Amazing adventures of creating a night photography history book

Old passenger trains with air conditioning units using ice, located in the Mojave Desert. Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure. This was one of the many adventures I had while writing my second book of history and night photography.

Night photography explorations bring about fantastic experiences and adventures. Certainly when exploring abandoned planes, trains, and automobiles.

Over the years, I had amassed quite a few stories. I would tell these to friends. Occasionally I would post about them. I had to abbreviate these stories quite often, creating more questions than answers. I now have a second book where I can share these stories and images of strange abandoned sites, secret locations, and the characters along the way.

The Federal Clown Prison bus, one of many stories in a new book published by Fonthill/America Through Time. This is one of numerous fascinating things you see when you seek out abandoned planes, trains, and automobiles in the California desert. Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure.

The mythical cars jammed in desert sand

Ken Lee’s photo

We had heard about mysterious cars jammed into the desert sand. These are the locations that you hear about and wonder if it is myth or truth. We rumbled down an impossibly long sandy dirt road, only to come across a car with the rear end sticking up, stranded motorists standing forlornly to one side, stranded. Eventually continuing, we walk across the desert floor for twenty minutes, an area with no trails and no light, guided by the mountains and the glow of our GPS-tracking equipment. Odd shapes finally emerge. Cars jammed into the sand at awkward angles, some sideways, some upside down, some buried.

Oh, and yes, I gave the stranded motorists a ride back to town.

Was this the Manson family car?

A wrecked Corvair hidden in the hills above Spahn Ranch. Was this used by the Manson Family? Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure.

Some adventures were solo. As an adult, I heard rumors of a Corvair that was hidden up in the hills above Spahn Ranch. Manson had a right hand man named Bruce Davis who drove a Corvair. Many believe that this rusty 1960s Corvair belonged to him. Some refer to this car as the Zodiac Car due to a popular myth that Bruce Davis was involved in the Zodiac killing, although this was never established. If this car could speak, would it tell tales of horror and violence? I decided that I would photograph this car at night. To do this, I had to hike through a couple of miles of hillside, the rugged hills illuminated by the moon. I found the car nestled under a tree in a rocky canyon overlooking the lights of the San Fernando Valley. The location was both beautiful and creepy. On my hike back, I took a wrong turn and discovered another abandoned car.

Another abandoned car, most likely stolen, peering over Los Angeles. I discovered this when I took a wrong turn on the way back to the car. There are several more cars hidden here. Perhaps there will be further adventures. Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure.

Desert rats, philosophers and scientists

Halloween at an abandoned WWII air field. Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure.

For many photo shoots, I had permission to be on the grounds. But these often bring about a different kind of experience. I’ve connected with people through our shared love of history. I’ve made friends with people who have enormous collections of old 1920s trains on their property, outdoor military plane museums, collections of hundred year old vintage trucks, many trucks and airplanes on an abandoned WWII airfields during Halloween night, railroad museums, and more. Preservationists, government workers, desert rats, music fans, philosophers, nature lovers, astronomers, scientists, mechanics, and lovers of weird, unusual, and vintage things – I’ve shared time and often dinner with them.

Airplane, abandoned WWII airfield with a full moon peaking behind it. Illuminated with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device during the exposure.

To good friends

The interior of a vintage 1928 Moreland truck, illuminated by a ProtoMachines LED2 during the exposure.

But most importantly, many of the adventures have involved other friends who are night photographers. Rattling through dirt roads on multi-night journeys with friends may be the best gift of all. There is a certain magic in sharing the journey over traveling hours on dirt roads throughout the desert, finding the best taco stands, and photographing at night while waving flashlights in the dark to illuminate these special planes, trains and automobiles.

International Loadstar, with a shooting star aiming toward its crown during this long exposure night photo.

Telling the stories about hopes, dreams and secret locations

Abandoned airplane parts, WW II airfield, California. Illuminated with warm white and red light during the exposure.

I’ve compiled these images and adventures into a book, filled with stories and history of abandoned locations, outlining the successes and failures, dreams and hopes of those who came tried, peeling back some of the secrets that the California desert holds.

Abandoned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: California Revealed

$23.99; available via Amazon or signed via Ken Lee Photography

Abandoned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles book cover.
Abandoned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles book cover.

This is the description of the book: “Abandoned Planes Trains and Automobiles: California Revealed” is an unforgettable nocturnal journey through secret locations hidden in the deserts of California. California has more than its share of abandoned planes, trains, and automobiles. Famous for its aviation and aerospace, the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and car culture, California has long been at the forefront of transportation. Wander with Ken through rarely seen locations as he illuminates these forgotten scenes with light, creating haunting dreamlike exposures of several minutes or more. Immerse yourself in the experiences and adventures. Discover precisely how these night photos are created. If you are a fan of creative photography, transportation history, or vivid travel stories, this exploration of California’s abandoned planes, trains, and automobiles is for you.”

Steam locomotive, Laws Museum near Bishop, CA.
A ghostly view of a vintage GMC truck with an odd tilt-shift blur effect courtesy of a Lensbaby lens.


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest books are 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


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