The Christmas Star: the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the shortest day of the year

The winter solstice brings many things. Celebrations, holidays, the longest night of the year, rebirth, and much more.

On December 21 of 2020, it also brought the “The Christmas Star”, what people called the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets were separated by just six arc minutes, equal to about one-fifth the apparent width of the moon.

 

A rare celestial event

In our night sky, the two planets haven’t appeared this close and visible to most of the population since March 5, 1226. Sure, they came close in 1623, but just for a short while in northern South America, central Africa and Indonesia. If you missed the conjunction, you can live vicariously through my photos or polish up your camera in 2080.

I stood outside with several other groups of people in Vasquez Rocks, CA. Some were in folding chairs, admiring with silence and reverence.

About the photos

I showed up at Vasquez Rocks after a long drive over the mountains to avoid traffic, driving there with my wife, who wanted to see this historic event. I had my camera set up for only about twenty minutes, perched up about twenty feet above the desert floor. Although I did bring light painting equipment, I decided that I wanted to keep the iconic Vasquez Rocks in shadow to bring more attention to the Jupiter-Saturn pairing. I shot all photos between 5:43 and 5:54 PM.

 

The above photo was shot at a focal length of 95mm. With this, more than the others, you can see the two distinct planets quite easily.

 

Above, a couple is walking around the rocks where years ago, Captain Kirk made his stand against a lizard creature called the Gorn in “Star Trek”.

Let me know if you saw the conjunction in the comments below!

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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

 

Light painting 101: behind the scenes while illuminating an abandoned bus

Light painting is a term that is often used loosely to describe any addition of light to a night photograph. Really, though, light painting is a technique that uses a handheld light source to illuminate a scene during a long exposure. You are quite literally painting the scene with light. Night photographers have used this technique for many decades.

Here’s how I illuminated an abandoned bus.

 

 

Cracks in the glass

I love patina. The cracks in the glass caught my eye. I wanted to illuminate that to really bring them out. I used a ProtoMachines LED2 set to a color “patented” by Timothy Little called Gas Station Teal (TM).  Using a piece of cardboard to block the light from shining directly into the camera lens, I skimmed along the cracks from the driver’s side window. I walked to the back of the bus and illuminated the rest of the interior through a window because the bus was locked.

 

Illuminating the front

From there, I walked around to camera left and illuminated the bus. This was in part to mimic the direction of the moon. Sure, the moon is in back of the bus, but it still implies directionality. I used a warm white light for this. I skimmed it off the surface so it would create texture.

 

Illuminating the headlights

This sometimes confuses people. They cannot figure out why the headlights look like they’re on. Confusion is fun. I used a homemade snoot screwed on to my ProtoMachines light and quickly illuminated this for a second or so using a warm white light. I did the same with the smaller red light on on the top, switching the color to red. The snoot was handy because it forms a tight seal between the light and the tube so it would not “leak” out directly into the lens and leave an odd spot or trail. This was especially important here because the lens was very close to the bus, and I had to get very close to the lens to illuminate the headlights.

 

The moon

A 78% full moon illuminated the rest of the scene during the three-minute exposure. This provided just enough light to illuminate the rest of the scene. I kept the scene bright enough that it would have detail, but dark enough that it would provide contrast with the bus.

I hope you found this helpful!

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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

 

How I got the photo: Rag doll atop a tricycle in a ghost town

Sometimes, spooky, creepy Halloween-type photos walk up to you with a demonic smile and say, “Hey, I’ve got it half set up for you! Bring it home!” And so it was at this Arizona ghost town. I was walking around at night with one of the volunteers who stays at the ghost town. I came across this scene with this red-headed rag doll sitting atop a tricycle. The universe had smiled upon me. I was meant to take this photo.

Setting up for snickering

Using a Feisol CT-3372 tripod, I positioned a Nikon D610 at “eye level”, using a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens to make the scene look even weirder.  I did admittedly position the rag doll so she would be peering straight into the camera. While I did so, the volunteer started half-chuckling, half-snickering, saying, “You are one sick person. I love it!”

I wanted the room dark. There’s a fine line between a dark image and underexposure. I was going to try and walk that tightrope while still giving the shadows some detail.

Lighting it up

Then I took my ProtoMachines LED2 and used a white light from the right side to illuminate part of the rag doll, keeping the left side in shadow. I did this from a low vantage point so I would also create texture on the wooden floor. I handheld the ProtoMachines, as I almost always do, so I could light quickly and efficiently while the camera shutter was open.

I switched the ProtoMachines to a red light and briefly illuminated the circular Polly Gas sign in the back. With photos like this, any time I can make something look weirder, I’m all for it!

I chose to do a 61 second exposure, as I wanted to keep everything relatively dark while keeping detail in the shadows instead of being completely black.

When the volunteer peered into the LED monitor to view this photo, he cocked his head back and laughed. We had answered the smile of the universe, and all was good.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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

 

 

How I got the photo: Spooky ghost on a swing set

My friend has six acres of property pressed up against Topanga State Park in California. I visited there in September, eager to create a spooky ghost photo for the holiday using a form of photography called “light writing”. It doesn’t take much equipment. You need some cheap lights and a camera with manual control. A tripod or stable surface is helpful too, of course.

