Dead Ends and Gravel Roads

· Reading Time: 18 minutes

Thursday, September 5, 2019

As you know by now, I am well on my way to being a full time photographer once I get done with my last day at work on the 16th of this month.  In the meantime, I am still balancing both jobs best I can and with being at work on Tuesday and Wednesday I was not quite mentally prepared for a day off on Thursday which was actually looking pretty good weather wise.  I had seen that Hurricane Dorian was going to be passing through my area Wednesday Night and into Thursday and with that should be some interesting clouds.  I hadn’t really had time to think about where to go in order to capture the event.  When I got home on Wednesday, Toni started to ask me where I was going to go and I really didn’t have an answer.  Looking at the cloud forecast, it was appearing that it was going to be pretty much the same over the entire state with high clouds through most of the day.  With total coverage, I wasn’t all that interested in doing landscapes, but the thought of waterfalls crossed my mind.  The light would be nice and diffused, but the wind would be a problem with the long exposures.  Add to that the fact that we really haven’t had that much rain lately so the waterfalls will be less than exciting for my tastes.  Waterfalls were out.  That left working rural scenes and possibly some rusty cars.  I didn’t really have anything in mind to shoot, but I do enjoy going out hunting for these subjects.

When Thursday morning rolled around, the sky looked really cool first thing in the morning and I started to have high hopes for the day.  The quality of light wasn’t good yet, but I was hoping as the sun got a little higher that I would see some changes in that regard.  I started out by taking Sierra to school, well, she actually drove me as is the routine now with her having a learner’s permit.  Once she got us there in one piece, she went into school and I left my slightly sweat soaked passenger seat with the crease in the cushion to sit in the driver’s seat once again.  It was nice to have an actual brake pedal under my foot on that side of the car.  Now that I was in the driver’s seat of a 1997 Lumina with magnets on the fenders and trunk that read “Be patient, New Driver” I started out in the countryside to find something to photograph.

My first thought was a Mopar junk yard that was close to the house, but I have never seen the business open and only have a phone number to call.  I called at around 8:30 and had to leave a voice mail as nobody picked up the phone.  I wanted to stay close in case they called and I could swing by and see what they had, so I started turning down dead ends wherever I could find them.  This is honestly the best way to find the subjects that I was looking for today.  The main roads are not all that great, but when you get into the little side roads that only have a half dozen or so older homes you start to find the barns and the derelict cars.  One of the roads I turned down was gravel and a dead end with just a few houses on it.  Right at the end of the road I saw about half a dozen Studebakers sitting in various stages of neglect.  My plan was paying off already and I hadn’t been out that long at all.  I saw a neighbor walking nearby and stopped to ask him about the owner of the cars.  He pointed me in the direction of the owner’s house and said it looked like he was home.

I pulled off to the side of the road and parked the car.  Only then did I realize that I had a back seat full of stuffed animals.  Like I said, this was Sierra’s car, and she got to decorate it as she saw fit.  Now I just looked a little like a pedophile driving around in it.  Oh well, at least I’m not proud, but it did kind of make me a little embarrassed when I was going up and presenting myself as a photographer.  At any rate, I walked up to the front door and knocked on the storm door.  I could see a TV on in the living room and heard motion so I was pretty sure I was going to be shooting these cars very soon.  The front door never opened though, and I knew what that meant.  I stepped back so I could see off to the sides a little better and sure enough, here he came off to the left from the side door.  Yeah, I’m used to this kind of greeting in the country.  I introduced myself and walked around to meet him.

After I explained who I was and what I was asking to do with his cars he declined because he didn’t want any attention on his collection.  I understood that and ensured him that I would not disclose the location.  He still declined.  I made one last attempt and said that I wouldn’t be messing with anything, just grabbing a few pictures.  He still declined.  Before leaving I offered to leave a card in case he changed his mind. He said that he wouldn’t be changing his mind.  That was that, I had nothing else to offer.  I had spoken my peace and it was time to move on out of respect for the property owner.  The exchange had lasted about two minutes and in that time I was pretty sure I would never be able to photograph these cars.  That was a shame, but not the end of the world by any stretch.  I got back in my stuffed animal training taxi and continued on with my search.

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

As I was driving around I found a lot of interesting subjects but nothing was really jumping out at me.  I was starting to get a little discouraged, but figured since I went out with no game plan at all, I had nothing to worry about.  I was at least exploring some side roads that I had not been down before and I was having fun in the hunt.  After nearly an hour or so, I was on a road that I had been on many times before and saw a property that I had seen many times before.  There was a Plymouth in an open garage that I had seen before, but this time, it struck me as a photograph.  I had a couple of ideas that I was interested in trying out on this old car so I pulled into the driveway and went to the front door of the house.  I knocked and heard nothing at all inside.  There was a car right next to the house, but I saw no signs of life in the house.  I waited there briefly and knocked again.  Still nothing.  I went back to the car and looked towards the garage.  In order to get the shots that I was wanting, I would need to get in a lot closer, and I wasn’t comfortable with that without having permission from the owner.  I looked around and saw a house a short distance away that looked like it might be occupied so I walked over there.  As I was getting close a single female came out of the house with her hands full.  Not wanting to scare her, I said good morning just as I was entering the driveway.  She only looked mildly concerned, so I offered to wait a minute as she put things in the car.  She said that wasn’t necessary, so I introduced myself and asked about the house I had just been at.

