Creating the Light I Need

· Reading Time: 18 minutes

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Outlaw Blues“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 90 Seconds

So, there I was in the middle of hosting my workshop at Outlawed Restorations and I was talking about light considerations.  We were under some very harsh light and I was talking about ways to control the light and use the light to your advantage.  Of course, I also mentioned returning at another time if you could do so with the location.  Blue hour came up which has some very soft light, and is good for automotive photography in general.  I didn’t mention it, but I was thinking about light painting which is a technique that I do from time to time when I am feeling particularly creative.  The thoughts were dismissed as I moved on to other topics in the workshop.  As I mentioned, this was the first workshop that I have hosted where I didn’t get a single picture from the day.  Of course, my goal is not to add to my portfolio so I was more than fine with that outcome.  In fact, there were no regrets at all from the day even as I was writing the blog entry about the experience.

However, as I was typing, I was thinking about some of the different compositions that I had seen during the day and was thinking about what kind of light would suit them the best.  I’ve been out to this shop a number of times in everything from the rain to bright sunshine with just about everything in between.  When it comes to picking out the best light for the subjects, there is a pretty good chance I have hit most of the marks with the exception of some really magical conditions.  One way of shooting these subjects that I had not tried, but had thought about off and on was light painting.  The more I typed, the more I started to really get excited about the prospect.  I knew that it would be a very involved shoot and it would likely take a very long time to complete just a handful of subjects, but I was honestly excited about the prospect.

I sent Dean a text to see if he would mind if I came out and played a little bit at the shop after sunset.  He agreed to that, and I started putting together some ideas for specific compositions that I wanted to create while I was there.  The thing with light painting is you can really simplify the background clutter because you only light what you are wanting to capture, and you do it in a very specific way.  This is not flash photography, but rather a highly creative way of photographing in very lot light that creates images which are never exactly duplicated.

Just to let you in on what I’m doing, I will give a quick synopsis of what light painting is.  This usually happens when the ambient light is very low allowing for a long shutter speed of 10 seconds or more.  Since I don’t do much with blending multiple images with masks in Photoshop, I do my light painting in a single exposure which is dictated by how long it takes me to light the subject.  How I prefer to light my subjects is with a very simple Maglite with an old school incandescent bulb.  This allows me to introduce a much warmer color tone to the overly blue scene as I light it.  The magic happens with how you go about lighting your subject.  When you use a flash, you are hitting a subject with a single burst of light which causes shadows to appear, and there is light falloff as the subject recedes in the distance.  When I light paint, I am actually walking around the subject and hitting everything that I want bathed in light with the thin beam of the light.  It can take anywhere from 30 seconds up to several minutes to do this.  You can use multiple lights as well in some situations that are a little more complex, or you want specific effects with the colors of light.  The nice thing is you can move freely in the image as long as you don’t linger in the view of the camera for very long.  Due to the very long exposure, a moving person will not even register in the image.  You just have to be careful where you point the light.

A Different Slant“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 201 seconds

Now that you kind of understand what I was up to, I’ll start talking about how the evening actually went.  It felt odd for me to get started so late in the day on a shoot.  I was actually leaving home just after Toni got home from work at about 7pm.  This is usually when I am winding down for the evening, so it was odd heading out into the setting sun amped up for what I was hoping would be a really productive evening.  I had three compositions in mind on my way out there.  The first would be taking advantage of the Eastern sky at blue hour as I focused my attention on one of Dean’s first creations which is a rat rod fire truck with twin stacks positioned right in front of the old family home. It is a composition that I have shot a number of times in the past, but never quite like this.  The second was going to be of the White Firetruck which is sitting by a barn waiting on a rat rod build sometime later this year, or early next year.  The last composition I wanted to try was the old Chevrolet truck sitting under the pine trees that I always start my workshops off with.  Light painting would be perfect for this since there is so much clutter around it.

When I arrived, I still had a good bit of light to work with, so I used that opportunity to scope out the locations that I would be shooting and fine tune my compositions.  This is very important when doing any kind of night photography because when it gets dark, things start to get very difficult.  Once I had everything scoped out, I set the tripod up for my first exposure and mounted the camera.  I was pretty sure that for all of the shots tonight I would be using my 24-70mm lens to give me a great deal of flexibility with compositions.  I used the last light to get the composition set up and dial in the focus which was locked in manually.  I wasn’t sure how easy the structure in the background would be to light up, so I used the truck to cover most of it just in case it turned into silhouette.  I set my Lowepro Whistler bag on the ground behind the truck and used it to prop one of my Maglites aimed at the siding.  This would provide a continuous source of light on the wood, while I painted the truck.

When the sun finally dipped down and it started getting long enough I did a few practice runs to see how the images were looking.  I started with 30 seconds and determined that was not nearly long enough to paint the truck like I wanted to.  I was going to have to wait until the sky got darker and I could go into Bulb Mode and have a minute or longer to get everything painted that I wanted.  It didn’t take long before the light was right and I grabbed my first “real” exposure of 90 seconds with one flashlight hitting the wood siding and me running around the truck painting it with the other one.  When I got back to the camera and finished the exposure I was really happy with how things were looking in the LCD.  It was properly exposed and the wood was well lit.  Knowing that it was working, I decided to change the composition slightly to incorporate more of the house as a background.

