Light painting 101: five steps to light painting an Old West gas station

This is a night photo of an old garage and vintage 1940s Cadillac Fleetwood (with an old Buick front end) on a beautiful Mojave evening, underneath the light of a full moon. The camera shutter was open for 396 seconds. During this time, I “light painted” the scene, illuminating it from numerous angles with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device. Here’s how I did it!
Night photo of an old Western service station lit up with a handheld light during the exposure. Read up on how the lighting was done!

Five steps to light painting the gas station

1.) Creating detail in front

I wanted a bit of texture in the ground in the front. Holding the ProtoMachines low to the ground I swept the ground from side to side on each side of the camera, standing about ten feet further back and ten feet to the side in each of the two locations.

2.) Light painting the exterior

The moon was shining from camera right. You can tell by the way the long shadows fall. I wanted to pick up more detail and illumination on the wooden front of the gas station. To do this, I stood to the right, as close to 90 degrees as possible to the front of the building. I moved the flashlight slowly up and down, “painting” the front with light. I kept the light moving to try to make sure all the illumination was nice and even.

3.) Light painting the interior of the garage

I walked around the right side of the garage. There was a large opening on that side. Again, standing as close to 90 degrees as possible to the back wall of the interior, I illuminated the back in the same manner as the front of the structure. This time, I used the color green for good measure. Night photographer Mike Cooper loves illuminating his interiors in green. He was there this evening as well, so clearly I was inspired by him.

4.) Making the car glow from within

Just for fun, I thought I would make the Cadillac glow eerily from within. Why not? I stuck my hand inside and managed to capture the shadow of the steering wheel in the front windshield for good measure.

5.) More strange glowing

Before exiting the interior of the garage, I created some odd glowing by holding the light down low and reflecting it off some objects. You can see this interesting glow on the side of the car, below the car, on the panes of the front window, and elsewhere around the room. I bounced some of the light off the ceiling as well. Reflected light is an often overlooked aspect of “light painting”. I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to read them.

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

 

Off the eaten path: finding food for photographers in Owens Valley, California

Part of the fun in night photography is in the eatin’.

“Off the eaten path” will good eats in out of the way places. Landscape and night photographers often go to remote places off the beaten path. Although we bring our own food, sometimes, it feels really great to enjoy a well-cooked meal in a restaurant.

Admittedly, it’s not that challenging to find a decent place to eat in the Owens Valley. Even outside Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, there are plenty of great places. I’ll cover a few that I enjoy. 

These are good stops when going to photograph landscapes or dark sky places along the Eastern Sierra, Ancient Bristlecone PIne Forest, Alabama Hills, Mono Lake, Tioga Pass, Bodie Ghost Town or Yosemite. I will go from south to north.

Seasons, Lone Pine

This is located right near Dow Villa along the highway. Good sandwiches, very friendly service. 

Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery, Lone Pine

Most of my night photography friends seem to like Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery, so I’ll mention them here. However, I always seem to get meals that are okay, not amazing. But this is one of those places that serve big, hearty, gloppy American breakfasts, burgers, and baked goods, and they almost always have a line out the door. 

Merry Go Round, Lone Pine

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I like this place. Alright, it’s not amazing food. But it does taste good. It’s probably closer to Chinese-American food. You are not going to confuse it with really delicious restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles. However, it’s quite welcome, and I find myself going there often when in Lone Pine. However, my other night photography friends seem reluctant to eat here.

Merry Go Round is a Chinese restaurant inside what looks like a cool old historic round building, and doesn’t appear like a stereotypical Chinese restaurant from the exterior. Very friendly staff and a good selection of food.The mapo tofu is good, although I was surprised that crunchy little strips of water chestnuts and Chinese black beans are included in the dish, something I don’t think I’ve seen before (and I’m Chinese, so I’ve eaten my share of Chinese food). Giant portion as well. I mean huge.

Also, one can order steaks and a few American items. After all, this used to be a steakhouse. And it offers a few items in their South of the Border section as well, including cheese enchiladas, as the cook from the steakhouse, who is of Mexican descent, apparently works in the kitchen as well as the Asian chef.

Still Life Cafe, Independence

Blink and you’ll miss it. Behind a charming if unassuming storefront is an amazing bistro run by super friendly chef Malika Adjaoud Patron. The locals say that him and his wife do this just for the love of cooking. Great ambience, festooned with photos and paintings too. This place gets pegged as a French bistro, but really, they just serve good food. That’s all you have to know. Whether it’s Merguez (North African sausage), spaghetti bolognese, boeuf bourguignon, flank steak, and delicious salads, this place is a total gem. Check their hours before going, as they can be a bit erratic.

