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

 

 

Light painting 101: two quick steps to lighting a Joshua Tree for dimensionality at night

 

I had a chance to run out to Joshua Tree National Park in California.  This is where I began learning night photography.

I photograph a lot of abandoned sites. This came about in part because I have a multi-book deal that encourages this sort of thing. Truthfully, however, I just love photographing abandoned areas anyway.

But this night was different. I was excited to photograph some nightscapes in my spiritual home for night photography. I was going back to my roots. However, I can’t help but think that perhaps I subconsciously applied some of the approaches from trying trying to pull out texture and create a 3-D feel from abandoned areas to these trees and rocks.

4013_kenlee_joshuatree_210320_2220_30sf71iso1600_wishbone-joshua-tree-sidelit-1600px-metadata photofocus

Two quick steps to lighting the Joshua Tree

1.) I ran to camera left about 25 feet away and lit the tree from the left for about two seconds. At that location, I blocked part of the beam of the light from my ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light so that it would be confined to either the tree or directly behind it.

2.) I ran quickly to the other side, about 25 feet to the right of the camera, and did the same thing, only from the right side.

Why am I running?

I was trying to get the stars to show as pinpoints of light for this photo. Consequently, I set the camera for only a 30-second exposure. Not very much time. I guess I needed the exercise.  When I mean “quick”, I really mean “quick”!

Angles of lighting

angles of light painting-joshua tree 2021-03 120-degrees-white

If you look at the photo, you can see that the right and left side of the c=branches and trunk of the Joshua Tree are lit. The center is in shadow. Why? I like it that way. It imparts a sense of mystery and doesn’t look like everyone else’s photo.

I lit the tree from about 25 feet away on each side at approximately 120 degrees on each side from the camera (well, okay, 120 and 240 degrees…you know what I mean!). This is shown in the “angles of light painting” picture above. I stay out of the frame of the camera because I don’t wish to shine the light into the lens. Also, lighting the tree from at least 25 feet away softens the quality of the light, which I like.

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: 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!

 

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

 

This year, can we stop taking photos with flashlight beams aiming at the Milky Way?

I know. I’m going to be called a killjoy. “It’s my photo! I can do what I want!” And you’re right. I’m not the night photography police.  But you know, I am here to help you.

Therefore, I’ll ask politely: this year, can we stop taking photos with flashlight beams pointing at the Milky Way?

See here? Not one flashlight pointing at the Milky Way! Not one!

 

It’s a cliche

All the same, people have been doing this for years. It seemed to suddenly start about five years ago. And it’s never stopped. It’s the day photography equivalent of taking a photo of a model on train tracks or photographing people sitting on a couch in a grassy field. Yes. It’s a cliche. And you want your night photos to stand out from the pack, don’t you? Don’t you?

When there are actually video tutorials telling you how to create Milky Way photos with flashlight beams pointing at them, you know it’s run it’s course, right?

It’s bad for animals

To photograph this, you typically need a absurdly bright beam. Especially if it is not hazy or dusty. That messes up animals’ sleep habits and sets them off. It’s startling.  You don’t want to do that, do you?

No torches aiming up at the Milky Way here either.

It makes zero sense

When does anyone point a flashlight at the Milky Way? Yeah. Never. It never happens. Why? Because it makes zero sense. You can’t see them any better. And see those Milky Ways that you tried so hard to photograph? Well, they’re less visible now because, well, you’re creating light pollution, the very thing that you tried to avoid. Besides, when was the last time you saw someone aiming their flashlight at the Milky Way? Yeah. Never.

 

Above: there’s no Milky Way, but we do have the flashlight beam of the universe. This is okay. A handheld torch, maybe that’s run its course.

It’s not patriotic

After all, you’ve never seen a single photo of Abraham Lincoln doing this, have you? Be like Abe.

Take up the challenge

Let’s challenge ourselves to create more compelling, original night photography images this Milky Way season. Something that has more original focal points. We’ve seen plenty of people aiming flashlights at the Milky Way, and really, even enough people photographing glowing tents in the foreground. Consider trying something else, just for the fun of it.  Thank you in advance.

