with this at all. If the history of how street lights look concerns you as a photographer, you have some issues. Human nature likes what is familiar, if tungsten lights were of the norm for street lights and then out of no where they went to incandescent, the article would state the same thing!
    Personally i think it looks better. The road actually looks grey.

  • Zos Xavius

    Agreed! I try to tone down the tungsten coloring in my night shots. This is a mostly welcome change.

  • bepcun

    On my god, my dreams come true. As my taste goes I hate street light in night. I feel like they make everything gray-scale in yellow. And yellow is still half ok, where I live (Oslo Norway, Szczecin Poland) street lights color tone was more towards orange/brown bright crap. In this led/white light sample photos you can aktually see that tree is green and diffrentiate beyween white and yellow lines on a street. Semes quite like a day in night.

  • theart

    I would be less concerned about the color balance than the 60Hz flickering.

  • leslieville

    I recently a sports media announcement and the flickering was brutal!
    You could look at a series of images and the difference was incredible.
    We actually had a good laugh about it. as it’s more event lighting vs press conference lighting and that was obvious.

  • Kaleido Skop

    time will show and there will be whole scenarios with orange light street lamsp used for films – from the “old times”

  • Robin Stafford

    I was about to ask what the effects would be on light pollution. :-( It’s really a problem that needs looking at.

  • Chris Rogers

    Good riddance.

  • Omar Salgado

    Don’t forget about the colour rendering index.

  • George S.

    Night lights are orange because they resemble the light at dusk, appearing more relaxing to the eyes at night.
    Changing everything to white hospital light can have psychological effects.

  • Oskarkar

    In a few years people will start cyring and calling for that `old sodium light look` of their city.

  • Renato Murakami

    I’ll just pop out the same question I posted on Giz here:
    It’d be interesting to know exactly how this would affect light pollution and something like star gazing/trailing.
    As I look through my balcony into the horizon at night here where I live (I live downtown), there’s a distinct orange yellow-ish light polution that comes from street lamps. Or course, there are other sources too.
    But if you switch it to LED lights, it could get a bit different. That will depend on how the LED lights are placed and shaped, but as they tend to cast more directional light beams, wouldn’t it perhaps produce less light pollution?

  • Jim Johnson

    Actually, they a green or yellow because of what they are made of that actually glows/burns. It has to do with getting a bright light for less energy.

    Hospital light is problem not because it is white, but because it is fluorescent which is green in tint (which has psychological effects) and missing parts of the spectrum (which was referenced in the article).

    Also, I am curious what these changes will do for sleepy drivers as yellow light is more calming than a blue or daylight balanced light. Will LED street lights help people stay awake better?

  • stijn

    Especially since cars’ LED lights show up as dots because of the flickering. So no more nice lines of light… I’d rather have to adjust the colour balance!

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  • Keith Conley

    I, for one, welcome our new LED overlights.

  • Erik

    Holy crap what an historically illiterate lighting choice article. The reason for the incomplete spectrum was for the observatory. Yellow was an optimization, not a limitation. It made it possible to filter out the pollution. The only way this got through is if the telescopes have been decommissioned from any major projects.

  • Jason Wright

    Indeed. It will render my Light Pollution filter totally useless. They (filters) are less use than they used to be due to the rise of uber-bright spotlights on every building but the general glow is still orange. For now…
    As somebody who grew up away from big cities and could look at the stars on almost any night I don’t think people understand quite what it is they are missing out on.
    As well as the change to more efficient LED lights they need to redesign them to emit it in a more directed way and ban pointless illumination for the sake of it.

  • Jackson Cheese

    I believe these may actually help with that problem. These old sodium lights are the cause of that orange glow that you see in the sky over many cities.

  • Jackson Cheese


  • skurge2144

    You get it.

  • Ansel Aperture

    Not just big cities, residential streets in my little town in England have had them a year or so. Good idea? Oh yes; they are bright, illuminate roads and pathways much better than old style lamps and more accurately being directional, so that they light the roads and not our bedrooms! Best of all, the colour approximates to daylight white and photographs really well. Not ‘grey’ or ‘hospital white’ but full colour – instead of those bilious inducing sickly sodium lamps of yore

  • JSintheStates

    I thought this was settled, but apparently not! Sodium lights have a very narrow spectral bandwidth, allowing astronomers to filter out the light pollution! Now we’re going to put in broadband lighting, effectively blinding Earth-based observational platforms! Energy conservation is a good idea, until it becomes politically correct! I’m quite sure the energy companies want a sustainable grid, and actually don’t want us consumers to stop consuming!

  • LA Photographer

    Actually it won’t because the LED’s are aimed downward towards the street. I live on a street in Los Angeles where they recently changed the lighting to the LED’s and there IS a difference. You can see it on a foggy night whereas the sodium lights used to have the glare from the light being scattered in all directions, the LED light is illuminating the street and not the sky.

  • Jigsaw

    Yeah, they are aimed downward towards the street. The street from which the light reflects and bounces back into the sky, or how do you think it gets to our eyes and cameras?

  • zed

    Thanks! Now I’m utterly confused if the LEDs have positive or negative effect on light pollution. Eyewitness says positive. Keyboard scientists say negative. Who is right? And now suddenly it becomes important and I find myself needing some goddam scientific fact pronto!! Great. Somebody better present some compelling evidence.

  • Jason Wright

    It is MUCH harder to deal with as there is no single frequency to filter out. HOWEVER, if they are dimmer/more directional then less light will go up, which is good in general.
    The overall effect should be less light pollution, but what there is will be harder to deal with.

  • rickyheartsbokeh

    hopefully we can see the stars again!

  • Broseph of Arimathea

    There is an interview with Michael Mann on either the Heat or Collateral bluray where he talks at length about the ‘glow’ over LA, and how it makes the city another character in his story, gives it a personality and life of its own. That always stuck with me.

  • Matthew Tully McGurk

    LEDs emit a much bluer light, much like phone/tablet screens and flat screen TVs, which the parts of our eyes which help regulate our circadian rhythm are more sensitive to. This does increase alertness for drivers, and keeps people from getting a good nights sleep when they’re on a computer till bed time. :)