My night photographing an eerie haunted abandoned water park

I had just driven to the front of the post-apocalyptic looking abandoned water park. This was a high-profile abandoned location. After all, you could easily see it while traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Sure enough, there were several cars circling around, wondering where to park or enter. A group of three waved at me.

The entrance to the water park, with the letter “k” missing for quite some time. I lit this with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light during the exposure.

I scooted past the cars, eventually parking at the back end. I had parked here for a couple of reasons. One was so my car would not be on the street. The other was that I hoped to meet with the caretaker.

Encountering the first people at the water park

I wandered the water park as the sun began its descent behind the desert mountains. I didn’t think it was possible, but the place was even more tagged than two years ago when I had first visited. 

Inside the gift shop, with the Interstate in the distance. Lit by a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light during the exposure.

The three people who had seen me on the front street gave me puzzled looks. “Where did you park?” I muttered something about parking in the back. 

“Hey, do you think it’s cool if I paint here?”

“I don’t think so. It’s private property, although it’s not like that’s stopped anyone else.” I had never understood vandalism, even if the place was going to be eventually leveled.

“Cool, man,” he replied, as if I had given him permission to paint. “I’m from San Francisco. We’re on our way to Vegas. Just had to stop by here.”

Scouting for night photography

I continued wandering and taking photos with my phone. All the while, I was thinking about the angles of the moon as it rose and what might look good, taking photos to remind me of potentially good angles later if I were to return in the evening.

A fisheye view of what used to be the arcade. Using a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, I lit the interior and exterior of the structure.

But would there be people here in the evening? Would it be safe?

Meeting the guys in the back

I returned to my car, which I had purposely parked near the water tank and the dilapidated house and RV up near the top of the property. As I mentioned, I had hoped to meet the caretaker of the property here. I seem to have this way of connecting with people, and I hoped to do this here.

One guy looked like he was carrying things back and forth between the RV. I waved at him with a smile, doing an almost dorky sort of wave. He waved back and walked slowly down the hill. 

Making a connection

We got to talking about the Mojave Desert area, talking about Joshua Tree, Barstow and more. He was quite nice and smiled when I mentioned some of the history of the water park. 

Generally speaking, I really dislike graffiti. That said, this particular painting of this woman captivated me, and I knew I had to photograph her at night later. I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2, using warm white and blue light from numerous angles during the exposure, to create the lighting for this image.

He had lived up in the hills above Ben Lomond, in Boulder Creek. I knew the area and exclaimed how beautiful it was up there, and how I had spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz, Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, playing music and hanging out. 

“You know how there are giant redwood trees that are hollowed out by fire up there?” I nodded. “I lived in one of those trees for two years.”

Now, he was living in an RV parked under a dilapidated house that was tagged. I hadn’t realized how messed up the house was until I had walked closer and began talking to him.

He then mentioned how he had also lived near Beckley in West Virginia. We talked about the beauty of that state, as I had visited numerous times. 

Ghosts, accidents and 50 mile-per-hour waterslides

We ended up going on a mini-tour around the property. “The gift shop is haunted. There is a painting of a woman on the wall inside. People keep tagging it. But the paint never stays on.”

I asked how long this had been happening. “I’m not sure. It’s been happening for a while, though. Don’t worry, they won’t bother you,” he assured me. 

The first building constructed at Lake Dolores is still standing, although I suspect it’s far more colorful than before.

Soon after, he pointed and said, “That was the first building built here.” It was the bathrooms and changing rooms. And it was indeed built like a brick, uh, something-house.

We looked at the enormous pits which were the lakes in Lake Dolores. 

Some of the small waterslides at night, with the Interstate in the distance. The ones that you stood up on or went 50 miles per hour have long since disappeared. This was lit by a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 during the exposure.

He mentioned the long waterslides that used to exist, ones in which one could reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.

“And on some slides, you could go down while standing up! Some people got major road rash from that.”

And worse.

“One time, after the park closed, one of the employees wanted to go down the waterslide. The waterslide had been turned off, and the water was not full enough down below. He slid down and badly injured himself and then sued the water park. This shut it down.” 