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

 

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

 

Finding infinity: seven ways to focus on the night stars

Getting sharp, pin-point stars for a starry sky or the Milky Way may be the hardest part of night photography. However, I’ll try and make it methodical and easy. I’ll discuss seven methods.

 

Focusing on a distant object during the day

The easiest way to do this is to go out some time when there’s some daylight and focus on something extremely far away. Choose the mountains or the clouds.  It may be right at the lens’ infinity marking.  Or slightly to the right.  Or slightly to the left.  Regardless, mark that setting if you can with a grease pen. Or better yet, tape the focus ring down with gaffer’s tape so it will not budge. Now you’re ready for the night.

 

Focusing on a distant object at night

Some people will have a friend stand at least fifty feet away and hold up a light. Then they will adjust their focus manually until the light looks like a pinpoint. If you don’t have a friend nearby, lean a flashlight against a tree or rock. This is far enough away that your lens should perceive this as infinity. This method also works well.

 

Focusing on the moon

Photographing while the moon is out? You’ll get less stars, but on the other hand, the moon may beautifully illuminate the foreground.  Aim your camera so the moon appears in the center. Use auto focus. The moon should be plenty bright enough for your auto-focus to work. If not, go ahead and switch to manual focus and then focus on the moon. You may do this via Live View or looking through the viewfinder.

 

Adjusting using your LED

Set it to where you believe infinity is based on the markings on your lens. Zoom in a star using your LED. Then adjust your lens accordingly. This may take a while.  This is easier with some cameras than others. Be patient.  You want the stars to be as sharp as possible. This method can be more accurate than the first two methods, but takes more patience.

 

Made from 20 light frames (captured with a NIKON CORPORATION camera) by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.6.1. Algorithm: Median

 

Adjusting using Live View

This is similar to the above method, but is generally easier to see than zooming in with an LED.  Zoom in to a star using Live View. Adjust the focus of your lens manually until it looks very sharp. This should go rather quickly, and is considerably faster and easier than using your LED. If this option is available to you, I would recommend doing this first. It is easy and arguably the most accurate of the ones listed.

 

Lens filters that help you focus

These are filters that use diffraction methods to nail focus. if you want to know more, search Bahtinov filters,  SharpStar2, or similar variations on this theme.

 

Using a lens with true infinity

Some manual lens have a hard stop for infinity. For many of these lens, this may actually represent their true infinity. You won’t know until you test. Other lenses, such as the Irix 15mm f/2.4, have a detent for true infinity. This make adjusting for infinity incredibly simple and easy.

 

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: 5 easy steps to create a glowing barn interior

During the day, I saw this incredible barn. I knew I wanted it to glow from within, shining through the gaps in the wall. I also wanted a couple of the signs in the front illuminated for good measure. I’ll tell you how I illuminated this in just five easy steps.

 

Step 1: setting the light for maximum brightness

I set my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device to its highest setting. I also set it for a warm white light. If you do not have one of these, you certainly can use a regular LED flashlight that is bright. If you want a slightly warmer light, you can hold a gel or something warmly colored over it.

 

Step 2:  illuminating the interior

I activated my light after stepping inside. This allowed me to see where I was going and, of course, begin illuminating while not shining any lights outside.

Step 3: Illuminating the front room elements

The very front had some walls and various equipment. I illuminated those first. I stood from the left of the door and swept across their surfaces, being sure to “paint” them with light evenly.

 

Step 4: keeping the light moving

I then walked through the downstairs and upstairs. I made sure to “light paint” all the walls and the roof. I wanted to do this evenly. To do this, I kept the light moving so there wouldn’t be “hot spots”, or parts that were glaringly bright. I knew that if I illuminated everything very evenly, it would shine through the cracks of the wall evenly and look beautiful. I also of course shined the light back at the wall to make sure that it would create shadows on the ground in front.

 

Step 5: Highlighting the signs

I wanted the front of the barn to be dark. The one exception was the Texaco and Coca Cola signs. How would I illuminate these only from so far away? I simply cupped my hand over the light to direct the beam of the light toward the signs. Also, I blocked the light from inadvertently shining into the camera lens by shielding the light with my body. I only spent several seconds on each sign. Nothing more was necessary. I kept everything else dark.

I sent a photo to the owners. They absolutely love it and say they have never seen their barn like that before.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below! I hope you have fun trying your hand at light painting.