Copper Top BBQ, Big Pine

Close to the Copper Top even though it feels like a million miles away…

I’m going to mention this place even though I wasn’t blown away by what I had simply because everyone else seems to love it. I had a tri-tip sandwich. Although the taste was good, it was strangely dry. If I ever eat here again, I will probably try a pulled pork sandwich instead. Regardless, this place boasts quite a reputation. After all, according to the LA Times and Yelp, it received the title of “America’s Best Restaurant.”

Erick Schat’s Bakery

I wasn’t going to mention a restaurant in Bishop only because it’s a decent-sized town. Here and in Mammoth Lakes, it’s not that hard to find a decent meal. But this place bears mentioning because their bread is insanely good. And they also make great sandwiches. Whether you stop off here to get their Original Sheepherder Bread fresh from their stone ovens to make sandwiches or whatever, any number of astounding baked goods, or to order a sandwich from the back, you will not be disappointed. I personally love their cheese bread. Many of us make a special point to stop here. There’s another Schat’s Bakery in Mammoth which is run by a former sister-in-law.

Ohanas395, June Lake

Now we’re on to the tacos. This is a truck that is located right by June Lake Brewery along the June Lake Loop, another gorgeous area along Eastern Sierra that is known for their lakes and trees. It’s particularly popular with photographers in autumn when the trees turn vivid colors. 

I love their ahi tuna tacos. These are delicious by any standard. Excellent. The rest of their food looks and smells fantastic too. Super friendly people as well.

As a bonus, you can have a brew at the June Lake Brewing Company, and these guys will bring your food over. Just don’t ask June Lake Brewing Company what any of their beers are. I said hello and about their milk stout, and the guy replied, “You don’t know much about craft beer, do you?”

Tioga Gas Mart & Whoa Nellie Deli, Lee Vining

Fish tacos! At a Mobil gas station! And one of them even had mango salsa! 

This is a good place to stop and enjoy some tacos and beers after  photographing Bodie ghost town, Mono Lake, Yosemite, Saddlebag Lake, or other nearby areas.

Whoa Nellie Deli is a very popular stop for people going up or returning from Yosemite. Consequently, you’ll see lots of hikers, rock climbers, nature enthusiasts, and tourists hanging out and drinking beer in the very large outdoor area and relaxing. I do like the tacos at Ohanas395 more, but still, it’s good to know that you can grab a decent taco when heading up Tioga Pass or returning from a long photography expedition in Tuolumne Meadows. This place is just off Tioga Pass Road just outside Lee Vining.

Mmmmm…..tacos….

Night adventure among the mysterious sliding stones in remote Death Valley National Park

 

Scattered about Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park are mysterious sliding or sailing stones, leaving snakelike trails behind them on the cracked dry lake bed, often for longer than 250 meters.

How these stones — some weighing hundreds of kilograms — slid was a mystery for many decades. Was it from hurricane-like winds? Magnetic forces? Pranks? UFOs? Geologists had been studying the sailing stones since the 1940s, with the first theory suggesting that they were moved by “dust devils.” And one of the many reasons the mystery endured was that the stones often did not move for decades until a specific set of natural circumstances occurrent this remote region.

This was the remote area that I had wanted to photograph for years.

 

Venturing to a remote part of Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is an enormous, sprawling park with deserts, playas, mountains, ghost towns, sand dunes and more. It can take hours to drive to its main attractions. The Racetrack Playa is about two hours from the centrally-located Stovepipe Wells. However, the last hour or so is on a bumpy, rough road with sharp rocks. Many motorists have had flat tires as a result of these rocks.

I had joined up with a group of photographers, one of whom teaches for National Parks at Night. We decided to take two cars and also tell the rangers where we were heading. We arrived after dark, with the winter temperatures approaching freezing.

Brrrrrrrr!

One member in our party of five people forgot his pants and only had long underwear. Wearing a winter coat and gloves but short pants and long underwear … this was a comical look. Although very cold, he persevered, photographing much of the time until he got too cold to continue. He retreated to the warmth of his rental car.

Bathed in Moonlight

The way the full moon illuminated the parched white dry flat lake bed was magical, with the dark mountains looming in the distance, the dark blue night sky hanging overhead, and the ground below almost glowing. We walked out onto the dry lake bed for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and then spread apart to begin photographing.