Inexpensive lights

I used EL Wire, otherwise known as electroluminescent wire. This is a thin copper wire coated in a phosphor that produces light when an alternating current from a battery is put through it. It’s very portable and very inexpensive. 

I also grabbed a red LED head lamp out of my backpack.

 

Eerie swing set

I set up around an old rusty swing set. The setting, after all, had to be spooky.

 

Here’s how I did it

I set up my Nikon D610 on a tripod and focused on the swing set since that’s where the ghost was going to be. In manual mode, I held the shutter open. Then the fun began.

Holding a white EL wire by the swing, I activated it and waved it back and forth gently to create the head, arms, and body of the ghost that would register in the camera. I then took my LED head lamp and activated it briefly two times, one for each eye, where I had just “placed” the ghostly head.

After that, I illuminated the swing set and the trees and grass just a little bit, just to give it a little bit of texture. I did this with a ProtoMachines LED2 using a warm white light, but you can do this with any LED flashlight.

After that, I simply walked over and shut the camera off. The total exposure was 182 seconds.

Camera settings

Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. 182s f/8 ISO 200 White Balance of 4000K.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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

 

How I got the photo: Ojo Oro Arch

I was instant messaging with a night photographer I had known mostly online for a few years when he extended the invitation: “It’s a secret area that only a few of us know. There’s no trails, and we have to hike out really far to some rocky arch formations and very dark skies. We are going to explore out there, take Milky Way photos of Ojo Oro Arch, and sleep overnight under the stars. Would you like to join my friend and I?”
What would you do? Right. Me too. No night photographer would say no.
We met in the middle of the Mojave Desert on a hot but gorgeous late afternoon, parked our cars, grabbed our gear, and began walking straight into the heart of nowhere. Bizarre otherworldly rock formations lay in front of us, drawing close as we walked approximately two miles to the hidden arch. We circled several times before finding it since they were trying to locate it by sight rather than GPS, coming across mysterious alcoves and still unnamed small arches. After a couple of minutes of this, I saw Ojo Oro Arch from the back, seeing the blue sky through the arch.

The desert as philosopher

We set down our gear, sleeping bags, and gallons of water and roamed about, exploring as the sun melted into the mountains. We ate, talked about night photography, gear, life, teaching, the coronavirus, sheltering in place, women, constellations, our place in the universe, philosophy, religion, and more. Night photography in the quiet evening desert has a way of drawing out discussions that are increasingly esoteric, after all.
We drank copious amounts of water. I had brought over a gallon and a half for this overnight outing, and I was going to make sure I didn’t carry very much of it on the long walk back to the car.

The mysterious hum of the magic desert

As we rested, the silence of the desert overwhelmed me. Two miles from the closest road, we heard nothing human-made. No cars, no airplanes, nothing. And often, there was no breeze, either. Silence. Or not quite. There’s a certain sort of hum that one can hear when there’s absolute silence, and at times, when there were no whispering of the breeze through the cactus, there was that hum. It was majestic. I found myself smiling.

Setting up the camera

We had already set up our cameras and taken “blue hour” photos of the arch in case we wished to blend them with the Milky Way photos later in post-processing. After 11 pm, we knew that the Milky Way would begin rising out of the Southeast. We knew this from experience, although we used apps such as PhotoPills or SkyView Lite to look anyway.
I often will do a low-ISO photo of the foreground so I have less noise. For this evening, I determined that I would be photographing with a 15 second exposure at f/2.5 using a relatively high ISO of 4000. Because of this, I could determine the settings that would give me the equivalent exposure but at a much lower, less noisy ISO. I chose ISO 400. This is ten times less sensitive than ISO 4000.  Therefore, I would need to increase the exposure by ten times to compensate. I like simple math. I would keep the aperture constant, so that didn’t need to be adjusted. So therefore, my low-noise foreground setting would be 150 second exposure at f/2.5 at ISO 400. Not only would this reduce the noise, but it would also give me 150 seconds to do the “light painting”!

Illuminating the arch for the photo

I began “light painting” the arch, walking around with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, illuminating the arch as I went. I prefer to use a handheld device instead of stationary light panels to illuminate foregrounds because I can “light paint” from many angles quickly, and if I wish, also change colors quickly.

Photographing the Milky Way

After creating the low-noise foreground photo, I adjusted my camera settings to 15 seconds at f/2.5 ISO 4000, and keeping my camera in the same place, began clicking off successive 15 second photos, one right after the other. Although I most certainly could use one of these, having numerous photos gives me options, including the ability to “stack” them together using Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce the noise and bring out more of the stars.

Wash, rinse, repeat

I mostly did several similar setups with my camera, photographing the same arch from different angles. First the low-noise foreground photo, then the higher-ISO photos for the sky. I did do some star trails photos as well.
I stopped photographing at 3:30 in the morning. I made one last check for scorpions by shining a bIack light around me, looking to see any glowing scorpions. Thankfully, none. I lay in my sleeping bag looking up at the sky. The Milky Way arched directly overhead. Again, that magical hum of complete desert silence. I found myself smiling.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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

 

 

Frightening encounters: meeting people with guns at night

One of the most common questions I get asked is about if whether I have frightening encounters with people when I am photographing at night.

