Capturing Rust with a Flashlight

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Stumped“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

We are over a week into fall now, and there I was standing out in a field just before sunset sweating in 93 degree heat.  This is not Fall, this is some sort of weather induced Hell!  Add to that the skies have been painfully blue for the better part of the last month now with no rain to speak of.  What’s a photographer to do?  Well, there is always golden hour photography, but that doesn’t last too long, and the landscape is looking less and less inviting with the drought conditions and burned up green trees.  I could also get rolling with my decay photography which is a little less dependent on clouds.  I could also do some night photography.  Why not blend the two and do some more light painting with the old vehicles at Dean’s Shop in East Bend?  I was out there about a month ago when I broke the light painting tool out of my bag for the first time in quite some time and I had a lot of fun with it.  I had been looking for another subject to try that on since that night, so when I got a text from Dean showing me where some of the vehicles had been moved around and the general landscape had chanced dramatically, I I had to go back.

I made plans to head out there about an hour before sunset to capture the golden hour of light before starting with my light painting.  It was going to be the best of both worlds and would allow me to capture some more typical images of scenes that had not existed yet, and then I could also scope out my compositions for later that evening.  The plan was solid, and I headed out after dinner so that I would get there with just an hour of light to go before things got interesting.  After struggling through rush hour traffic on three different highways, I made it to Outlawed Restorations and chatted with Dean for a bit.  He was telling me about some of the moves that he had been making around the property.  I was really in awe with all of the work that he had put in to place to get the vehicles moved around.  I was a little sad that one of my favorite stations for my decay workshops is no more, but at least the truck is still on the property as it is a really cool truck to work with.  It will have better lighting on it now in its new position, and is actually a bit easier to photograph.

While I was in the shop, Dean was showing me a sedan that he was working on and said that he was going to try and get it outside of the shop before he left.  It was a really cool car and I would be happy to try and photograph it, but I really didn’t want him going out of his way to move things around for me.  I love the challenge of shooting them as I find them, and I love seeing the composition rather than constructing it from scratch.  At any rate, if it ended up outside, I would try, if not, I wouldn’t be upset.  I had plenty to keep me occupied for a while.  Dean and I parted ways and he got back to work as I got started with my work.

Tears of Rust“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I went by the 4Runner and grabbed my Lowepro Bag and Manfrotto Tripod along with two different incandescent Maglites which I planned on putting to use very shortly.  I surveyed what I had to work with and started to formulate compositions as well as the order in which I would need to shoot them which was going to be dependent on the light still left in the sky.  I was getting along pretty well and was starting to see some compositions that were sticking out to me with the existing light.  I started to get set up to capture those, and to practice for the evening shots.  I selected my favorite all around lens for automotive photography, the 24-70mm standard lens to which I added a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, and occasionally added a Galen Rowell ND Grad to bring back the sky which was still a little bright in places.  The images were turning out decent, but they were more important as visual reminders of what works and what doesn’t for when the light fades out.

In the end (of the daylight) I had two images which I thought were good enough to keep.  One of them, the first image posted here represents a personal achievement for me.  I have been wanting to capture the back of this truck for years and have yet to be able to get an image I was happy with.  The first composition that I saw of it that I actually liked, was shot by Randy Rogers during my first Decay Workshop in the Spring of the year.   Even after seeing his composition, I wasn’t able to capture it in the way I was wanting.  Now that things have been slightly rearranged and the truck as been shifted a little bit and raised up on blocks, I was able to get a composition that I really liked of this truck.  The lighting was soft and suited the old Chevy well, but I was most interested in getting the tree trunk that had grown around the bumper years ago. Dean is quite cool when it comes to these little details.  Instead of removing the bumper from the tree, he just brought the trunk with the truck.