Lighting for texture

I wanted to accentuate the surface cracks and the tracks that the sailing stones had left. To do that, I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, which is designed for light painting, holding it very low to the ground to pick up the texture off the ground and create shadows and depth.

The ProtoMachines flashlight also can produce vivid colors. You can control the saturation, brightness and color quickly, and it is designed to provide hours of illumination on a single battery charge. It is very expensive, but it replaces a bag full of batteries and gels. This is important when hiking in the dark for long periods of time. It also enables you to create the light you want much more efficiently.

 

There’s always technical difficulties, aren’t there?

I had two technical difficulties, but nothing serious. For some reason, my full-frame sensor camera, the Nikon D610, reverted to crop sensor format. Consequently, my first several photos had the edges cropped off. At first, I thought I was doing a lousy job framing the photos.

Later, the Vello Shutterboss II wired intervalometer would not shut off despite repeated attempts. The camera kept firing automatically every time I turned it back on. I finally had to remove the battery to make it stop.

After that, it operated beautifully.

After that, I concentrated on my light painting. I wanted to pick up as much texture as possible, and look as magical as possible. I used a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide-angle lens to capture the magic.

“Wait for me!”

After a while, the other photographers signaled that they going back to the car to leave soon. So many times, I will keep photographing and photographing and photographing. Time stands still, and it’s just me and the stars moving and my camera clicking.

With lots of water and snacks and warm clothes, I could keep going. But it was time to go. I will forever remember this magical evening at Racetrack Playa, and hope to return someday.

 

Oh, and about that sliding stone mystery …

In 2011, cousins Richard Norris, a paleontologist, and James Norris, a research engineer, began attempting to solve the mystery, placing GPS devices on some of the stones. Later, they finally were rewarded, witnessing the stones moving.

The cousins determined that to create the sailing stones, first, it must rain create a shallow water layer on the parched dry lake bed. This needed to be followed quickly by the temperature falling low enough to freeze the water overnight before it evaporates.

Then the sun has to come out and thaw the ice so that it breaks into thin sheets. And finally, the wind has to blow strongly enough to break the ice into floes, the wind pushing the floating ice against the bloopers so that the ice acts as a sail and making the rocks slowly slide across the wet, muddy earth.

Getting there

Racetrack Playa is remote. It takes over an hour on a very rough dirt road to get from Ubehebe Crater (we always called it Heebie Jeebies Crater) to Racetrack Playa. The road generally doesn’t require a high-clearance vehicle, although I sure wouldn’t try this in a Prius. Most standard crossover vehicles and SUVs have enough clearance. After all, we did it in a Toyota Rav 4 — hardly an off-road beast.

The larger issue is sharp rocks. I know one person who got two flat tires on the way back. Therefore, ideally, you should have a Jeep or truck or other vehicle with large all-terrain tires. These tires are less likely to be punctured.

And you should be equipped for emergencies. I would recommend having at least one spare tire, tons of water, a radio to contact the outside world, a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lug wrench and obviously a car jack. You can probably think of more essential items, depending on the weather.

If you decide to go, you should know that if you require a tow truck, it will cost you. The rangers said that tow trucks have to come from far away. They will charge you $1000 or more.

You may also rent a 4×4 vehicle. It’s expensive, but it may be well worth saving yourself some grief.

Keep it pristine for others

Stay on the road. Off-roading is prohibited. And whatever you do, do not drive on the playa. Ever. Enjoy the magic and the mystery and keep it beautiful for others. Do not move or remove any of the rocks. When the playa is wet, avoid walking in muddy areas and leaving ugly footprints.

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: Three steps to illuminating an eerie abandoned piano

Up in the mountains of Nevada is a ghost town. It was a former old Western mining town, and its fortunes rose and fell with the demand for precious metals.

We arrived at the town, ready for some night photography. One of the largest buildings has two stories, both with high ceilings. When I carefully went up the long stairs to the second story. I found this piano there. I am a musician and play keyboards and guitar. Therefore, whenever I encounter an abandoned piano, I wonder what songs were played, who sung or danced to it, and what symphonies were unfinished. And of course, I always photograph the piano.

 

Haunting melodies

My two friends were still downstairs. For fun, I began playing a few random high keys. These eerie out-of-tune notes echoed downstairs, drawing an immediate reaction: “Whooooaaaaaaaa!” It was eerie enough that we even created a short video of how the notes sounded downstairs a little later!

