Light painting 101: How to photograph a historic Route 66 Whiting Bros Motel sign

I love old signs, especially if they are located along the Mother Road, Route 66. I had two locations to get to for night photography. I thought I would photograph some historic signs in Yucca, AZ, and then drive west to another Route 66 location an hour away.

I photographed this during Blue Hour, a time when many of the colors of the sky come alive in deep hues.

A brief history 

Like many of the towns along Route 66, Yucca thrived, serving the needs of motorists heading west. And when the Interstate Highway system was put in, motorists bypassed the businesses in Route 66. Many of those businesses eventually evaporated, often abandoned along the route.

Once a large complex complete with a station and a motel with a swimming pool along Route 66, all that’s left today are the signs and a large empty parking lot. June 2021, Yucca, AZ.

Three steps to light painting the sign

1. Adjusting the light for light painting during blue hour

I was photographing approximately during blue hour, about 25 minutes after the sun had set behind the mountains. Therefore, I needed a much stronger light than I typically need for light painting near a full moon. I also wanted a warm white light. I set the ProtoMachines LED2 for its strongest setting. I mixed in some yellow color for good measure.

2. Determining the best angle for light painting the sign

It’s important to consider the directionality of the already existing light when light painting if one wants the photo to look slightly more natural. Here, the light was coming from the horizon, already illuminating the sign from that direction. I wanted more of that.

I stood closer to the road. Shielding my handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, I illuminated the sign at approximately the same angle. This would create additional contrast while looking natural.

3. Waiting for the right moment to open the shutter

I set my Pentax K-1 camera for a 20-second exposure at f/14. This was in part because I wanted to illuminate the sign for a decent amount of time. But it was also so that I could begin the long exposure with enough time to make sure that I got red streaks of light from a passing truck. I wanted the red taillights in particular because I felt they would match really nicely with the sign. That simply meant waiting until a truck was driving north, then beginning the long exposure.

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 creating long shadows at an abandoned waterpark entrance

I recently explored an abandoned waterpark in the Mojave Desert at night. The park has been abandoned since 2004. I was drawn to the entrance, and I thought I could create some great shadows with this. 

I’ll break down the process behind creating this image using a handheld light. Although I used a ProtoMachines LED2, you can use any decent LED flashlight to create this image.

Three steps to creating the image

1. Illuminate the entrance sign

Using a warm white light, I stood to the left of the structure to illuminate the entrance sign. Although I illuminated the entire structure, I focused on illuminating the sign a little more.

2. Light the columns

I then stood behind each of the back columns, taking a few steps back. I then shined my light on each of the two columns, keeping the angle the same while moving the light so that it would create well-defined shadows on the ground. I took care not to shine the light directly into the camera lens.

3. Shine on the turnstiles

Squatting down behind each of the turnstiles, I shined the light behind them, once again blocking them from shining directly into the camera lens. This time, I used a shorter duration than I did for the columns since I was closer to the ground and didn’t want to blow out the details by overexposing.

At one time, this waterpark featured waterslides where you could achieve speeds of up to 50 mph and slide down on your feet. Now, it's more popular with taggers, skateboarders and urban explorers.
At one time, this waterpark featured waterslides where you could achieve speeds of up to 50 mph and slide down on your feet. Now, it’s more popular with taggers, skateboarders and urban explorers.

Fisheye

I used a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. The distortion from the fisheye can create a surreal effect and look different from most other people’s images. However, you do need to be careful that you do not shine the light in the image. After all, the lens has a 180° diagonal angle of view on a full-frame camera, so it’s very easy to think you are out of the frame!

Advantage of a handheld light

It would be challenging to create this sort of lighting with lights on stands. Part of the reason for this is because you would need to mimic the movements that I do while holding the light, gently “painting” the objects with light through movement.

It would also be time-consuming. You would need to use at least five lights to recreate this, all on stands. You would need at least four to backlight the structure, and another off to the side to illuminate the sign. And for the last light, it would be difficult to aim it for longer periods of time at the sign than the structure.

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 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

 

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: 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

 

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

 

 

How did I choose my night photography tripod?

I do long exposure photography almost exclusively, so I look for specific qualities in tripods. If I photograph  a series of photos for stacking for Milky Way photos or two-hour long star trails, I really need a tripod to do its job. So what qualities do I look for in a tripod?

