Saturday, October 5, 2019
When it comes to decay photography, there are two primary sources for finding the subjects that I photograph. The first is pure luck when I happen to find something in my travels. Obviously though, this is not very efficient and depends a great deal on turning down the right street. The other source is tips that I receive from friends, through social media, and occasionally from folks that I start talking to when I am lucky enough to cross their paths. I wish it were as easy as saying “Ok Google….navigate to a field of rusty cars.” I would have a course laid in and would be on my way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in the real world.
A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I received a message through Facebook from a friend of mine that I used to work with who retired several years ago. He was telling me about a shop in Lawsonville, NC that had some rusty treasures on the property. He sent a single picture of a Ford truck that looked to be positioned on the side of the building. It immediately caught my eye and set my imagination on fire. The only problem was it was much too sunny to even think about doing any photography during the day, and this was going to have to be something that I would need permission to do. Since it was a business, I knew that meant that I would be out there during the daytime. For that, I would need clouds.
I filed the location in the back of my mind for the first day that the weather would work for me. I wasn’t sure exactly how the area looked so I wasn’t sure just what kind of sky would work the best, but I knew that my best chance would be to have a cloudy sky with a little bit of texture. That will usually satisfy most compositions and give me the most flexibility with light. As the week drew to a close, the forecast started calling for clouds to come in with a cold front. An actual cold front was supposed to hit that would break us out of the 90’s which was so welcome all by itself. It was the clouds that I was most happy about though. I started to make plans for Saturday and those plans included a trip out to Lawsonville if the clouds had any texture to them at all. My alternate plans included trying to shoot that Mustang that I had found a few days ago, or going out to East Bend to meet with Dean Cornelius who wanted to take me out to another location with some rusty goodness. Regardless of the weather, I was pretty much set with a destination or two.
When Saturday rolled around, the clouds were looking decent. There was a little bit of texture to them, but not much. I decided to strike while the iron was hot on the Lawsonville location. After a quick visit with my Grandfather, I headed North with the intentions of getting there shortly after 10 when the business opened up. When I arrived, the shop looked closed and I could see the truck that had sparked my imagination sitting there on the corner of the property. Not far from that truck was a sign that read “No Trespassing, Video Surveillance in Use.” I weighed out my options and decided that it would not be in my best interests to start walking around on the property without first getting the OK from the owner. I noticed that there was a gentleman washing his truck in the carwash on the side of the lot, so I went over there and asked if he was the owner. He wasn’t, but knew the name of the owner and said that he might live in the house next door.
I went over there, but it didn’t look like anyone was at home. Then I remembered that my friend, Bud, had sent me a phone number to the same name that was mentioned by the guy in the carwash. I went ahead and gave the number a call and sure enough there was an answer on the other end. I went through who I was and why I was calling. Then he started talking and the connection was terrible. I don’t think that either of us could understand what the other one was saying. I was driving around trying to find a good place for a signal but finally gave up and said I would try calling back. When I did call back, I got voicemail. That might mean that he could hear enough about what I wanted that he wasn’t interested at all. That would be bad, and would mean that I had ridden all the way out here for nothing.
I started to drive around and look for other subjects to photograph with the hopes that Rick would call back. To my surprise, he actually did call back and we had a much better connection. To make a short story shorter, he said that I was welcome to take some pictures out there and he explained where his property went to. He said that he would be there in less than an hour which was great by me because I wanted to give him a card and let him know that I would be happy to give him a print if anything turned out from the morning.
With the permission that I needed, I made my way back to the shop and grabbed my Lowepro bag out of the 4Runner along with the Manfrotto Tripod. It was time to get to work! I knew that I had a lot of ground to cover with a lot of cars and trucks based on talking with Rick, and I had seen quite a few cars in the woods. However, it was that Ford at the side of the road that I wanted to work with first and foremost. The sky was just textured enough to where I would be able to bring in some drama with Lightroom when I got it home for processing. I sized up the scene and tried to figure out the best way to capture it. In order to avoid the road in the shot, I would have to include another truck that was sitting beside this one as well as a structure and a flagged cable blocking the driveway. It was going to be too complex of a scene to get. My only other option was to shoot towards the road which would possibly include a house in the background and the old pole that used to hold the shop sign. That pole gave me the idea for a composition where the road wouldn’t be a problem at all. I could actually shoot a vertical image to eliminate the clutter in the background while giving the truck room to breathe in an upward direction. I could capitalize on the clouds in this composition as well.