The weirdest thing

No TV tonight. But plenty of color in this night photo of an abandoned water park.

“We get a lot of visitors here,” he mentioned.

Peering around at all the tagging, I nodded my head. I asked him what the weirdest thing he’s ever seen people do. Without hesitation, he answered, “Seances. I came across people conducting a seance right there,” pointing to an area between what had been the arcade and the gift shop. 

He later said, “Come on back later. You can stay here all night photographing. We’ll patrol the area and make sure no one bothers you.”

Not even ghosts, apparently.

Returning later in the night

I was excited about the prospect of photographing this place unimpeded, given the nod by the caretaker. Earlier, I had been thinking of some themes for a new night photography book on abandoned places. Lake Dolores would fit that theme beautifully. I drove in using the “secret locals” way he had also shown me, proud that I actually remembered how to do it.

An interior photo of the former arcade

I set about photographing and felt very creative, using more color in my lighting than I usually did, befitting the cartoonish, colorful nature of the water park. 

Several times, I saw an ATV pass. One time, he waved. 

Photographing the haunted gift shop

The corner of the allegedly haunted gift shop. Inside is the painting of the girl that allegedly cannot be painted over, according to the caretaker.

Of course, I had to do it. I ventured in, saw the girl, and smiled. I shined some blue light on her to give this eerie, bold and cartoonish quality. This sort of light painting would never stay on her. True to the caretaker’s word, the spirits never bothered me.

As I photographed some of the other buildings, an eerie cold wind blew in from nowhere. The air had been still and hot, but the sudden wind was gusty and cooler. Then just as suddenly, it stopped. Whether this was an atmospheric anomaly or the last vestiges of a seance, who can say?

I worked with mostly primary colors for much of this photoshoot, enhancing the already colorful, cartoonish look of the retro-futuristic water park. I’ll often use only warm white light for photo shoots, or perhaps a dash of color here and there, but here, I let the colors fly.

I packed up and left shortly after 2 a.m. This had been a great, creative night. And the ghosts had been kind.

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

 

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

 

How I got the photo: abandoned airplane cockpit

“I know this is late notice, but I was wondering if I could please drive up tomorrow and photograph there?” I had texted the owner of a WWII decommissioned airfield, a place where I had photographed at night previously.

Ten minutes later, I had my answer. “Sure, Ken! Come on up!”

Preparing for the photograph

Near a full moon on a cold February evening, I arrived, my mind already churning, pre-visualizing some of the photographs I wanted to create. I wanted to take a photo inside the cockpit of a dismantled P2V-3W Neptune aircraft, staring out into the night sky.

To do that, I needed to jump up and swing my leg over to crawl inside the airplane. I keep some sparring kneepads in the car for occasions like these so I have less chance of scratching or bruising my knees.

The challenges of illuminating tiny interiors with sharp metal

I squatted down. It was small inside. Despite my kneepads, I still managed to scratch my leg while trying cramming myself inside because some of the metal was sharp. I wondered how the pilots could squeeze themselves in here when flying. I hope they weren’t 6′ 1″.

Due to the small quarters, I set My Nikon D750 for a one minute exposure. This would give me ample time to not only illuminate the cockpit but also crawl around to the back to aim my flashlight outside the windows to light them up a bit. I thought a red light would be striking against the deep blue night sky. I used my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device while the camera shutter was open. However, I had to be mindful because red makes it easy to overdo red lights and blow out the details and highlights. I bounced the light off my hand and some of the metal surfaces in the back.

Camera settings

One minute exposure at f/8 ISO 200. I wanted everything to be in focus, so I set my aperture to f/8. ISO 200 would keep the image nice and clean. My regular ultra wide lens would not be able to capture the entire cockpit, so I chose a fisheye lens.

Equipment used

Nikon D750 using Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Feisol CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod with an Acratech GP-s ballhead.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

 

 

How I got the photo: Ojo Oro Arch

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

The desert as philosopher

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

The mysterious hum of the magic desert

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

Setting up the camera

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

Illuminating the arch for the photo

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

Photographing the Milky Way

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

Wash, rinse, repeat

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

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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