Juggling cost, weight and stability

I agonized over my choice of tripod more than any other photography-related gear I’ve purchased, wrestling with these three qualities: cost, weight, and stability.
Want a cheap tripod that doesn’t weigh too much? Of course you do! But is it going to be stable?
Want a cheap tripod that is super sturdy and takes high exposures in high winds? Sure. But it might be really heavy.
Okay, How about something that is really sturdy and lightweight? That sounds great. But now it’s very expensive.
I’ll go over what features I considered. I’ve used my tripods for over six years. During this time, I’ve owned four DSLRs. However, I still own the same tripods and am happy with them, so I may have done something right.
Above: A rock solid tripod helps when taking 20 photos in succession so I could “stack” them to reduce noise. Eastern Sierras, California.

Carbon Fiber

I hike in to locations hauling a lot of gear, often having two cameras in my backpack as well as heavy ultra wide angle lenses and accessories. Because of this, I favor lightweight tripods, so all mine are carbon fiber. If I can even shave a pound off when I am hiking in for several miles, that’s money well spent. Also, they don’t get nearly as cold as their aluminum counterparts, quite a bonus in the winter months.

Quick and easy to set up

This is a matter of preference. In theory, I love flip locks. I know when they are locked down. However, I think maybe I am a little clumsy and have a tendency to pinch my fingers with these sometimes while using this at night. I’ve also had them catch on my clothing before when I am carrying or maneuvering the tripod.
Consequently, I’ve chosen twist locks. These deploy quickly and nicely. However, there are always sacrifices. It increases the chances that you forget to twist them all the way, so you do have to take extra care in making sure they are locked down. Some can also can attract sand and begin grinding, so you may need to occasionally take apart your tripod and give it a thorough cleaning once in a while.

Rock Solid Stability

This might be the most important of all for me. I have photographed in extremely gusty winds all over the Mojave Desert, including the insanely windy Owens Valley in California. And despite the wind, I have been able to take stack 20 consecutive 15-second or 20-second exposures for Milky Ways or do hour long star trails. Consequently, in the wrestling match of cost, weight, and stability, I’ve arguably compromised the most on weight. That said, my tripods still really are not that heavy.
Above: Mobius Arch in the winter. Although this looks serene, I was perched on another rock with strong gusty winds with my tripod clinging to steeply sloping rocks. Despite these hardships, my Feisol CT-3372 held fast, never shaking during the long exposure.

Durable

This should probably almost go without saying, but minimizing flimsy plastic parts such as locks and clamps really helps. My tripods get thrown into cars, banged around on airplanes, and even worse, gets sand ground in it in the desert and the beach.

Other features

Tripods also come with columns and hooks. I don’t use them. In my opinion, telescoping center columns introduce instability and invites additional vibrations, particularly when they are raised. They have their uses, but I really need rock solid stability. Also, I haven’t found much use for center hooks either. I’ve found that the packs sway when there is wind, which makes me rather concerned.

What I use

Six years ago, I made an attempt to purchase tripods that I would use for years. And I attempted to do so without spending tons of money, particularly since I frequently photograph with two cameras simultaneously and would need to purchase two tripods. So what did I choose?
Feisol CT-3342: This is the smaller of my two tripods. This folds up to 23.2 inches, weighs 2.5 pounds, yet has a load capacity of a whopping 55 pounds. This holds any of my camera setups, including a rather hefty Pentax K-1 DSLR with a 15-30mm f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens mounted on it. That’s a heavy setup. I strongly prefer to have the stated load capacity be considerably higher than what I actually put on the tripod. A while back, I attempted to get a really small travel tripod that folded up to 20 inches. It looked and felt flimsy. I guess I’m too spoiled with the stability I have. I sent it back. Sure, it might be a little large for a travel tripod, but then again, I’ve traveled to Iceland, India, and all over the Southwestern United States with it. I bought mine for $375, but I think they may sell for around $400 now.
Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3342 with a Acratech GP-s ballhead. The tripod legs have red and white reflective tape and glow-in-the-dark tape in the event that I cannot find my setup in the dark, something that thankfully hasn’t happened.
Feisol CT-3372: This is a larger tripod than most normal people use. Because I photograph in places that can get sudden strong gusts of wind and I use very heavy cameras, I have this as well. It folds down to 24.8 inches, is 3.9 pounds, and has a load capacity of 66 pounds, although I feel like it could hold even more than that. I’ve used this for gale force winds for photographing the Mobius Arch in the very windy Owens Valley in California.  This is usually about $575, which is a lot of money, but for this quality, it feels like a bargain.

Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3372 with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead. 
Both of these hit the sweet spot for cost, offering high quality without being crazy expensive. But who knows, you may find that something else suits you. There are so many new designs since I purchased this, including Peak Design and such, that might offer up something that satisfies cost, weight, and stability.

 

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

 

 

Intervalometers Made Easy for Night Photography

Inexpensive Indispensable Intervalometers

Intervalometers are inexpensive and invaluable, so why not throw one or two of these in your bag?
But what is it? Basically a remote shutter release that offers more controls, an intervalometer allows you to tell the camera shutter when to shoot, how long the shutter should stay open, and how long the the shutter should remain closed until it opens again. Night photographers use these to create star trails, time-lapse, a succession of images to “stack” to reduce noise in high-ISO photos, and more while avoiding vibrations.
Intervalometers come in different forms, including wired and wireless, with some allowing you to control your camera using an app on your smartphone. I use a wired intervalometer because they inexpensive and  very reliable.
Above: this is my trusty Vello Shutterboss II for my Pentax K-1, hence the punny “Kentax” name. Never run away from a great pun.

Understanding the Settings of an Intervalometer

Let’s go over some of the settings so we can better understand what they are and why we use them. I use a wired Vello Shutterboss II, and many wired intervalometers currently available have similar or identical controls. Look for the black horizontal line, which tells us which setting we are viewing or adjusting.

Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release)

The first setting is the self-timer. This allows you to set the amount of time it takes for the camera to initiate the sequence you have programmed into the intervalometer. This helps us from anything from doing selfies to getting into position to light paint a tree or an abandoned building. This intervalometer allows you to set the time anywhere from one second to 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Wow!  Below, it is set to 0 seconds, so the camera will start clicking right away.

Long (Timed Exposure Length)

How long do you want each exposure to be? Right here is where you set it! This one is set for 2 minutes. This is especially handy because most cameras have a maximum exposure length of 30 seconds and offer a limited amount of long exposure times. Intervalometers allow you to specify a shot between 1 second and 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. And yes, that means that you cannot photograph anything shorter than 1 second.

Interval

The interval setting allows you to control the time period between two or more shots. If you want to do time-lapses, perhaps you might want some time to pass between shots. On the other hand, if you want to do star trails for “stacking” later, you want the shortest possible time between shots. The interval shown below is set to one second, the shortest time between shots possible on most intervalometers.

No. (Number)

The number simply stands for how many photos you wish to take in your sequence of shots. Below, I have this set for 10 consecutive shots. You may set it anywhere from 1 shot to 999 shots. After running the sequence, the camera will stop unless set it to infinity. This is typically signified by two dashes ( — ). On this setting, your camera will shoot and shoot and shoot….

How Night Photographers Use an Intervalometer

Now that we know what the four basic settings are (I’m not going to go over whether you want a beep or not), let’s apply this to some real-life night photography scenarios.

Star Trails

Many night photographers love to show the perceived movement of the stars caused by the earth’s rotation of long periods of time. Taking a succession of shots and “stacking” them together for post-processing is a great way of achieving this while minimizing noise. In the photo above, I set my intervalometer at 4 minutes and photographed the starry night sky for 2 hours in total.
The settings would have looked like this:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 4 minutes
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots so that the gap between shots is kept to a minimum since I want smooth, uninterrupted star trails)
No. (Number): 30
The shorter period of time also help retain the true colors of the stars instead of making them all look white, which is, believe it or not, caused by overexposure. Yes, it is technically possible to overexpose something as faint as stars.

Stacking To Reduce Noise for Milky Ways

Many night photographers are turning to their intervalometers to take 15-20 photos in succession to reduce noise for their high-ISO Milky Way photos. For the above photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, I set my intervalometer to take photos for 20 seconds each. I took 31 photos in total.
For this photo, the settings are:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds (this actually doesn’t matter as far as the outcome of the photo is concerned)
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 20 seconds
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots because I want these to be as close as possible in succession so that Starry Landscape Stacker can interpolate the data effectively and reduce noise)
No. (Number): 31 (the slightly strange number tells me that I most likely set the device to click away on “infinity” while I grabbed a snack!)

Never Dangle Your Intervalometer

I’ll leave you with this important bit of advice: never let your intervalometer dangle from your camera. Several things happen, none of them good.

The intervalometer jack may get pulled out of the camera

This may stop the entire shooting process you’ve set into motion. You don’t want that to happen, do you? No. No, you don’t.

The intervalometer may swing

This isn’t so great either. It doesn’t take much wind to get your intervalometer to star tapping against the tripod and cause shakes and vibrations.