For this, I would need to mount my standard 24-70mm lens which would allow me to go wide, without overdoing it. I immediately added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to reduce the glare and give me a little added color contrast to the scene. I framed up the scene just as I had envisioned it and it looked fantastic. I positioned the camera on the tripod by using the RRS L PLate to mount to the Acratech GP-SS ballhead in a vertical orientation. I was very careful to get the camera in position so that the mailbox post behind the truck was covered with the truck, and I wanted a nice low position to emphasize the height of the pole in the background. When I got the shot all set up, I started to look at the exposure. I knew that the sky was going to need an ND Grad, but I wasn’t sure just how much I was going to need. Looking at the histogram, I wasn’t too far off, and probably could have shot it without a Grad, but I wanted to bring up the exposure on the truck to avoid the noise from recovering the shadows. I figured a 2-stop filter would work, and since the horizon was pretty level, I went ahead and opted for a hard edge transition. I slid that filter in the Lee holder and immediately I could see the exposure equalizing in the Live View. I was already liking this shot and hadn’t even fired off one frame yet.
When I started to make exposures I realized something that I had not noticed before. The passenger door, which was standing wide open was swinging in the wind. Apparently, the hinges on this truck were smoother than the ones on my 4Runner because the door would just swing at will in the breeze. That meant that I was going to need to wait for a lull in the breeze before I could get the shot that I wanted. It didn’t take long and I was able to fire off a shot that had the truck dead still under that slightly textured sky. With that, I was sure that I had the image that I wanted. It was now time to look for other things to shoot.
Of course, I started to look for isolations on this truck since the patina was just so awesome on it. It was the hood that really caught my attention, so that was where I went next. I stripped off the ND Grad since I was no longer including the sky, leaving just the Polarizer on the front of the lens. I worked on framing up a composition that captured the patina of the hood as well as the hood ornament and the leading emblem on the vent holes. I was really liking how this was framing up and I got the exposure all set before releasing the shutter. this was such a nice change of pace from the very long exposures that I had done a couple of nights ago. With just a fraction of a second, I had the shot that I wanted, and I could move on to the next one.
I looked around the parking lot for more possibilities but wasn’t really finding anything nearly as nice at the Ford I had just worked. It was time to go hiking through the woods now. I had no idea what I was going to find, but I was seeing plenty of cars from the 70’s and older. As I was walking through the woods, what I was looking for was color, or very dominant vehicles that showed up well in the brush. I wasn’t concerned with make or model, I just wanted something that would show up well in an image. Most of what I was seeing was uniformly rusty with very little actual patina. While this would be fine in many situations, having them partially concealed with vines, weeds, and leaves made the uniform brown a little hard to differentiate and that would make for a bland image. The first car I ran into that fit what I was wanting happened to be a bright yellow sedan wedged between two small trees. There were bright green leaves in front of the car and yellow leaves a bit further down. The color was there, the shape was there, and I was there!
I got the camera set up in a position that I thought would work well for this car. I still had it built from the first scenes that I had shot and saw no need in changing anything around. I positioned the camera high enough so that I could get the top surface of the hood, but more importantly, I wanted to catch the division of the leaves. The yellow leaves were a bit lower, and further out from the car which allowed me to compose so that they didn’t really overlap the car much, which helped them to stand out. The green leaves, on the other hand contrasted nicely with the door color and I was happy to leave them overlapping the car. I used the two trees as vertical framing elements for the scene and tightened the shot up around these elements with just enough room for the car to breathe at the top of the frame.
The breeze was still a problem and I had to time my exposures for when the wind was not blowing so that the leaves would register sharp. I didn’t want to boost the ISO because I saw no need to introduce any more noise into the image than would already be there. My waiting for the lulls was working and I was checking the image review and finding that my images were pretty sharp. It took only a few exposures before I had one that appeared to be tack sharp through the entire image. With that one in the bag I started to look for other images of this car since it was the brightest vehicle in the area I was in.
