Light painting 101: five easy steps to illuminating cyanide tanks carved with guerilla art

This is an old mining site located deep within the Mojave Desert. Guerilla artists came and carved this art, depicting a miner with equipment on cyanide tanks. This was an artistic statement commenting on the destruction of the ecology on this site. But it makes for interesting night photography subjects. I lined up my camera so that the art would appear “intact” on all four of the cyanide tanks. Then I set about illuminating them.

Step 1: setting the light for a brilliant red

I set my handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device for a brilliant red. Red would be urgent and emotional. I wanted a good amount of saturation. One must be careful of blowing highlights with red. Why? Digital cameras are typically very sensitive to red light. 100% saturation doesn’t always work well, depending on how bright the light is and how long the subject is illuminated. I find that a setting around 65-70% is often sufficient. If you do not have a ProtoMachines, I would recommend using a red gel in front of an LED flashlight for quality results.

Step 2: Illuminating the interior of the tanks to glow from within

I had to stick my ProtoMachines inside each of the canisters. For the one closest to the camera, I lit it from three different angles, moving quickly so I would not “register” as a faint black smudge in the image if I stood still for too long. I bounced the light around inside, making sure to “paint” everything evenly. Then for the second canister, I was able to hide behind the first canister.

I had to be careful for two reasons. One is that some of the openings were jagged from the artists carving into the metal. The second was that I had to make sure I had a firm grip on the ProtoMachines. If I dropped it, I would probably not be able to retrieve it.

Step 3: Illuminating the exterior of the tanks

I switched my ProtoMachines to a warm white light. I stood to camera right and illuminated the tanks. I did this in part because I wanted the white paint to be whiter than what they would appear to be. I kept the light moving, sweeping, painting gently so that it would be even. It really is painting with light.

Step 4: Illuminating the front tank from another angle

I illuminated the front tank from camera left for a short while. I normally would not do this, but I wanted the white paint to glow more evenly. Ordinarily, I would leave this in shadow for a more “natural” look.

Step 5: Creating texture on the ground

There was one finishing touch to complete this image. I wanted to create a little bit of texture on the ground. I stood to camera right, but far away. I held the light very low to the ground and gently “swept” the ground with light to pick up some extra shadow and texture. It’s very subtle, and if I didn’t mention it, you probably wouldn’t know it.

Alternate photo

For good measure, I created a fisheye version. Enjoy!



Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s