The intervalometer cable will weaken

This occurs over time when the cable gets increasingly stressed. As it is, this is a common point of failure for intervalometers, so why hasten its death?

 

Pro Tip: Velcro to the Rescue!

I would never leave you hanging (apologies for the pun). There’s a easy solution, and it’s called Velcro. Yes, that’s right, add a strip of Velcro to the back of your device and to your tripod leg. No more swinging.

I hope this helps. If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below!

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

 

Five Tips All Night Photographers Would Love To Know

Night photography has its own quirks and needs. After all, you’re photographing in the dark, maybe not the most normal thing to do. I decided I would avoid the more obvious sort of tips, such as “know how to operate your camera in the dark” or “understand how to shoot in manual” and get to physical sorts of tips that can help immensely. Let’s dive in.
1.) Gaffer’s Tape
Let’s start off with one that every night photographer could use. Gaffer’s tape. Yeah. This all-purpose tape is used by gaffers in film and TV production. The gaffer is the chief lighting technician, and is typically the head electrician. They need to use tape that is strong but doesn’t leave a residue. This is where we come in. We can use this for all sorts of purposes, so it’s always great to have gaffer’s tape in your bag. Break something? Tape it together. If you break part of your tripod, such as the ballhead, you can tape your camera to the tripod. Need to keep something in place, such as a prop or piece of equipment? Gaffer’s tape to the rescue. With some old cameras that don’t have a self-timer and you are missing your external intervalometer, you can even tape a pebble to the shutter button to hold it down. Need to tape down your focus ring on your lens so you can keep the same focus while moving around? Yes, gaffer’s tape. Too much light coming in to your room when you need to sleep late? Tape a blanket over the window. Want to use some tape to find things easier? I use orange gaffer’s tape (among other things…see below). All this and more, gaffer’s tape is indispensable.
2.) Velcro Your Intervalometer
Do you have an external intervalometer? If so, use hook and loop fasteners to “Velcro” your intervalometer to the leg of your tripod. This allows you to keep it up high without either dangling and swaying from your camera or dragging in the dirt when you are operating down low.
Above: My ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device is not something I want to go missing. There’s gaffer’s tape and glow-in-the-dark tape to help me locate it easier, and that’s a beautiful thing.
3.) Working In Pitch-Black Indoors
I photograph a lot of abandoned places. Many of these places are indoors, so even if there’s a full moon overhead, it’s likely very dark. I’ve photographed abandoned mining houses, penitentiaries, tunnels, factories, and more indoors. They’re completely pitch black, quite often. A great tip is to take dim electric tea lights or even a headlamp, or really, anything that creates a dim light that illuminates the room. Place this anywhere, and then get to work. You can see what you are doing and see the room, but the light is dim enough that it doesn’t adversely affect your light painting of the room. This is also nice because I don’t blow out my eyes, but it’s just bright enough that I can see what I am doing. I also use a red LED headlamp so I don’t blow out my vision as well.
Above: The room here isn’t completely pitch dark, but it was dark enough that I couldn’t really see things very well, and tripped over some huge floorboards upon arrival. I busted out a dim light so I could see the floor, and that really helped prevent further tripping.
4.) Find Your Belongings
I use both reflective tape and glow-in-the-dark tape for finding my equipment. I have both kinds of tape wrapped around my tripod legs and my ProtoMachines LED2 flashlight. Why do I use both? Glow-in-the-dark tape works almost all the time, and 99% of the time, this is enough to find the equipment. But in those cases where it is too dim or it didn’t get enough light to activate it, I also have reflective tape that alternates red and white so if I need to, I can shine a flashlight around and have this reflect back. I prefer not to do this because I like to work in the dark, but also because I might ruin my exposure if I inadvertently shine my flashlight into the camera lens. For other things that are dark, I sometimes use orange gaffer’s tape so that it is a little more visible.
5.) Kneepads
I kneel on a lot of surfaces that are sort of rough, whether it is rocks, sand with sharp little rocks, or abandoned locations. I also climb around sometimes. In those instances, it’s really nice to have kneepads to go a little easier on the knees.  I have knee braces that have pads in the front so they provide a little bit of support for going down hills or bending a lot. This is really nice when I am photographing for 6-8 hours, especially during a cold evening.

Above: I had to climb into this airplane cockpit and squat and kneel around some rather hard and sharp metal. Kneepads would have helped immensely here. I used a blanket, but still managed to scratch up my leg.

 

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