In Search of Esso Pumps

· Reading Time: 18 minutes

Sunday, February 28, 2021

If we are being completely honest here, I had no plans on going out for any pictures today until kind of late in the evening on Saturday.  You see, there was rain forecasted through most of the weekend and into the next week so I was content staying at home and just getting things taken care of of the Introduction to Photography Class that I am teaching currently.  I also had my next Behind the Camera to get completed and ready for publication tomorrow.  In short, I was kind of busy and didn’t really have time to go out and try to get any new pictures.  However, I had been talking with one of my clients recently and she had requested a gas station at night which I didn’t really have anything that would fully fit that need.  She mentioned a station in particular when we were talking and that was Nathan’s in Wilkesboro.  I was familiar with that location and had considered shooting it before.  I hadn’t because it just wasn’t quite right for my visions at the time.  I loved the old Esso pumps out front, but they were in really good condition and the business was obviously still functioning and well maintained.  That just didn’t quite fit into my decay photography.  However, there were some interesting things that I liked about the building which included the red paint, and the sloped canopy over the pumps.  I was really liking the overall shape of the building, but just never really set my mind to photographing it.

The more I considered it after the request was made, the more I started to like the idea of a night shot of the station.  Apparently, the pumps lit up each night which would help make a composition work much better, especially at night.  I just wasn’t quite sure what the other lights from the city of Wilkesboro would do for the scene.  I really had no idea what it was going to look like at night, but knowing that there might be a customer for the image, I decided that I would do a little research on it to see if there was any real potential in a photograph there.

As it turned out, Toni and I slept in this morning and when we finally got up and got functioning we decided that it was a Cracker Barrel type of day so we got ready and headed into Boone for a late breakfast that turned into a lunch.  She was nice enough to let me bring the camera along with us just in case anything jumped out at me since the sky was looking particularly interesting.  I didn’t really see anything on the way to Boone, and on the way back I was just thinking about the possibility of working Nathan’s later in the evening since the sky was looking promising.  Hey, I had most of the Behind the Camera done, and my next class was still about a week off.  I was out with the camera, so that meant that my mind was looking for opportunities to present themselves.  Since we weren’t in a particular hurry, Toni was fine with me going by the station for a quick look to see if there were any great compositions that jumped out at me so I could get to thinking about how I would put this together later tonight.

When we got there, the light on the building was actually really good and the sky looked great overhead.  I was seeing some potential with the pumps as isolations in the existing light so I asked really nicely if she would mind if we stopped while I tried a couple of things.  She was happy to let me, and I pulled over to the side next to a car that was parked in the parking lot.  I wasn’t wild about the car because when I had started to think about compositions the night before, I was planning on using that wall that the car was parked in front of.  That wasn’t a possibility though, so I had to regroup.  I wasn’t sure if the car was there temporarily or not, so I had to work around it as I figured out my composition.

Red and Blue“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

To keep from getting extreme perspective distortion in the images, I fitted my 24-70mm lens and added my Color Combo Polarizer to help with the sky and pull some of the glare off of the pavement.  I started working my way around the parking lot to find the right place for the camera.  I was getting a little frustrated because I was trying to have everything separated while showing the name of the store, and keeping the pumps opened up.  I must have looked very confused because Toni shot a bunch of pictures of me as I was moving around and getting things set up.  Of course, I had no idea that she was doing that because I was very much suffering from tunnel vision working my way around the scene.

What I finally figured out was the best place to sit was at the corner of the lot with the camera down really low.  It was hard on my old knees to get down there on the pavement like that, but it was the best way to get the angles that I needed in order to keep everything visible and separated.  I worked out the composition that I would want to use for the evening shot but since the sky was looking so good right then I actually fired off a few test frames to refer back to later on.  The test shots turned out so good that I decided to keep one of them and process it to add here.  The bright light from the sun made the white pop on the building and the red really stood out against the blue in the sky.  Everything just came together quite well for the image and I was pretty happy with it.  In fact, I was wondering if it would even be worth coming back out here later tonight for an image.  I was pretty sure that I had everything that I was wanting, but it was the lack of lighting in the Esso pumps that bothered me the most.  This was something that was requested by my client so I felt that I really needed to come back and see what I could work out later in the evening.

Since I was here for a scouting mission more than anything, I decided to check out the idea for the composition that I had when we first came into the parking lot.  I really wanted to get something specific to the pumps since that was a major draw for the location.  I picked up the camera and started wandering through the parking lot once again.  Toni was starting to have a lot of fun with me at this point and was taking a lot of pictures of me as I moved around.  Guess she got bored and figured that I could use some illustrations for my time here at the business.  Here is one that I really like and it shows that confused look on my face as I try to figure out how I wanted to shoot the scene.