 

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

 

Frightening encounters: meeting animals in the dark

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

The answer is yes.

People always think that it’s things like dogs, coyotes, and snakes. So far, no.

 

Whoosh!

 

The fuselage of the plane was a little high. I leapt up, swung one leg over, and somehow shimmied up into the inside of the abandoned plane. Suddenly, fluttering and animal noises. Whooosh! A black winged thing rushed past my head. Bats!  I yanked my head around, hyper-aware. Whoooosh! More wings flew past. Birds!

Regaining my composure, I squeezed myself into the tiny cockpit to take the photo above, in the process, scratching my knee and ripping my pants.

 

Scritch! Scritch! Scritch!

 

I entered an abandoned service station along Interstate 15 near the California/Nevada border. There was a turnstyle in this former location, and I thought I could create some interesting shadows by lighting them. I put my camera bag down and got ready to put a small light down so I could see while I was working. Before I could do so, I heard scratching sounds. I whirled around. I was not alone. Scritch! Scritch! Scritch! I shined my ProtoMachines in the direction. Nothing.

I again went to grab a dim light so I could see. Then I heard running. I opened up the light, and three giant rats that were almost as large as cats ran past me, making that sort of high-pitched sort of squeal.

 

EEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAA!

 

I was enjoying the tranquility of the peaceful desert night. Soft breeze. Sweet air. I was on my knees setting up a photo, making sure everything was in focus.

<SNORT!> EEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAA! This was accompanied by several stomps. I whipped around. Somehow, two burros had snuck up on me. I was breathing fast. I calmed myself down. I was mad at myself that I could be so unaware that two giant animals could sneak up on me like that. But I was also pleased that I had managed not to pee myself.

 

KRISH! KRSSSSSHHHH! KRSSSSHHHH!

 

I was going to meet up with my friend Ron at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierras. It was another one of those beautiful Sierras evenings with a soft moon glow illuminating everything beautifully. I opened the back of my car to start getting my camera equipment out and setting up. KRISH! KRSSSSSHHHH! KRSSSSHHHH! This was also accompanied by a soft exhale. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Standing about eight feet from me was a large deer, which had walked up to see if I were using a Nikon or a Canon or I don’t know what. Like the burro, I was mad at myself for allowing such a large creature to walk up to me unnoticed.

But it was a beautiful creature. The deer stood there, blinking for a few moments, and then casually sauntered off, leaving to try and stop my heart from pounding through my ribs.

 

FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP WHOOOOSH!!!

Several of us photographed the inside of the imposing Moundsville Penitentiary in West Virginia. The penitentiary has imposing Gothic stone architecture adorned with turrets and like a castle. It also has an extremely violent history, with almost a thousand deaths within these stone walls. At night, our imagination took over. People ask which place was the creepiest place I’ve photographed at night. Moundsville Penitentiary is it. The place had a very dark, ominous energy. At night, this was amplified. I walked slowly and carefully through some of the abandoned areas. At one point, while completely alone, I suddenly heard some loud shuffling noises followed by fluttering. I whirled around. I couldn’t see anything at first, but lots of black things fluttered past me quickly. Bats. Moundsville Penitentiary had bats living inside.

 

AAAAAAAAAGH!!!

 

The upstairs of the old barn had enormous floorboards that were at least an inch thick and a foot wide. They inspired confidence. Although old, there was no way I would fall through the floor. I walked through the dark carrying my camera equipment, walking toward a south-facing window.

I suddenly sank down slightly . Then my boot caught something that was sticking up. AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!! I lurched forward. I almost slammed my head against the dresser in front of the window, somehow catching myself just before. And I managed to not drop my camera equipment.

I had not only caught my foot, it felt like something had grabbed me!

I shined my flashlight around. There were two of those thick, enormous floorboards. One was bent down slightly because I had stepped on it, And the other was bent up slightly. I had caught my boot underneath the one that was bent up slightly when I sank on the other one. This had sent me sailing forward. I was lucky I had not seriously injured myself.

There was no animal for this last encounter. It was only me. But my yell was so loud that two of my night photographer friends heard me outside the barn and down the street. They immediately asked on the radio if I were alright. Thankfully, yes.

 

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