I got things set up, and needed to use the flashlight to find a focus point to manually focus on. It was getting dark by this point and I was going to have to work quickly to get color in the sky which was why I started with this subject over the others.  I released the shutter and held it with the remote release while I started the painting journey around the car another time.  I was moving slower this time because there was much less ambient light to be found.  I still had the house being lit by the very diffused Maglite in the background while I was using the pencil beam to capture the truck itself.  By the time I had gotten back to the camera and finished the exposure it was around 147 seconds.  I saw that the grass was too dark for my liking, so I was going to need to light that up as well.

I started another exposure and began by getting very low and lighting the grass.  This was going to give me contrast in the foreground due to the shadows which was exactly what I wanted.  I moved slowly around the truck and painted bits and pieces of it with my artificial light before completing the exposure back at the camera.  The one from this series that had the best lighting in it was one exposed at 201 seconds.  I actually shot one more around that time, but I didn’t like the effect of the light as much in that one.  That is the beauty of light painting.  Each exposure will come out different.  Knowing that the sky was losing light quickly, I wanted to move onto my next subject that needed just a pinch of blue in the sky to work.  I still had a little bit twilight to work with, but I needed to get set up quickly.

Twilight Response“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 328 seconds

By the time I dragged all my gear over to the big White, it was getting very dark and I was having a lot of trouble seeing what I was doing.  I had to get set up using a flashlight and I made the mistake of starting off with a vertical composition to capture the tree.  I shot two different exposure like that before I realized that it just didn’t work, no matter how much light was able to throw up into the tree with my second Maglite.  I came back and repositioned the rig for a horizontal composition which benefited from filling the frame with the old truck.  This was going to be much better, and I was happy to commit to this composition.  Because of the size of the truck it was going to take me a very long time to paint the entire thing.  Since it was such a light color, I needed a lighter touch with the painting as well.  I decided to diffuse the beam on the Maglite so that I would be less likely to create hot spots on the light paint, or the chrome.  My goal here was to light the side of the truck and then come down to the other side of the camera to get the front end of the truck, and finishing up with putting some specific light on the trunk of the tree.  As with my last subject, I had one Maglite sitting on my bag aimed up into the tree with constant diffused light to try and pick out the leaves.

It took about four attempts to figure out the lighting that I wanted on this huge truck.  Considering the exposures were taking about five minutes each to complete, you can see why this type of photography takes so long to do.  I burned through about 45 minutes on this truck for just a half dozen or so exposures.  When I finally had the pattern in mind that I needed to do, I did one last exposure for a total of 328 seconds which nailed the look I was going for.  I still had that hint of blue in the sky in the upper left corner to balance the image out, and the truck really popped against the night sky.  I’m really going to be sad when this truck goes into the shop to be rebuilt, but I am very thankful that I have had the time that I’ve had with it.  I’ve learned a lot with this truck and I’ve used it to teach several different concepts as well.  This might be the last image that I have of the truck in its current form, and it is one that really matched my vision for it.

Weeping Pine“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 234 seconds

With the sky losing the blue hue that I wanted, it was time to move on to my last subject for the evening.  This Chevrolet truck is nestled between two trees with a frame on the driver’s side, and several other trucks, as well as a bed to the passenger side.  It is a very difficult truck to compose a simple image of which is why I start the workshop out with this station.  There are always things that get in the way of the image that you are after, but by coming out in the dark, that becomes much less of a problem.  I didn’t need the sky here, and it was one of those times when a dark sky was just perfect for me as there would be no highlights between the leaves.  I knew the composition that I wanted and I got in close to the truck and went wide on the 24-70mm lens to really emphasize the nose of this hanger queen.  Again, I had to get the composition with the aid of my flashlight since it was so dark I could just see shadows in the viewfinder despite the lens being an f/2.8.  I did finally get the composition set and I looked to see how I needed to light the scene in order to eliminate the bright neon green truck cab that was behind it, and the other Chevy that just over the grill.  By lighting it from the passenger side, I could avoid all of that, and then just hit the driver’s side and the tree from the other side of the frame.  This was going to be simple compared to lighting two subjects, or lighting one really big truck.

My first exposure was pretty good, but I realized that I needed something in the left side of the frame as there was too much negative space.  I still didn’t want the clutter, but there was a tree trunk that I liked and wanted to use.  By going well off to the left, I was sure I could light it without drawing attention to the clutter that I was trying to avoid.  It didn’t take long to get the truck and the two trees, and when I came back to the camera to complete the exposure I had just 234 seconds on the clock.  The LCD review was just what I wanted and I saw no need to repeat the exposure.  I got this truck in only two shots which is really good for light painting.  I was getting my groove back with the flashlight after a couple of years of only using natural light.  I was getting tired, and had been out here for a bit over 2 hours by this point.  I knew that I needed to get home and I had all the images that I came for.  I was even really happy with all of the compositions that I shot which isn’t always the case.  For some reason though, I wasn’t finished.  I wanted one more subject.