 

Determining how to light the piano

I walked around the piano for a while, shining my flashlight at various angles. Looking around, I noticed the plaster from the wall had given way, exposing the old studs. The handwriting on the old plaster was interesting as well. Since much of the wall was gone, I could walk to the room in back and illuminate from behind.

However, that room had a couple of rows of connected wooden chairs. This posed a bit of an issue since I would have to work around it. I would need to crawl around underneath them to get similar angles. It would be challenging. But I decided it was worth it.

Three steps to illuminating the piano

1. Backlighting the piano

I crawled underneath the connected wooden chairs, extending my handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device to approximate the angle. It was challenging because the chairs were blocking much of the angle. Nevertheless, I managed to get it close. 

I then backed up and swept the light from left to right, so that this would create more shadows that would emanate forth on the floor from both the piano and the studs. As a bonus, I briefly illuminated the flowers on the top of the piano.

2. Illuminating the piano from the left side

I walked back into the room and walked to the left of the piano. Making sure I would not inadvertently shine the light into the camera, I grazed the front of the piano to create detail.

3. Illuminating the piano from the right side

I walked to the right side of the piano. Here too, I used an angle relatively close to 90 degrees from the camera. This enabled me to graze the piano to create detail and shadow as well. 

Why illuminate from the sides?

Have you ever used the built-in flash of your camera or phone camera to illuminate people or things? What did it look like to you? Probably not very flattering.

Light coming straight on to the subject is often harsh and not very flattering. Many photographers choose to use off-camera flash or bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. 

Light painting is no different. You are still using light. However, you simply are applying it more slowly and cumulatively during a long exposure image. This is one of the advantages of light painting. You may illuminate something from multiple angles in one photo, and with different colors and levels or brightness if you wish. But you can do this without having to set up multiple lights on stands or other complex setups and triggering.

 

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

 

 

Seven reasons Irix may be the greatest budget ultra wide lens for Milky Way photos

What is a good lens for Milky Way photos that won’t break the bank?

This is a common question that frequently pops up in social media discussions everywhere. People ask about recommendations for ultra wide angle lenses for night photography, astrophotography, or photographing the starry night. And with “Milky Way season” upon us, I thought I would mention a high quality option that I use.

My “workhorse” night photography lens is currently the Pentax 15-30mm 2/8 lens. This is the same lens as the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 (Tamron makes it for Pentax). It’s a high quality lens. However, it is also almost $1300 in price. Not everyone can pay that much for lens. 

However, there’s another lens that I use right without hesitation that works extremely well!

Irix 15mm f/2.4

My often-used Irix 15mm f/2.4 ultra wide lens, still going strong after quite a bit of use.

I was one of the first people in the United States to purchase an Irix 15mm f/2.4. In fact, I purchased it in 2016, so early that Irix didn’t have distribution in this country! I had to purchase it through eBay. But I was glad I did.

I have the Blackstone version of this lens (more on this later), which is a sturdy manual focus lens that almost seems made for night photographers, although I believe it would  be a good lens for long exposure photography, landscape, architecture, or real estate as well.

Seven reasons why I love this lens

1. Sharpness even at wide apertures

Even at its widest aperture at f/2.4, it’s surprisingly sharp. Wide open, of course, there is some vignetting in the corners, which is easily addressed. There is slight softness in the corners, less than most ultra wide angle wide-aperture lens.. And the time you stop down to f/2.8, everything seems tack sharp.

Ojo Oro Arch, a remote arch deep within the Mojave Desert, a Milky Way photo taken with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

2. Detent at true infinity

Move the focal ring and you will feel a detent at true infinity. For photographing the Milky Way or the starry sky, this is invaluable. Just fix the focal ring at detent, and you are ready to go. 

But there’s more. If a foreground is not quite in focus at infinity, you can simply re-focus the lens for the foreground object and then “focus stack” the two photos later in post-processing so that everything is in focus. And this brings me to the next point….

3. Scarcely any focus breathing

There is very little “focus breathing” when re-focusing as described above, having elements grow larger if one is refocusing. The entire time I have been focus stacking with this lens, I have never encountered an issue. It blends beautifully.

4. Rectilinear distortion

For a wide angle lens, the Irix exhibits very little barrel or pincushion distortion. It’s a rectilinear lens, so images with straight features, such as walls of buildings, continue to appear with straight lines instead of being curved. 

5. Accepts filters easily

Most ultra wide angle lenses have bulbous front elements. Not so the Irix. This allows it to accept screw-on filters in the front. Furthermore, it also accepts gel filters in the back. This would make it useful for long exposure photography without the need to use externally-mounted and more expensive filter systems such as Nisi, Lee or Cokin.