The patina on the other side of this car was a great deal better than the driver’s side, but the composition was a little more complex. What I did like about it was the way that the small tree at the front of the car became a very prominent element to the image from this side. What I really liked about how it looked was that the car had obviously hit something hard enough to push the hood in, but it wasn’t this tree. I’m assuming that the tree grew up after the car was placed there, but with how the damage appeared, it really looks like the car slammed into the tree and that was that. It was the story that I wanted to capture with this shot, so I got the camera set up once again to get this angle. I kept the same lens and filter on the camera for this one, and as a matter of fact, that combination remained together for the rest of the day. I was facing the same issues with the breeze on this side, so I was playing the waiting game once again to make sure that all of the leaves and weeds were still for the exposure. It really didn’t take that long, and for that I was very happy. Plus, I was able to remain at my lowest ISO for the cleanest image possible. My goal for my images is always to have them printed out large and for that, I always want the highest quality image to start with. It is easy to cheat with low resolution images, but the minute you start printing them out, any weakness starts to appear. I just can’t have that in my images.
I was feeling pretty good about things so far, and I was just getting started, so I continued on through the collection of cars and trucks. I was seeing all sorts of really cool vehicles, but most of them were not looking very photogenic due to the thick overgrowth. This is one of the reasons why I normally wait until after Fall to do this type of photography in earnest, but when I have the opportunity, I will jump on it regardless of the season. I was also starting to realize something else that was a new element to traipsing around in the woods. Now that I have a decent beard growing in (my retirement present to myself), I was finding that spider webs were a new issue. While I’ve never been all that excited to walk through them, I’ve never had them glue to my face quite like they were doing today. It is hard to get webs out of a beard. That is the first negative that I have found with my facial hair. I’ll have to be more careful about where I walk I suppose. I don’t plan on shaving any time soon.
As I was walking around I was really noticing that the trees had all grown up around most of the cars making it very difficult to get meaningful compositions with them. When I would find a hole in the trees I would really start to pay attention to how I could take advantage of that. I found just that scenario with a Pontiac sitting in a grove of trees down by the pond. There was one area where the trees weren’t growing and that happened to be by the headlight buckets on the passenger side. I like headlights, and the grill was one that was divided in half. I was seeing a great opportunity here to capture the front of the car through the trees. I looked around to see what I liked and wanted to include in the scene and what I didn’t want to include. From the angle I was shooting, there was only a couple of cars in the background that I needed to deal with. There was also a clearing in the trees which opened up to the sky. That was going to be too bright for the frame, so I I tried to pick a height of the camera where I could crop out the sky, while still masking the cars in the background. Unfortunately, the best that I could do was to eliminate the sky and leave just a single car in the background to deal with. I could live with that. The perspective also allowed the trees to splay outward which I thought added to the composition and made it a little more dramatic.
I started taking my exposures when the wind died down, but there were a few elements that would just not stop moving. When everything else was still, they were still blurring in the frame. I was going to have to boost my ISO for this one in order to get things sharp all the way through. By boosting my ISO to 400 I was able to get a shutter speed of 0.6 seconds as opposed to between 1 and 2 seconds which was just too long. The exposures started to look much better but I was still having to to wait for the lulls in the wind to make the capture. When I got this image home and started to look at it in detail, it really amazed me how the trees seemed to grow just around the edge of the car, much like a crib. Nature is a funny thing, and I love seeing it react to man made objects. Nothing happens quickly, but nature knows exactly what its doing I believe.
With a newfound interest in capturing these cars surrounded by trees, I found a Chevy wedged similarly in a bunch of trees with the same headlight bucket exposed. I started to look at the composition on this car and realized that that there was a car to the rear that I was going to have to include. It didn’t take me long to figure out how I wanted to do this image. By getting in close and going to a wide angle with my lens, I was able to emphasize the Chevy that I wanted to focus on and then I could grab the car in the back much smaller, and partially hidden by the trees. There is a natural curve to this composition that adds drama, and it really looks like the car to the rear had been chasing this one until they both just ran out of life and stopped. I know it isn’t the actual story of these cars, but dang it, that was the story that I wanted to tell with the image.
Of particular note on this image, I debated on going black and white with it because the color really didn’t play much of a part in the composition. I tried it that way and really didn’t like it as a monochrome at all. I didn’t like the color image either, but I really liked the image. I decided that I would try a technique that I use occasionally with my decay subjects and I went about desaturating the colors. This goes against my norm, but I’ve found it to be a powerful editing option with my images. I was able to keep the color which helped to break up the background and contrasted nicely with the browns of the car. I just toned it down so that the greens didn’t compete with the foreground, and the car became one with its surroundings which I thought was important. I really liked how this particular presentation looked, and I thought it went very well with the story that I had chosen for the image.