The other image that I captured before nightfall was my favorite Chevy sitting behind the barn.  This truck is quite emotive when it comes to expressions and is a favorite demonstration in my workshops.  The driver’s side headlight bucket has a bunch of rust “dripping” down from the opening that look like tears.  The other side has obviously been hit, and that might be the reason for the tears.  It is that story behind the image that has always captured my attention with this truck.  I have yet to capture it in monochrome in a way that I liked, so I thought I would give that a chance this evening while the light was soft and the colors weren’t really doing much for the image.  The image really worked nicely I thought and captured the emotion of the truck.  The color image was drab and uninspiring, but when I converted it to black and white it quite literally came to life.  All of that texture came jumping out of the frame.

There were a few other compositions that I shot that ultimately failed in comparison to the ones that I shot later on after the sun went down.  They were there as reference photos for me to remember the compositions that worked.  It was time to set up for my first light painting shot which I had decided a while before that it would be of the truck with the stump on the bumper, but from the front, looking East.  I wanted to get the last bit of light in the Eastern sky before it went totally black.  At least that was my plan, and why I started with this composition.  I got the camera all set up with the same lens, but I pulled the filters off as they don’t really help in light painting and actually reduce the amount of light that gets into the lens which is a counterproductive thing in night photography.

The element that has repeatedly driven me crazy with this truck is a ’90’s Firebird that is parked right next to the truck.  For the angle that I was wanting, I needed to get very close to the Firebird with the camera and shoot down the side of it, just cropping it out with the lens.  In order to do that, I had to raise one of the legs of my Manfrotto Tripod to horizontal and place it on the trunk of the car, with the other two legs on the ground.  I now added my remote shutter release so that I could use bulb mode on the camera.  From there I set my ISO to 100 and the aperture to f/8 and just waited on the light to get dark enough to get things started.

After posting my last series of light painting images, I had a lot of questions about what exactly it was, and how it worked.  Many thought that I just set up flashes and illuminated the subject like that.  Others had thought that light painting was strictly when you made designs out of light with flashlights or sparklers while standing in front of the camera.  This is a different variation on light painting, and the style that I personally enjoy doing.  After I had a few exposures under my belt, I decided to do a short video, showing exactly how this works.  Considering it was pitch black by the time I did the video, and I was shooting the video while lighting the truck, I think it turned out really well.

While not the image that I captured in the video, the following image was the one that I shot just prior to doing the video.  The lighting was a bit more subtle and more to my tastes in the first one.  It was not easy dividing my attention between lighting the truck and shooting the video all at the same time while trying not to trip on the ground that I was walking on without being able to see.  The image came out quite nice, but not quite as I had expected it to.

Lonely is the Night“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 114 seconds

I was hoping to get a little more detail in the background, but in the end, I just went ahead and let it go to black.  That is the trick with this type of exposure, you just never really know what you are going to get with it.  This version captured the textures of the rust that I wanted, and I had a bit of color contrast with the green weeds up front matching with the weeds in the back.  Both worked well with the moss on the door and window.  You can still see a bit of the sky shining through the trees which gives a little indication of place.  I would have liked the trees to have more detail, but in order to do that, I would have lost the natural look of the image and I wasn’t willing to do that just to get a little bit of detail.

After shooting the video, it was time to move to my next composition which happened to be on the same vehicle, but this time from the rear.  It was a duplicate of the composition that I opened this entry with.  The reason that I was going for this shot now was that I was hoping to have some of the light from the setting sun help me with some detail in the trees in the background.  I knew that there would be negative space there, and a bit of detail would help with that.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull it off though after getting thwarted with the front shot already.

Midnight Patina“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 108 seconds

For this shot, I got back in the same place I had been before and used the flashlight to figure out where the truck was in the optical viewfinder.  Setting up compositions is not very easy when there is no light.  I was able to get reasonably close to the composition that I had worked out before (I’ll wait while you scroll up and back down to check)……..

….Once I had the composition, I used the flashlight to get the manual focus locked on the driver’s side tail light which was approximately a third of the way into the scene.  With an aperture of f/8, I was confident that I would get most of the truck in focus which was my goal.  I can’t stop down much more than that without limiting the amount of light that enters the lens.  I could boost the ISO, but that will introduce noise which will already be present from the long exposure.  This is all about getting the cleanest images that I can in the field with a single exposure.