I wasn’t shooting a lot of pictures at this point, but I was certainly working the scene.  It was all about angles and trying to figure out how to include what I liked in a way that made sense while keeping the parts that I didn’t like out of the frame.  Easier said that done for the most part.  I was able to work out a simple composition on each individual pump, but those were almost too simple for my tastes and I needed some more balance to the scene.  I started to look at the basket that was between the two pumps which eventually got me thinking about including both pumps in the image.  It was getting a little complex in my mind at this point, but I decided to give it a try anyway.  I flipped the camera on its side and composed a vertical image which both of the pumps in the frame with the canopy support framing them all while keeping “Nathan’s” centered between the pumps.  And you thought that all of this was by accident. LOL!!!

Pumps and a Bucket“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

While I was shooting this one I was perplexed by the colors in the frame.  There were striking reds and deep blues along with the more subtle shades of red in the bricks.  The predominant color was the white on the building and the splashes of color just really didn’t make enough sense to me.  It seemed to overcomplicate the image which kind of defeated the purpose in this composition.  I decided that it was going to be a black and white shot which would help set a tone for the historical significance of the pumps as well as simplifying the scene.  I just needed to fine tune that composition to really pull in the angles as a valuable part of the composition.  I wasn’t sure how it would turn out but I was pretty sure that it would only work during the daytime the way that I was visualizing it.  The tonality would be all off if I did this composition after sunset.  It would be really nice if I could get a really good keeper image from this quick scouting session.  I still wasn’t sure if the first composition would end up being good enough compared to the later one that I hoped to capture.

Once I had the isolation shot of the pumps in the bag I went back to the truck and packed up my gear.  It was still a couple of hours before I would need to think about being back out for the evening shoot that I was wanting to do.  Toni and I headed home and I got to thinking that if I went in and sat down that I would probably not bother getting back up again.  The smart decision would be to drop her off and go out in search of another scene to photograph before the sun started to drop down from the sky.  I dropped her off and picked up a bottle of water and I was off once again.  It was much too early to go back to the service station so I started working my way through North Wilkesboro.  I had gotten in the mood for images with the “hand of man” in them and was looking for interesting scenes in the older area of downtown.

I knew the area that I wanted to try because I had been out here several times over the past months.  The first time I had gone out here I ended up with some really interesting images depicting some of the industrial areas of North Wilkesboro.  I had been interested in a building that I had not shot that day which I had been back to several times since without any luck.  It was just one of those buildings that had interesting shapes to it, but no real story around it.  I had thought about doing long exposures on it before, but the sky had never been right.  The sky was looking good this evening for an attempt on that, so that was what I went to check out.

When I got there, I drove to the front of the business and started to look at things.  There was a nice view with the railroad tracks leading to it, but the sky behind it was really boring and void of clouds.  It was not a compelling enough composition to really hold the interest without a good sky so I gave up on that shot once again, but I was happy that I had seen a better composition that I had seen before.  I was making progress and that was something.  I wasn’t quite ready to give up on this location though as there was a lot of great industrial decay out here and I was sure that there were more scenes to consider.  I worked my way around to the area where I had shot before and looked at the back side of the structure I had just looked at.  It wasn’t as interesting from that side, but the sky was much better in this direction.  It was so good as a matter of fact that I drove down a short road that went right up to the back of the business to see if there was something that I could put together from that angle.

Industrial Decay“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The only thing that I could see that helped to tell the story was an old Peterbuilt road tractor.  It wasn’t a rusty pile of scrap, but it was looking a bit tired and had a good deal of age on the paint.  It was something, and it helped to give the scene interest that it didn’t have before.  I decided to see what I could do with it.  I parked the truck and got my camera out with the 16-35mm lens attached.  I mounted my polarizer as well to keep the glare off of the windshield as best I could.  I then started to work out the location that I wanted to shoot from.  Of course, things are never easy and I had to worry with a trailer that was parked very close to the truck as well as a car that was parked directly behind the truck.  The fence stopped pretty close to the front of the truck and I wanted to keep it going so as not to pull the attention out of the frame as the eyes tried to work around the fence.  I spent the next 15 minutes figuring out the placement of the camera as well as the composition.  When I finally landed on the right position and focal length, I was sold on it.  I loved the composition.  It had everything that I wanted.  There was drama in the sky and in the perspective on the truck.  I had a nearly perfect cross composition with things falling perfectly in the rule of thirds as well.

I worked out the exposure which wasn’t too difficult at all.  I just exposed to the right to protect the highlights while I got as much detail in the shadows as I could.  I started to fire off exposures as the clouds changed and while I was doing that, I realized that the clouds were moving at a pretty good clip.  I decided that I needed to try a long exposure shot at this point.  I didn’t want anything too out of the world here as I needed to keep some of the texture in the sky.  I was looking for between 20-30 seconds worth of exposure.  I added a 5-stop Mor-Slo ND filter to the mix and worked out the right exposure with that filter.  I managed to get 25 seconds out of it and that looked pretty good in the image review.  In the end though, I decided that I liked the detail in the sky better so I decided to keep the initial exposed image and process that one.  I did allow myself to have a bit of fun with this one.  I wasn’t overly worried about keeping the absolute original colors here so I worked with the color profiles in order to get to this rather moody color tone that just screams industrial decay to me.