From here, I started back along the pond and back up on the other side of the property. I was still looking for bright colors that were set apart from the crowds. I actually found a great example of just that with a Ford truck that was yellow at one time and was sitting right there in the middle of the field. There were weeds growing up around it, but it was easily photographed. I wanted this truck as my next composition. I started off at a distance and didn’t really like how the perspective was looking. I started moving in and getting a bit wider as I closed in until I found the focal length that I wanted to use. From there, it was just a matter of finding the right height to shoot from to get the angles that I liked for this truck. There was no bed on it, so I didn’t need to worry about anything beyond the cab corners which was nice. There was some nice vegetation growing right at the corner which helped to stop the eyes and frame the shot. This kept me from needing to find a creative way to skip out on the missing bed. The main focal point was a large group of weeds at the front of the truck which actually balanced out nicely with the right frame of the image. In the upper left, there was a pine tree that I let go into shadow at the corner. The composition was all worked out, it was now time to make the exposure.
The breeze was still up and I was not finding it very likely that I would be able to freeze the motion with my preferred ISO, so it was back up to 400 again for this shot. That is not terribly high for my 5D Mk3, but I do try to avoid it when I can. There was no way to go lower here, so I embraced it and was able to get a reasonable 1/8 of a second which was enough to freeze the vegetation. You would be surprised how quickly a blurred weed can kill an otherwise great shot. At least with me, my eyes are draws to the movement and that is all I can see. It pays off to freeze motion with this type of photography in my opinion, and if that means introducing a little more noise than I would customarily have in an image, so be it. I will work on eliminating that in post production later on.
I was working my way back up to the shop by this point and was not finding much else that I wanted to photograph along the way. I had captured most everything that I was finding interesting at the time with the current light. As I was getting close to the road, I saw a car with a decent patina on it and a portion of the front end was clear. As I got up close, I could tell that the tree had actually grown up behind the bumper and through the grill joining the other small trees. This was cool all by itself and I decided that I wanted to capture this scene in some way. I set out to form a composition that worked for the car and the trees.
Unfortunately, the car itself wasn’t all that fantastic, so I didn’t need to worry about capturing the lines. The headlight and grill were my favorite parts of the car, and of course the tree. I figured that I would just go ahead and emphasize those areas by getting in close and going wide with the lens. That would give a bit of perspective distortion and make the parts that I liked bigger than the rest of the car. Looking in the view finder that worked very well and I was able to get a composition that showed what I wanted to have while also including the rest of the car and the scenery around it. You can never underestimate the power of the lens for being picky about what you include in your compositions. Something else that I was very happy about with this image was the fact that the wind had slowed just a little bit, just enough so that I could go back to my low ISO for the cleanest image possible. I was having to time the exposures, but I was able to do that just fine now, and all was well.
I continued to search around for any other vehicles but I had been through the majority of the property and was pretty sure that I had captured everything that I wanted. I was also thinking that I had a number of good images already and would have my hands full at the computer when I got home. I wasn’t ready to stop just yet though. I started to walk the perimeter of the property to see what I could get right at the line. There was a nice Plymouth sedan sitting by a tree that I had seen earlier, but had opted not to shoot it because it was a sedan and not particularly interesting. However, I was coming at it from a different angle now and looking at it from straight ahead I saw potential with the front end of the car.
I started out pretty far away and tried to shoot the car with the tight end of the focal range, but didn’t like the compression. I kept moving in until I just got a little bit of the sky in the frame. this had a more natural view and I liked how the image looked from this distance. I was shooting at 57mm and that felt just right to me. I got down low, and in fact had the Manfrotto dropped to the ground as low as it would go without repositioning the center column horizontally. This actually gave me the perfect perspective with the emphasis on the partially covered headlight. Since I put so much emphasis on the headlights of cars, this was going to be a very important part of the composition. With the breeze, the leaves would move from left to right and would either expose the headlight or cover it. I was going to need to time this out perfectly. The first shot that I made yielded a nice blurry leaf in front of the headlight. I was going to need to boost the ISO once again to 400 in order to freeze the motion. Once I did that, I was able to get the leaves nice and sharp, but I was still having to time the shot so that the leaves were out of the way of the headlight. It took me about a half dozen attempts to get it just right, but I was very happy that I was shooting digital so I knew when I had the shot.