6. Inexpensive

TheIrix Blackstone, which a sturdy all-metal model which I have, sells for about $549. The Firefly, which is basically the plastic version of the Blackstone, sells for under $400. You can purchase three Firefly lenses for the price of one Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 and still have enough money left over to purchase a speedlight….or dinner for four at your favorite Mexican restaurant. Mmmmmm……tacos…..

7. Focus lock

How many times have you, as a night photographer, mistakenly knocked the lens out of focus? Raise your hands. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? I often affix gaffer’s tape to the focus ring of my other lenses. I don’t need to with the Irix. The focus ring is appropriately stiff, and it also has a focus lock. I don’t bother using this if I am focusing on infinity since it has a detent there and is unlikely to be knocked out of focus.

More

The Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone ultra wide lens also comes with a nice case, a soft case which is still firm enough to offer ample protection.

There are few ultra-wide lenses, if any, that can approach the optical quality of the Irix for this price, or even several hundred dollars more, for that matter. The one lens I can think of off the top of my head that one could also consider in the same price range would be the Rokinon ultra wide angle lenses. 

The Irix also has UV Fluorescent Engraved Markings. I was excited about this upon purchase. In practice, however, they don’t seem to be all that visible at night. And I probably wouldn’t use it that much anyway, preferring to manually focus on sight. Still, the fact that the engineers even thought to incorporate this indicates how much they seemed to be designing this lens for night photography.

As I mentioned, this lens would be outstanding in many applications, including landscape, architecture, real estate, and long exposure photography. But isn’t it good that a night photographer is looking out for your needs all the same?

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California. Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

Final words

While I haven’t done a specific side-by-side comparison with the 15-30mm f/2.8 lens that I have, I have alongside or instead of that lens without hesitation for years. And I’ve never felt like I’ve ever perceived a drop-off in image equality or sharpness at any point. It keeps up with that or the venerable 14-24mm f/2.8 F-mount without breaking a sweat. And given that the Firefly version is under $400, less than a third of the price of those other lenses, that’s stunning.

2021-02 Magical moments in night photography: the loudness of silence

Sometimes we have these moments in nature. They may seem magical. Spiritual. Transcendent. Inspiring. Humbling. But whatever it is, we are left with an indelible memory.

The hike to nowhere

We began our May hike to nowhere. This was the middle of the desert. Almost no cars. No trails. no footprints. We parked our cars off the side of the nearest road. Then we walked. We walked for two miles. The terrain became increasingly strange. Odd-shaped rocks seemingly from an episode of “Star Trek”. Weird alcoves. Shallow caves. Lumpy misshapen rocks.

 

Setting up camp

We had brought in gallons of water, emergency supplies, food, and sleeping bags. No tents, though. Too much weight, too much hassle, and no need. It was a warm night. We set out our tarps and sleeping bags. Each of us chose some flat rocks to attempt to avoid scorpions.

 

Photographing at night

The Milky Way core began to show up in all its heavenly glory late at night. We set about photographing, taking turns or simply photographing different areas. We mostly worked in silence, occasionally talking about cameras or how magnificent the stars were. I illuminated Ojo Oro Arch, one of the secret hidden arches in the area, with light to accentuate its shape and features.

I sat in silence. The glorious silence. I could at one point actually perceive the direction the stars were flowing in. I was completely locked in to the stars, the desert, and the experience. This is what people experienced for most of the time humans have been around. But our cities blot out the skies, and most people have not seen the Milky Way in person.

 

Cocooned by a canopy of stars

I finished photographing. I settled down to sleep under the stars around 3:30 am, cocooned by a canopy of stars and the Milky Way arching directly overhead. Every several minutes, I saw shooting stars streaking through the night sky.  It was so unbelievably vivid. And for so much of dusk or night, I was so aware of the silence. This was a special place where silence is louder and the stars shine brighter. I will always treasure the experience.

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

 

Creepiest place I have ever photographed at night

People ask night photographers all sorts of questions. One of the most common is: what’s the scariest, creepiest place you have ever photographed? 

 

The last stop for almost 1000 souls

The imposing Gothic stone structure, Moundsville Penitentiary in West Virginia, was the last stop for murderers, rapists, and thieves. Almost one thousand men lost their lives here. Between 1876 and 1995, these prisoners were hung, electrocuted, bludgeoned, or committed suicide. Some met grisly deaths in the outside weightlifting area. 