Although I’ve been lucky, the answer is a definite yes. I’ll mention a few.

 

“You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”

 

Sometimes what you think is abandoned is not quite abandoned. Certainly this was the case with an old motel in Ash Fork, Arizona. I pulled up to this dilapidated motel with overgrown shrubs and weeds. I took a quick test shot to see if my light painting was on point. Right after the shot, the office door about five feet from me whipped open. From inside a squatter angrily yelled, “You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”

While it’s perfectly okay to take photos from the sidewalk, I didn’t argue. Better to leave. I didn’t ask if he had any vacancies either.

What you are seeing is my one and only test shot, so my sky is much darker than usual since this was a relatively short 30 second exposure. Good thing my light painting was okay.

 

“That’s far enough!”

 

“Hey, what are you doing?!?” The voice came from the nearby RV that was boondocking near this abandoned structure at Two Guns, Arizona, an abandoned rest stop along Interstate-40.

When you are a night photographer, a lot of questions begin with that question. I waved and slowly walked over to talk.

“That’s far enough! I’ve got a gun!” he said behind the screen door of the RV.

“That’s alright, I don’t want any trouble,” I calmly explained. “How are you?” Asking how someone is often defuses the situation and opens the door for conversation. Sometimes.

“Are you going to be here long?”

I assured him that we would be quiet. “That’s good, I’m trying to get some sleep,” he replied. We began to talk. “You have a nice RV,” I mentioned. A compliment sometimes gets people to loosen up. And sure enough, he began talking more conversationally. He was driving an RV cross-country, and he liked stopping here. He had already been here two days. “Yesterday, some kids were skateboarding in that pool there,” jerking his head toward the empty graffiti-stained pool nearby. “I thought you might be one of those guys again.”

“No, we’re just a few night photographers, just taking photos.”

“We get a few of you around here too.”

We wished each other well. I got on to taking photos. He got on to sleeping with his gun nearby.

 

“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.”

 

I was at Two Guns, Arizona for the second night in a row. Shortly after taking this photo, I walked outside and set up my camera tripod and began looking through it. I had been near the service station for about half an hour.

A guy had been standing there for about ten minutes watching me as I got focus.

“Hey, what are you doing?” The time-honored phrase to begin a conversation at night.

I resisted the urge to reply, “I’m peering through a camera on a tripod. You can’t tell I’m making sushi?”

“I’m taking photos.”

“That’s good. Some people come by here to take photos.”

He was speaking quietly, so I lifted up my head and took a couple of steps toward him.

“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.”

“Seems like a lot of people do.”

“I thought you might have been one of those boys that was around here last week. They were throwing rocks at my RV.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Not to worry, I’m not a boy. And I have no rocks. I’m just here to take photos.”

“That’s good. I’ll let you do that.” This struck me as hilarious since it looked like he was boondocking.

He began talking some more. He said that he was watching the property for an owner that wanted to turn the place into a glamping area. I almost laughed out loud. Two Guns was just off the Interstate, with constant trucks and cars whooshing by, in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t particularly beautiful or scenic either. There were far more desirable places that people might glamp. “I watch this place, make sure it’s okay. I clean up too.” The place was not very clean. If he had worked even a day cleaning, the place would have been far cleaner. There were no dumpsters or garbage cans anywhere either. “Hey, that’s great! Sounds like the owner really trusts you,” I said. “You bet.”

He started to walk off, then stopped. “Don’t be thinking about stealing that,” he muttered, waving his hand at two ATVs on a trailer.

“Not to worry, your ATV is safe with me.”

 

“You’ll have to leave now”

 

We were photographing at what looked to be an unused former film location. The Antelope Valley has a number of them. This was was called Mojave Tropico.

I had just begun a test shot when a white base-level pick-up pulled up. A few of my night photographers friends and I have an ongoing joke. It seems like every time security shows up, they are driving a white base-level pickup.

I continued light painting and going about my business, then clicked off the camera. Then I casually walked toward the truck. I often walk over to these white base-level pick-ups slowly while waving and smiling. This shows that I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong and that I am friendly. It has worked quite well so far.

“Hi, may I help you?” I said. This is also something I say quite often if someone shows up, security or not. It might indicate that I am helpful, sure, but I do it because it implies that I am supposed to be here and connotes an air of authority.

That didn’t work this time, though.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” The time-honored question.

“Taking night photos! Beautiful night for it. I can show you what we’re doing if you’d like!” I was pulling out all the stops this time, knowing we were just about to be asked to leave.

“Thanks, but no. You’re not allowed to be here.” The person was very friendly but firm. They were from the mine, which apparently now owned the property. “You’ll have to leave.”

“I understand,” I replied. “We’ll pack up and be on our way.”

Part of being a night photographers is to know where to go, what to do, and when to leave.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
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.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

ARTICLES:
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