She informed me that she doesn’t live there and that the residents in the house where she was at were sick so I really couldn’t ask them about it.  She did know that there was a man that lived there and that he farmed a lot of the area which was probably where he was at.  She said that he would probably be back later in the day and I could maybe find him them.  I thanked her for her time and for the information and grabbed a quick reference shot of the area for myself before leaving a business card in the door.  I wasn’t sure if I would have time to come back later today or not, but was hoping that I could get permission over the phone for a later time as I have done in the past with places.  it was time to continue on in my search of something to photograph.  So far, I wasn’t doing so good, and it wasn’t for lack of finding anything, just lack of permission which is just as important in this game.

I got back in the plush taxi and slowly backed out of the driveway feeling quite dejected at this point.  I continued down the road that I had been on a number of times in the past with my sights set on getting gas and going home.  Just as I was about to get to the main road, I saw a small barn with a Ford tractor in it behind a house.  I had never seen this before, but really shows the benefit to one of the things that I always share in my decay workshops.  It pays off to glance as far behind the houses as you can as you are driving past them.  This is where the old cars and barns are usually at, and you will only get a glimpse of them.  This glimpse wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it did fit the rural look I was after and that made it a strong potential for me.  I got turned around and slowly went past the property again and decided that I could very well make an image out of the scene so I pulled into the driveway.

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

As I got parked, I could see somebody on the porch in a rocking chair which was promising.  At least I knew I would be able to speak to somebody.  As I approached, her small dog started to come out and bark at me doing what dogs are supposed to do.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem to pose any threat so I slowly continued to approach the porch announcing myself and greeting her.  She looked concerned at my presence so I tried to immediately put her mind at ease by explaining why I was there and asked if the property behind her house was hers.  It was, and the tractor that had caught my attention was her son’s pride and joy.  When I heard that, I really thought I was going to be out of luck with being able to photograph the scene.  However, when I asked, she said that it would be alright if I wanted to photograph it.  I made sure she understood that I wasn’t going to touch anything and that if anyone in the family wanted a print of anything that I shot I would be happy to bring them one out as soon as I could.  She seemed happy with that and I grabbed my Lowepro Whistler bag and Manfrotto Tripod from the trunk and walked around to the back of the property.

The closer I got I could see that the tractor was in really good shape which was a little disappointing, but with the barn there too, I was pretty sure I would get a satisfactory image.  I looked around and tried to figure out the best compositions based on what I was liking about the scene.  My shooting position was limited based on other structures in the area that I didn’t want to capture, and I was going to have to be careful with the sky as it was bright with the sun in the clouds directly behind the barn.  The light was diffused enough to work for what I had in mind though.  I decided to get in close and shoot the tractor inside of its shelter using the wood of the barn to really frame the tractor.

I got out my camera and fitted the 24-70mm lens which had the focal range that I needed for this shot.  I added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to reduce the glare and add a little color contrast to the scene.  I got the tripod down low and then realized that the sky was a little too prominent in the background so I elevated the legs just a little bit until the sky was blocked out by the roofline.  I then fine tuned everything trying to keep the major parts of the tractor from getting hidden by the sections of the barn.  I also wanted to create a composition that had the tractor as the primary element while trying to minimize the importance of the trash cans, but still capturing the green sign on the wall beside the door.  There were a lot of elements that I was trying to orchestrate with this image, and when I had it I was thrilled at how it looked in the LCD.

I shot several different versions of the composition with slightly different exposures and focus points so I could pick the best one.  Ironically, the majority of those shots were done without shielding the front of the lens from the sun that was overhead.  When I got home they were all unusable from the ghosting and lens flare that the sun introduced that I didn’t see in the LCD after the captures.  Fortunately, the last one of the series that I shot I had remembered to block the sun since it was getting a bit brighter, and that one worked out well.  I almost missed this shot because I forgot something very simple.  I guess I am still spoiled at having a lens hood on the lens with the majority of my shots unless I was using a grad filter.  Now that I am using the 105mm adaptor ring for the Lee Filter rig, I can’t use a lens hood and that really bothers me a lot of the time.

Rural Spotlight“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop hard and 3-stop soft edge ND Grads

Once I was pretty sure that I was happy with the images of the tractor, I started looking for other compositions that I might like to work.  Now during this time, I had realized that the owner had come out on the back porch to watch what I was doing.  I had no problems with that at all, and actually fully expected that.  I’m sure that what I did next was going to make her scratch her head though.  I turned my attention to the chimney of the building and started to examine the textures that I saw.  I loved the stone work next to the wooden planks and started to formulate a composition here.  I found a dark stone that provided a nice visual anchor for that side of the image and then balanced it with the wood on the other side using the planks to frame the shot top and bottom.  My intention here was to have a black and white image showing off the textures and contrasts.  When I got it home,  I wasn’t really liking it as a black and white because I thought that the color tones were very much needed to help tell the story of these materials.  In the end, the color version won out and I really like it for a study in textures.