I went over to the back side of the barn where there are a couple of trucks that I like to shoot.  I wasn’t sure if they would work or not, but I wanted to give it a shot.  When I got back there, I started playing with the flashlight and didn’t really see a workable composition with the environment that they were in.  I decided to cut my losses and I moved back over just beyond where I had started to check out a slammed and chopped rat rod at the corner of the property.  Again, I wasn’t seeing anything particularly interesting with the environment.  Had the sky be a little brighter I could have pulled off a shot here, but it just wasn’t right at this time.  I was done…there was nothing else to shoot…or was there?

Ready to Cruise“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 167 seconds

I knew that there was a GMC truck out in front of the shop.  It had been there for a little while and I have often wanted to photograph trucks that have been parked in the parking lot.  I went over to take a look at it.  I was pretty sure that it was a truck that I had shot the first time that I had come to Outlawed Restorations when it was a moss covered derelict truck.  I knew that Dean had sold it to a guy that had it built, and much to Dean’s dismay, WASHED.  Yep, all that terrific moss and weathering was washed away.  I remember the inspection sticker on that truck because it was August of ’88, which prompted me to name the image Lucky Eights.  I had seen the truck back at the shop periodically and really thought that this was it.  When I got up to it, the inspection sticker was still 8/88.  I had seen this truck come full circle, and I really wanted to capture it.  The trick was, how to do it?

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

The problem that I was having with the scene in front of me was the light was on over the door to the shop.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want it on, it actually helped the image quite a bit by providing some balance to the composition.  I just had to figure out how best to incorporate it since it was going to blow out really quickly with the exposure lengths that I had been doing.  I decided to set up a composition and then determine what to do with it.  I found a nice composition where everything really lined up well tucked in close to the front of the truck, using it to frame the left side of the image and anchor it.  The front of the shop with the repeating garage doors was used as a complimenting/contrasting element to to the right.  It gave the truck a sense of place and helped to tell the story.  The only problem was part of that story was yelling at me.  That porch light was going to give me a fit with these long exposures.  I thought about using an ND Grad placed diagonally at the right corner, but that would darken the sky too much and make the transition to the tree look very odd.  That wasn’t going to be an option.  I could mess with the exposure and get something that would reduce the overall exposure a bit.  I could do an HDR blending, but that would be very difficult with the light painting involved.

I settled on sticking with a single exposure with the lens stopped down to f/13.  This actually helped me on three different fronts.  First, it reduced the amount of light entering the lens which would extend the time before the light would totally blow out.  It would also give a nice star pattern from the light source to add just a nice detail to the scene, and finally, it would give me a bit more depth of field so that the shop would be in focus.  The only negative was that the light painting that I was doing would be less impactful at the narrower aperture.  It was a problem that I was willing to deal with to get the other benefits.

I shot a bunch of exposures like this trying to dial in the quickest method of putting light on the truck while still getting it painted completely.  The narrow aperture forced me to get in close with a pencil beam to flood portions with light quickly and keep the light moving.  I walked the entire passenger side of the truck and then back again before hitting the driver’s side quarter as well as the front end.  I was able to do this at a remarkably quick 167 seconds which I somehow managed to do two different times in a row.  From that, I was able to pick the one with the best painting as this was a tolerable exposure for the light which did blow out, but that was expected.  I was just trying to maintain detail in the building under the light.  Just for a bit of insurance, I shot another 20 second exposure to get the corner of the building the way I wanted it to be.  I figured that if I had to use that, I would teach myself blending in Photoshop which I am about to take on learning anyway.

Fortunately though, the single image that I shot had just enough detail to make it work.  I could have gone with a bit more detail, but I figured that the blending and feathering process would probably be more problematic than the problem that it would be solving.  I was actually quite happy with how this one turned out and it seemed to capture a mood and feeling that I had not been expecting.  Oddly enough, the one image that I shot this evening that wasn’t planned or even considered turned out to be my favorite one of the night.  I love when that happens!

In the three hours that I was at Outlawed Restorations, I shot only 27 frames.  These were pretty much one after another with six composition changes during.  Conversely, when I was at Hawksbill Mountain, I spent about the same amount of time there, and shot 127 frames.  Night photography slows the process down quite a bit and really forces you to think more.  It is something that I don’t do often (night photography, not the thinking thing), and when I do shoot night subjects I often wonder why I don’t do it more.  Toni loves my night stuff and has been after me to do some light light panting.  I guess this was that moment when we both got what we wanted.  I have to be in a very different creative space to do this type of work, and it really wears me out when I do it.

By the time I got home, it was 10:30 and I really wanted to see what I had from the night so I sat down at the computer.  It was about 1:45am when I finally had the rough edits done from the images I liked the best.  I was in bed by 2:10 and then back up again before 7 to finish the process up and get this blog written before going into work for my last full week as a police officer.  I do hope that you enjoy these images.  I know there are several of you that have been missing my old iron images, and I’m thrilled to be able to bring these to my collection.  It won’t be much longer now before it is rust season and I start shooting this subject much more often.  Remember, if you see an image that speaks to you, I do offer prints of everything here in the blog, not just the gallery.

Until next time…

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