Moundsville was bizarrely violent. It made the United States Department of Justice’s Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list. 

Some met their deaths at the hands of prison guards. Moundsville broke men, leaving them shattered. Some feel that these tortured prisoners still remain within the large stone walls. 

Moundsville takes its name from Native American burial mounds across the street. Death was no stranger to these parts.

Dark. Creepy. Imposing. Haunted. Old. Abandoned. Strange.

Three of us night photographers could not resist. During a humid summer in 2017, Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I photographed at Moundsville. At night. With no lights on.

 

Preparing for night photography within the stone walls

We arrived shortly after sunset. We were mobile, having all our camera equipment, water, snacks, and accessories in backpacks. We shuffled past “Sparky”, the infamous electric chair that sent many to their deaths. In the hallway, Tim passed out Motorola CP110 radios. These had a range of 1.5 miles. We were not sure if their signal would go through several thick stone walls, but it’s what we had. We would use these to communicate anything, typically using it to let others know where we were going so we wouldn’t interfere with each other or call for help.

 

The Sugar Shack

The Sugar Shack is dark in more than one way. This was a recreation room located downstairs, and is the most infamous room at Moundsville. This room was basically a free-for-all, a place where the guards looked the other way, a place where gambling, fighting, rape, and murder took place. 

The sky was still relatively bright. However, I wanted to begin photographing. I chose the darkest place. This was the Sugar Shack.

I immediately got the creeps upon coming down here. I am typically not prone to being spooked. However, this room had a really ominous feel. I set up for one photo. My headlamp suddenly died. It was pitch dark. I could not see my hand in front of me. To finish off the photo, I counted steps to the wall and “light painted” the room with my ProtoMachines. I then packed up and left. One photo was enough.

 

Blood Red Cells

I photographed the Block J & K cells. This was foreboding. My footsteps echoed throughout. I decided to go with this, choosing a blood red photo, shining the light in such a way that the bars of the prison cells showed on the floor. I did this with every cell. The entire image was red except for some of the lights from outside shining in through the glass brick windows. At one point, something clattered and sounded like it dropped to the floor. I whirled around. No one was there. I never knew what fell.

 

Psych ward

Near the end of the evening, the radio squawked. “We have to be out of here in twelve minutes!” I looked at my phone. Sure enough, it was almost time to leave. I was upstairs. Broken glass, shattered ceramics, and lots of dust lay everywhere, creating scraping sounds as I walked. I had twelve minutes. I had really wanted to photograph the psych ward. This lay on the other side of a large community room, which I had to cross.

FLU-FLU-FLU-FLU-FLUP! 

I whipped around, shining my ProtoMachines light. I was met with a rush of wings and moving air. Bats! As if this Gothic stone building weren’t enough, bats also lived here. 

I peered into the medical room in the psych ward. I could do this. I set up the camera quickly, shined my light into the room, and focused. I tripped the shutter and illuminated the room with red and blue light from the ProtoMachines into the room. It was pitch dark, so it didn’t matter how long the exposure was. It was all dependent on my light. I wanted to photograph quickly since I had to get back to the front, which was at least five minutes away. 24 seconds later, I was done. I closed the shutter. The photo looked good. I could now leave the psych ward. I would no longer disturb the bats. Or anything else.

 

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

 

The power of vignettes: directing the light

Directing the light

A good composition is about directing the viewer through the image. And one of the many ways that effective photographers do this is by directing the light. Vignettes are a powerful tool in doing this. And best of all, it’s easy to do!

 

What’s a vignette?

A vignette is simply a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation around the edges when compared to the center of the image.  A vignette might occur “naturally” through the lens you use, particularly if you photograph with a very wide aperture. Or we can add it easily through post-processing. I’ll show you how to do the latter to direct the light toward what you want the viewer to see.

 

It is easy to create vignettes!

In this example, I will use Adobe Lightroom Classic. However, you can use just about any program and achieve the same vignettes. I will show you using an example of a night photo. However, you may apply vignettes to any kind of photo. It is up to you!

 

Above, there already appears to be a little bit of vignetting in the original photo. However, the main reason the subject is brighter is because I lit the car grille during the exposure. I let everything else become a little more underexposed. The lights in the distance are more or less in the center, and also aid in creating interest near the center. I have placed the brightest part of the sky directly over the highest part of the car grille for maximum effect.