With that one in the bag, I was able to see the shop and I was getting tired of walking through the brush. My bare legs were getting cut up from the thorns and my beard was covered in webs. I had a bunch of images in the bag and was confident that I would have quite a few to choose from when I got home. I happily made my way back to the shop where I found Rick working on his race car. I stopped and we chatted a bit about some different things. I did give him my cards and promised to bring him a print if he wanted one from the shoot. I’m very thankful for him allowing me to walk around his property, and I’m glad that Bud clued me into the place to begin with. Working on tips is usually a very nice way to proceed with decay photography. It really takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. So, if you know of a place, especially if it is your place, be sure to let me know. I would love to come out and capture your rusty treasures!
I loaded everything back up in the truck and started back to the South. I was debating on going out to East Bend, but the day was getting away from me, and I really didn’t know how long I would be at the other property since I didn’t really know what all was there to shoot. I opted instead to go back to Pfafftown, NC where I was wanting to shoot that Mustang behind the church. I set the destination in the GPS and made my way out there. As I was getting close, going through the town of Dozier, I passed by a GMC pickup sitting between two trees that caught my eye. I wasn’t sure if I could get a good composition on it or not, so I just continued on to the Mustang.
When I got there, the front door was open and I was all excited that there might be somebody there. I knocked….twice. No answer. I said hello a couple of times, and then started to peek around the house to see if anyone was in the back yard. Nothing. I was getting a little frustrated as I was pretty sure that somebody was home, but nobody was coming to the door. In the time that I had spent trying to get somebody to the door, I could have set up and shot the Mustang. But, I wanted to do it right, so that wasn’t an option. This time, I went to the truck and grabbed my pen and wrote a note on the back of one of my cards before putting it in the door. Oh, I knocked one more time for good measure. Still nothing.
I decided to go back out to Dozier and try to do something with the GMC that I had seen. When I got there, there were no cars in the driveway, but I wanted to get permission before setting up on the property. I knocked at the front door with no answer. There was a side door that looked more used, so I went there to knock next. I heard a voice inside and he eventually came to the door. I introduced myself and explained whey I was there. He was nice enough and I thought I was going to get permission, but he said that he wasn’t able to give me permission since it wasn’t his truck. I asked if he had the number for the owner of the truck and he said that he did and went back inside to call the owner. They spoke briefly and then hung up. He gave me the number to call the owner which I did. Turns out that the owner was the gentleman’s son and he was happy to let me photograph his truck. At least I got permission from somebody this afternoon.
Now I just had to figure out if I could get the composition that I had in mind. I went for the tried and true combination of the 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to start with. I then started to work around the scene including both trees, or one or the other. I tried getting in close and going a bit further away. What I didn’t want to happen was for this image to look like a snapshot which was a very real possibility considering its placement. What I decided I liked the best was a composition that got in reasonably close and wide emphasizing the very well weathered grill as well as the broken passenger window. The tree to the right turned into a framing element with the awesome limbs filling up the upper right corner. The blue stood out nicely against the predominantly green surroundings and completed the image. Even though I shot about ten frames on this truck, I was only there for about 20 minutes with the camera out. In that time, I ended up with a pretty good image that is true to my style and captures the essence of the truck. It was not the Mustang, but it would do.
Speaking of the Mustang, since I was kind of close, I decided to swing back by there to see if anyone was out and about yet. When I got there, the one car that was in the yard was gone and the door was now closed. My card was gone, and I had not received any phone calls. That wasn’t a good sign at all. At this point, my chances of shooting the Mustang were gone for the day. I was tired, and ready to head home anyway, so that was what I did.
I ended up with a total of 69 frames shot for the day. of those, I decided to keep nine initially. While I was writing the blog, I started to reconsider one of the images that I had thrown out in the culling process and decided to give it a try in Lightroom. Them’s the Brakes was added and made the grand total of keepers to an even ten which was pretty great considering I wasn’t sure what I would run into at the shop in Lawsonville. It is always a gamble with a new location, but when I have good light and clouds, I an usually come away with a good many images that I like. This is the type of lighting that I like shooting in the most. It is flexible and forgiving, allowing me to photograph from nearly any angle with consistent lighting.
I’m glad that you joined me on this latest adventure, and remember if you see an image here in the blogs that jumps out at you, I would love the opportunity to match you up with a print. Just let me know which one you want and we can work out the details. Not only does it make my day to have one of my images hanging on your wall, it helps me to continue creating these images since this is my full time gig now. Supporting artists is a wonderful thing and keeps the world a beautiful and creative place.