I was really liking the series that I had shot with this truck.  The images were less about the structure in the background which had been my primary focus for the stop, and they were more about the truck which just barely fit my decay theme as it was more dirty than anything.  However, it was the combination of both of those elements that really made this image come together with something to say.  I was so happy with how it turned out as a matter of fact, that it became my favorite image of the day.  I’m finding that when I shoot these old road tractors, I usually end up really liking the end result so I am starting to look for them more and more these days.  It really paid off well here and both elements really tell a story in this frame.

The sun was getting low at this point and it was time to head back to Nathan’s to see if I could get anything to work out as the sun set.  I had a plan in mind and I was hoping that it was going to come together.  Ideally, there would be color in the sky after sunset, and the station would be lit underneath with the Esso pumps illuminated as well.  It was going to be a very dramatic picture if it all worked out like I wanted it too.  I was going to know if it would work out in about an hour or so, so I made my way down the road into Wilkesboro.

When I got there, the Buick was still parked against the brick wall, but it really didn’t bother me as I had already figured out how to work around it with the composition that I had shot earlier in the afternoon.  It was still much too early to get the camera out so I just walked around and looked to see how things were shaping up before getting the camera out.  I was seeing some potential in the sky which I was excited about.  The sun was setting off to the right which, if I was lucky would cause some warm hues to stretch across the sky just at sunset or after.  There were no lights on except for a single one on the inside and the drink machines out front.  I was really hoping that this was going to work out!

I could see that the pumps were plugged in so that was promising and when I got a closer look I could tell that they were plugged into a timer.  That timer was set to dusk to dawn which was just what I was hoping for.  As long as that timer was working, I would be in good shape.  I got my camera out with the 24-70mm lens attached.  Since the sun was going down, I didn’t add any filters to the lens and just left it nekked.  I moved to the area of the parking lot that I had shot from before and got the camera set up roughly in the same position.  I fiddled with it for a bit and finally got a composition that I liked.  I managed to get a single shot off as the clouds were moving overhead before a car pulled into the lot.  I waved, she waved, and then she pulled right up to the front door.  Well, this might be the end of this adventure.  She was inside the store for a few minutes and then came out and got back in her car.  This was good, I was going to have a clear view of the store once again.

As she was pulling off, she stopped and inquired as to what I was doing.  I told her that I was out there trying to get pictures of the store after sunset with the pumps lit.  I used this as an opportunity to confirm that the pumps were going to light up at some point.  She confirmed that they were, and I felt better about things with that bit of information.  I gave her my standard offer of a print if any turn out from the location and she seemed happy with that.  After that quick exchange she was on her way.  I was back to creating images here once again.  The interruption did give me the opportunity to find a few things wrong with the composition so I made some minor adjustments to the positioning of the camera before settling back into the routine of pressing the button ever few minutes as the light and clouds changed.

Esso Glow“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

As I was hoping, the Esso lights did come on shortly after sunset.  It was just the globe at the tops that lit up which was fine, but I had been hoping for some other lights to pop on along with them.  My light sources were limited to those globes, the drink machines, and the one lone light inside the store.  I was going to have to work with that the best that I could.  I figured out the exposure that I could use that wouldn’t blow out the lights on the pumps and then just shot away as the sky and clouds changed.  The darker that the scene got, the more I found the sky looked better, but the shadows under the canopy were becoming problematic with very little lighting to be had.  I was also noticing that the clouds were blocking the horizon to the West which was snuffing out the colors in the sky.  It wasn’t the end of the world as I was liking the simple blue tones in the sky as they worked well with the reds of the building and the bricks next door.  I just fired off shots in hopes that one of them would work out for what I was needing out of this scene.

I did find it interesting that I had a heckler in a car that passed by during this stage.  I heard a guy yelling at me “hey, get a job!” as he passed by driving a ’80’s Nissan Sentra.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that statement since he was driving through town on a Sunday evening while I was actually working.  I’m still not sure I follow the logic, but here I am at 11:35pm still working.  People are funny to me sometimes.  Anyway, I wrapped things up when the light levels dropped to the point that there was too much contrast with the globes to continue.  Out of all of the images that I shot there was one where there was detail in the sky, reduced contrast over the scene, and good exposure on the globes and in the shadowed portions.  This was the image that I processing and added here.  It wasn’t exactly what I was after in my mind, but for the lighting that was present and able to be used, it was pretty good.  I like this one better than the daylight image, but I think that they both have tremendously different feelings behind them.  Which one do you like better?

If there is a photograph here that speaks to you, don’t forget that you can order your very own print through the gallery store, or by emailing me directly at [email protected] to place a special order which includes larger prints and special media such as canvas or metal.  There is no better way to enjoy my photography than to be able to hold it in your hands and hang it on your wall.  If you are interested in learning more about how to capture images, especially the decay images, be sure to look into my next workshop which is scheduled for April 24th.  It will be a full day of decay photography in East Bend, NC.  This has always been a well attended and hugely enjoyable workshop.  I hope to see you there.

Until next time…
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