 

Creating a vignette using Adobe Lightroom

Above, under the effects panel, there are controls for “post-crop vignetting”. You probably already know what to do! Mess around with the controls and get something you like. I find that for most applications, a small amount of vignetting is all that is needed. Most of the time, you might not want to draw attention to the fact that there is vignetting. Subtlety is key. Here, the amount is just a little.

I have also increased the feathering. This controls how gradually the vignette darkens.

See how easy that was?

 

An example of heavy-handed vignetting and hard feathering

Just for fun, I thought I would create an extreme example of vignetting. As you cay see, the Amount Slider has been moved to the left considerably. And so has the Feathering Slider. This is the opposite of a very gradual, subtle gradation from light to dark. For some photos, this might work. For most, probably not.

 

Vignette controls may already be on your phone!

You don’t need to have Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, Affinity, or other programs to create vignettes. There’s a great chance that you have controls for this on your phone already. Most phones already have simple photo editing features. See if you have one on your phone. The Photos app on iPhones, for instance, have the capability to create vignettes easily, similar to what I’ve shown here.

Directing the light to the subject

Subconsciously, the eyes of the viewers tend to go toward the brighter, more colorful parts of an image. Vignettes are one more tool in a photographer’s bag of tricks for doing so. It also has the subtle effect of almost cradling or framing the image.

What sort of photos do you think can benefit from vignettes? Portraits? Sports? Birds? Wedding?  Fine art?

When you next look at photos, see if the photographer has used vignettes to direct your light toward the subject.

 

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 to emotionally deal with not being able to photograph

We all love to photograph. However, I’ve spoken to numerous people who now have difficultly photographing. Some of it is due to lack of access or health reasons. Some have immunocompromised people in their family that they don’t wish to endanger.

I am fortunate. Night photography is by its nature considerably more solitary. And I live in an area where I can go to isolated places and back without needing to go on a long trip. I can isolate. I can stay safe and still have fun.

But what is the best way to deal with not being able to do something you love? Here’s some ideas that might help.

 

It’s okay not to be productive

Sometimes, there can be outside pressure telling you that you have more free time and that you should be productive. But is this true? If we are taking care of someone, taking care of our health, traumatized, anxious, or depressed, is that a great time to be productive? If one is laid off, sanitizing groceries, having to learn new technology, or facing uncertainty, is that a great recipe for productivity? I would say take care of yourself first. Pace yourself. There’ll be time to do other things. Or you can do things more slowly. It’s alright.

 

Do things that help other people

For instance, help people who cannot or should not leave their home. These might be neighbors, friends, or family members with serious illnesses or disabilities who should minimize public settings. You can do this directly or indirectly. You can donate to Meals on Wheels or other places. This helps out someone. And it helps you out by connecting, feeling involved, and giving.

 

Connect with nature

Those of you who know me personally probably knew I was going to say this. It’s one of the reasons why I love night photography so much. If it’s safe, get outside, exercise, walk around, go to a nearby park that doesn’t have lots of people, go for a walk in the woods, walk around the block, eat outside, plant a garden.

 

Play cool, soothing music

I love to play ambient music while around the house, working on things, relaxing, or even writing articles like this one. I have odd taste in music, so I listen to Brian Eno or The Mercury Seven. But I’ve turned on many friends to Andy Othling, who frequently does beautiful live ambient guitar improvisations called Morning Care on YouTube.

Okay, sure, suggestions for photography-related stuff

As you feel better, you may wish to begin with some small photography-related projects. Something easy to get you in the flow when you have time. Choose something that is doable and immediately gratifying. I’ve been dabbling in macro photography, for example. It’s easy to do and I don’t need to leave the house. Take photos of family, cats, children, flowers, heirlooms, whatever.

Other ideas include learning some new software. I’ve been experimenting with LuminarAI, for example. It’s easy to use and immediately gratifying while producing quality results.

Perhaps reading books on photography might be calming and inspiring as well. You can never go wrong with reading books on lighting or composition.

You could also cull your catalogue, back up (you DO back up your photographs, don’t you? Don’t you?) your photographs to another hard drive and cloud back-up service.

 

Final thoughts

Find gratitude in what you do have that is positive.Take control of the things you can control. Best wishes in getting through this and achieving balance.

 

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

 

10-minute DIY: an easy-to-make snoot for light painting

This is admittedly a rather specific DIY project, but hopefully it fills a niche, however small that might be. And the twenty-three people who want to do this might be really happy.