When I released the shutter, I started going around and painting the truck being careful not to trip.  I painted from my left side to get the tailgate and the stump, and then came around to the right side to get the bed side and weeds.  I then moved to the back left wheel, just out of the frame to light the back of the cab before running around to the front of the truck to get the passenger side of the cab and front wheel.  Then I ran back to the camera to finish the exposure.  That took just a bit over a minute and a half which was pretty quick considering what all I was doing.

I could see that the sky was not going to register and I wasn’t going to get any detail in the upper corner, so I didn’t spend much time with this composition.  When I got it home in post, I still really liked it because of that stump.  The negative space was mysterious and worked for the image I thought.  There was enough detail and texture in the foreground with the grasses that I was happy that there was a sense of place for the image.  When I showed the finished product to Toni, she really liked it which was strange considering she doesn’t care for my old iron images usually.  That was a good indicator that the image was going to be well received and that was good enough for me to make sure that I kept it.

The next subject that I was wanting to capture was another truck that had been newly placed behind the barn.  The frame had been cut on this truck just behind the cab so it was up on wood to keep the metal off of the ground.  I had debated on how to capture this as I wanted the door and the fender of the truck leading to the barn.  I was planning on effectively cutting the back side of the cab off to keep your mind wondering about what the rest of the truck looked like.  That was how I had shot it in the test shot.  Now I was having a change of heart.  I was really liking the risers that Dean had put the truck on, and the rust at the bottom of the cab was quite interesting.  The fact that the frame was missing made this a very unique truck and I thought that was where the story actually was.  I decided to include the back of the cab in the image after all.

As before, I set the shot up using my Maglite to find where the elements were located within the frame.  It was a cumbersome process, but one that I was becoming more and more familiar with.  I started to look at my lighting options and tried setting a Maglite up on the side with a very diffused beam pattern to give some ambient light on the barn wall while I actually painted the truck during the course of the exposure.  I wanted to fill the negative space in the front of the truck with the strong lines and textures of the barn, and this was going to be the best way to do it without spending a very long time with the exposure which would just introduce more noise than I wanted to deal with.

A Shortened Life“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 159 seconds

The resulting image turned out much better than the test shot did.  There was a lot more color here, and the textures really came through well.  The contrast between the vertical and horizontal boards on the barn make for an interesting background without dominating the scene.  The ambient light from the resting flashlight worked well, allowing me to paint the cab of the truck for nearly three minutes.  What took so long with this one was I spent time at all different angles so as to get the corroded parts of the cab without too much shadow involved.  I was down low, and up high working on both sides of the camera. The important thing to remember is not to shine the light from the same location as the camera as that will flatten the image too much.  You want to get as much side light as you can on the subject to keep depth in the scene.  I love how the patina turned out, and I think I was right to include the severed frame in the image.  There are a lot of stories here, and a lot of questions which should really engage the viewer.

After I was pretty sure I was completed with this composition, I was kind of freelancing a bit as I didn’t really have any other compositions in mind.  The ones that I had been positive I was going to capture had been exposed.  Now, I just went for some of my favorite angles on trucks that I had shot before to see how they would look with the light painting effect.  The first one that I went to was a large truck that had belonged to the Forbush Volunteer Fire Department.  This is another popular truck to demonstrate some compositional issues due to the clutter on the rear of the truck as well as some other elements behind and beside the truck that detract from the story a little bit.  By shooting it at night, I had a fair chance to avoid those pitfalls.

I kept the same setup I had been using, and found my favorite spot to set the camera up right off the front corner.  I used the flashlight to find the composition I wanted and then focused on the far headlight to try and get the most depth of field that I could out of my f/8 aperture.  I decided to try something a bit different with this image and I set the dimmer of the two flashlights in the cab to illuminate the interior during the exposure.  The idea was solid, but when I saw the outcome, I was not happy with how it looked.  I pulled that light out and tried it again.