While shooting this, I started to really get interested in the structure as a whole with the tractor as only a supporting element.  there was a lot of story here and I wanted to share it through an image.  I started looking at how I could make that happen.  I had a lot of light in the sky above since the sun was still in the background.  The side that had the best light was going to show the house as a background which I didn’t want.  the only angle to shoot this was from the front quarter where I had been shooting the tractor.  That was going to put the sun in a lousy spot in the sky, but I was pretty sure I knew how to deal with that.  I just needed to find my composition.

I stepped back and started to frame things up with my 24-70mm lens which was still on.  It did an ok job of capturing the scene, but it looked a little flat with that lens, even at 24mm.  I needed to go wider to put the emphasis on the tractor and the entrance area with the background falling off in a much smaller scale.  That would actually pull more of the sky in and get the glow in the clouds from the sun which I actually wanted.  I swapped out to my 16-35mm lens which should be able to get what I wanted.  As I expected, I had to get in closer with the wider angle lens which added a good deal of perspective distortion.  I liked it a lot and actually racked the lens out to 16mm and got in really close to it.  I didn’t like how much background was included on the sides at this focal range so I flipped the camera on its side using the RRS L plate mounted in the Acratech GP-SS Ballhead which kept the focal plane the same.  This version had very little visual balance with either too much sky, or too much foreground.  I did decide that I was committed to this composition so I was going to work it through somehow.  I flipped back to the horizontal orientation which was the better of the two, and then decided to try a 1:1 crop in the camera.  When the LCD live view came up with the square crop I immediately loved the composition.  It had just enough background to it, and after a slight tweak of the positioning, I was able to have the sun right at the top of the frame.

Now my problem was exposure.  The sky was very bright and I had a lot of shadows to deal with in the area where the tractor was which was a major part of the composition.  I still had the Color Combo Polarizer attached to the front of the 16-35mm lens and because of the diffused lighting it was giving me a little bit of clarity on the roof which I wanted.  It was windy and the trees were moving, but I figured I would try a blended HDR image with what amounted to 5 different exposures at a stop different each.  I was doubting that was going to work when I got it into Lightroom with all the movement in the vegetation and that was exactly the case when I imported the images.  There was too much ghosting, and when I altered the blending, I really didn’t like how everything was looking.  That HDR series was trashed.  Fortunately, I did an old school exposure while I was still in the field which nailed the very difficult exposure in a single capture.

I have to really send out big thanks to Singh-Ray for this last image as they made it possible where my editing skills wouldn’t.  In order to get the sky under control, I had to add their Galen Rowell ND grads to the mix.  I started out with a 3-stop soft edge so I could blend the roof easier.  That got me close, but the sun was still too bright in the image and was casing everything under the shelter to go into shadow according to the histogram.  I was going to add a 2-stop soft edge, but knew that wasn’t going to be enough.  I went all out and added a 3-stop hard edge filter for a total of 6 full stops of exposure control to the sky.  I had the soft edge down lower to provide a smooth transition with the hard edge a bit higher, just over the transition of the soft one.  This made the transition still very gradual, even with a hard edge filter added into the mix.  I wasn’t worried about image degradation here, even though I had a total of three filters stacked on top of each other.  Since they are all Singh-Ray pieces, they are optically perfect in my book and I knew that there would be no strange color casts added, or other anomalies that would have to be addressed in post.  I just had to shield the sun from the lens and cranked off a perfectly exposed image.

When it was time to edit this one, I had very little work to do on it with the exception of brightening the roof, chimney, and background trees a bit.  It sharped up very nicely in post with no strange artifacts, and it was as if there had been no filters used at all in this shot.  In fact, even knowing what filters I had attached and what they were affecting, I really can’t tell that they were there.  To me, that is the beauty of filters.  They do their job and unless somebody points them out, nobody is the wiser.  I think that is the case here, and this is one of the trickiest lighting scenarios that there is.  This is also my favorite image from the day for the way the composition flows and the way that the exposure came out.

With that, I was done with this location and it was time to get gas and get on home since Toni would be getting back from her morning running around soon.  I never did hear back from the owner of the Plymouth in the barn, but I do plan on going back and trying it again at another point when the sky cooperates with me.  It would be a worthwhile image I think

I do hope that you enjoyed my morning out and got a little insight into some of the struggles that I go though with finding these subjects and then how I actually capture them.  There is a lot that goes into these images, and its not just a game of point and shoot.  That is what makes it fun and helps to define a photographer’s style.  It is topics like this that I like to cover in my workshops, and will have that opportunity this weekend with a decay workshop in East Bend.  I’m excited to have this one because I really think that this is where I stand apart from the masses of photographers out there who do landscape work.  Decay photography is a lot of fun to do, even if it is really frustrating trying to get access to the subject matter.
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