I cannot take credit for this fine design. Night photographer Tyler Heibeck told me how to do this, showing this to me when we were traveling in Iceland. But it’s easy to do. It’s simply sanding and gluing. If I can do it, you can do it. And probably better.

The specific design I’ll describe is for a ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light painting device. It has threads so you can screw them on. And so do a lot of lights. But even if they don’t, as long as you have a piece that attaches to your light source and you can glue modifiers on to that, you can run with this idea.

 

What’s a snoot and how do you use one?

In photography, it’s a tube or something similar that allows you to direct light. You can fit one over a studio light or a portable flash or a flashlight. Here, it’s most similar to a flashlight. This allows you to control the direction and radius of the light beam. I’ve done that with the above photo of the bus.

I use this for various reasons. The most common for me is to light paint a headlight so it looks like it’s on. This is great fun.

Above: A finished snoot attached to a ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device.

 

What you need:

Aluminum Step Up Filter Ring. These are usually used for things like UV filters on camera lens. This one is a 58-77MM thread.

Bushing for connecting two pipes with different diameters I used a 2″ x 1-1/2″ bushing here. 

Coupling for connecting two pipes with the same diameter in a straight run. This is for connecting the long tube to the bushing. This particular one is a 2″ coupling on the exterior, but it fits a 1-1/2″ pipe.

ABS pipe or something similar. The particular one I purchased before is not sold any more, but any ABS or PVC pipe should work. 

J-B Weld 8265S Original Cold-Weld Steel Reinforced Epoxy – 2 oz. This is a two-part epoxy system that is designed as an alternative to torch welding. It’s bizarrely strong. One bottle has a sort of liquid steel, and the other bottle has a fluid that chemically hardens the steel so that it creates a bond that is stronger than steel. I can attest to it lasting through for years of abuse.

3M Garnet Sandpaper, Very Fine Grit, 9-Inch by 11-Inch, 5-Sheet

 

Sanding and gluing

Step 1 – Sanding. First, sand all the surfaces that you will be gluing. Roughen them up and then wipe off the dust.

You really only need to glue the aluminum step-up ring to the bushing (shown above after it was sanded). That’s what I did for my first snoot, and that lasted without incident for four years before I left it in an airplane hangar. However, if you wish to glue everything else as I’ve done this time, sand all the surfaces first.

Step 2: Gluing: Take the J-B Weld and add the steel to one side and the hardener to the other side. Apply this with Q-tips or something similar. You can also mix them together on one surface, but I found it was easier and less messy to apply them separately. Above is the step-up ring and the bushing just before I glued them together.

Step 3 – More gluing (optional): Remember, you don’t have to glue the other pieces if you don’t want to. Here, from the bottom up, you can see the step-up ring glued to the bushing, and then the coupling has been inserted into the bushing. I really didn’t need to glue the coupling into the bushing. It is a tight fit and doesn’t come apart. But when you have extra glue, why not?

Above: I’ve now glued the ABS (similar to PVC) pipe into the coupling. This will make for a good, solid fit. Again, you do not need to glue this. In fact, if you wish to swap up different lengths of ABS pipe, it’s a good idea not to glue it! Your choice.

 

Does it have to be black?

No, absolutely not. But people who light paint frequently walk through the frame. We like to use dark things to minimize the chance of it showing in the photo or reflecting something. We wear dark clothes and use dark things. So it is with this snoot. But if you wanted, you could get most of these parts in white. That would certainly make getting the pipe easier, as you could use PVC pipe, which is generally found in white. ABS pipe is black. It also tends to be a little more solid and can withstand more shock, which probably isn’t that crucial unless you slam the car door on it or something. Well, okay, that sounds like something I might do, so maybe that is more crucial!

 

An even easier, cheaper snoot

Although this takes only about ten minutes to do, you can certainly use a cruder, simpler snoot. For instance, you can use a heavy-duty cardboard packing tube, available just about anywhere. The advantage is that it is cheap.

Two disadvantages of a heavy-duty cardboard packing tube

One disadvantage is that it “leaks” light slightly between the tube and the flashlight and can show up if you walk across the frame or otherwise need to get close to the headlight. This was the case in the photo of the bus above.

The other disadvantage is that you have to use both hands. In reality, this second point isn’t really that big of a deal, but it bears mentioning.

 

Conclusion

I hope this helps! Again, I want to emphasize that if you can find one piece that attaches to your light, you can simply, uh, modify this light modifier to suit your needs! I hope this helps! If you can, please leave a link to any similar DIY light modifier project that you’ve done in the comments!

 

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