Night Shift“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 136 Seconds

When I pulled the light out from the inside, the image came back to life and was what I was after.  In fact, this was the image that I have been after on this truck for a while now.  For the first time, I got a full shot of the truck without including the jumble of metal on the rear of it.  The distractions a bit further back in the yard were no longer an issue either.  I was still able to paint the branch above the truck which now just materializes from the background which I think is very cool to see.  The patina and moss on the truck really shines through here and is exactly what I love about the truck.  Light painting really works wonders on a complicated scene when done right.

After shooting this truck, I decided to see if my luck would work out for simplifying a scene with my favorite Chevy with the tear coming from the headlight.  I moved over to the same location where I had shot the monochrome image before and set up a very similar shot as I knew it would work out.  By now the process was getting very much second nature with holding the flashlight, and adjusting the Acratech Ballhead with my free hand.  At least it is easy to keep tension on the head so that the composition doesn’t totally escape as I am moving things around.  I focused about a third of the way into the scene as I had been doing before starting my first exposure.  Since there were two trucks involved, I stopped down to f/10 just to make sure that I had everything in reasonable focus.

A Friend to Lean On“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 114 Seconds

Even though there were two trucks here, I ended up with a much shorter exposure than the single truck that I had just finished shooting.  I ended up doing three different exposures of this scene and ultimately decided that I liked the first one the best.  It was a little tricky figuring out how much light to put on each truck so that they wouldn’t compete for the attention in the image.  I just needed the truck on the left for balance.  My focus was the teary eyed Chevy with that pop of blue on the fender that has always been so much fun to capture.  The bumper and the hubcap really set the lower right corner off and draws your attention right to that fender.  There is just a touch of tree branch above the truck for a bit of interest in the upper section while the other truck frames the image, especially with the wheel in line with the other wheel and bumper.  I think that this image works quite well with this technique and I was very happy to have two very different images created from a subject that I have photographed many times over with similar results.

With that image done, I was feeling like I was finished with the subjects behind the barn.  It was time to move over to the other side of the property where the Oldsmobile was which was now much more in the open.  I already knew the shot that I wanted with it.  I was going to shoot down the driver’s side to capture the wonderful dent in the fender and hood that adds so much character.  There were very light colored trees in the background that I was pretty sure I would be able to catch with the flashlight for a bit of added interest in the negative space.  I did my routine with getting the shot set up by handheld light and started to plan how I was going to go about lighting the car.  There were a lot of obstacles in the way which I wasn’t going to be able to see during the exposure so I had to plan out my path accordingly.  That was the hardest part of this shot I think.

I also decided to revisit the light in the cabin approach and placed the dimmer of the two flashlights in the driver’s seat to give a glow to the car and bring more attention to the driver’s area.  With that in place, I double checked the composition and focus point which was on the passenger side headlight.  I left the camera at f/10 to give me a little more time before the interior light burned into the scene.  With that, I started the exposure and muddled my way around the car for nearly three minutes on each exposure.

Olds Snarl“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 169 Seconds

The resulting image turned out quite nice with the trees in the background.  The barn that is behind the trees is successfully camouflaged in darkness to simplify the image which was what I was after.  I had just a bit of the tree above included to frame the top of the image and give a little bit of color balance to an overall warm scene.  The blue of the sky in the background managed to sneak through the trees which was not that bad at all as the added cool tones couldn’t hurt.  What I really liked about this image was how the patina appeared along the side of the car.  It took on such a soft transition and the white contrasted so nicely with it.  This Oldsmobile has been a favorite of mine for a while now, but this image has much more punch to it than the other images that I have shot and has been really simplified which I am liking a lot.  I only shot a few of this image because this first attempt actually turned out so good.  The other images were pretty successful as well, but the lighting on the side of the car really set this exposure off above the rest of them.  I also had the perfect amount of highlighting of the lights and emblems on the front of the car as done with the flashlight.  The light colored trees made the image as a whole work though. Without them, there would have been much too much negative space and no sense of place for the image.

It was time to move on from this one, and since it was about 9pm at this point, I was about ready to head home.  My plan was to work the area for about three hours and that time was approaching.  As I had done in the past, I decided to go by the front of the shop to see what might be out there to photograph with the current conditions.  As I rounded the corner, that Chevy sedan was sitting outside of the bad door just like Dean had said he would do.  I loved the look of the car, and could really see it looking nice as a night shot, but I needed to figure out a composition that would work.  The car was setting just outside of the bay door with not a lot of room to work between the two.  Behind the car was a large section of lights around a tower.  To one side was a bright colored pickup and the rat rod pickup that I had shot the last time.  The other side was empty except for the night sky and some trees.  The composition just wasn’t dynamic in that direction.  I decided to go for a quarter view shot on the driver’s side and I got down low enough to block the bright colored truck.  I positioned myself so that the rat rod truck would be just visible in the background to give a little depth to the scene.

With the composition set, I got my focus set and decided how I was going to want to light the car.  I worked out my path around the car and figured out where I would be pausing for some extra illumination.  I went ahead and tripped the shutter to begin the exposure and started my walking around the car.  As I cleared the rear, I started to do a low jog so that I wouldn’t show up in the exposure.  As I was starting the quick movement there was a cat walking across the parking lot and when it saw me, it took off running right toward the camera.  I didn’t hear anything fall which was good, but I didn’t know if the tripod had gotten bumped or not.  I just continued on to light the front of the car as I had planned to before stopping the exposure.

Mob Boss“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 147 seconds

When the image review came up on the screen I paused it and started to zoom in to see if there had been a bump to the tripod.  I saw no indication that the cat had made any contact and I really loved the exposure.  Just in case though, I did another two exposures to make sure that I had a sharp image to work with when I got it home.  As it turned out, I didn’t need the other two attempts as the best one happened to be the first and there was no indication at all of any movement.  That was the one that I went with, and I am quite pleased with how it turned out.

During these exposures my camera had been sitting next to an old rusty gas pump which had always caught my attention, but I’ve never photographed it because of the location that it was sitting.  It made a nice decoration on the corner of the building, but it just wasn’t all that picturesque.  Now, I was looking at a car that matched the patina quite well sitting very close to the pump.  I might actually have something that I could work with here.  I grabbed the camera and started to pick out a composition.  This was much easier than before since I was looking at a car that was already semi-lit from the porch light of the shop.  I started with an all inclusive shot of the car and the pump but decided that the pump got lost with the expanse of car weighing so heavily in the composition.  By closing the image in a little bit and having a much tighter composition, the pump regained the importance in the scene through visual weight.  I had my composition, and I was ready to make a few exposures where I would add lighting to both the pump and the car.

Late Night Pick Me Up“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk 2, No filters, 114 Seconds

This exposure took a little bit of work to get resolved since I was wanting to capture the color in the sky, but wanting to tone down the ambient light of the scene so that the light painting would have more of an effect.  I went with an aperture of f/9 which would still give me reasonable depth of field to the pump while allowing the sky to register.  it was tight enough so that the ambient light didn’t overpower the foreground during the painting.  There really is a lot to take into consideration when it comes to these types of shots, and each aspect of the exposure triangle comes into play.  I wish I could say that there was a science to it, but the reality is I am usually flying by the seat of my pants for these exposures and go on my gut instinct when it comes to settings and duration of the exposures.

By 9:30, I had a total of 45 exposures captured over the course of three hours of work.  That was actually a really high number considering that the majority of the exposures were two minutes or more a piece.  I was figuring that I had four compositions that was really happy with, and an additional two that I might want to add in to the keeper pile.  I was very surprised during the culling process to end up with a full ten images that I wanted to see how they looked after processing.  I really figured that I would have the six images that I thought I would after I did the edits.  The actuality of the situation was that I liked all ten of the images which represented one from each of the compositions that I shot.  I had wasted not a single composition all night which was just amazing to me.  They all worked, and I liked the results good enough to keep in my collection.  I’m not sure what will end up in the gallery just yet, and that might take a few days to figure out.  In the meantime though, as always, each of the images that I share here in the blog are available as prints whether they are in the gallery or not.  If one of these speaks to you on a special level, please let me know.  I would love to help get you connected with a print of your choice to hang on your wall.

Until the next adventure…
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