Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Once upon a time there were three little pigs…
Some stuff happened….
Their houses got blown down by the Big Bad Wolf, except for the one made of brick. At least that is how the story goes. Well, I think that I have gone and proved the fairy tale slightly inaccurate. After my morning out in Fairplains, I had gathered a greater appreciation for the building that lay in ruin on Hwy 18. I hadn’t really known how I wanted to photograph it, but found it in some amazing light on the morning of my trek into the area. After seeing the final product of the image I was sold that this was a really awesome building and I had to go out and try it again under different conditions, but I was still stumped as to how best to capture it.
I learned more about the building when I was delivering a 24×36″ canvas wrap to a client in North Wilkesboro which added to my interest. I found out that it had been the victim of a very windy day that blew a large portion of the building into the roadway. This happened relatively recently as Google Street View still shows it intact as does the satellite image. It had been a warehouse at one time and the last use of it according to my source was a distributor of meal worms for bait. They would raise them here in the building and ship them out across the country. I did a little more hunting through my sources and found that it could possibly have been a warehouse for American Drew Furniture back in the late 80’s. Whatever it had been, it was no longer suited for any other use other than practice with a bulldozer.
Well, that might not be exactly accurate as it had already served a great use for me during a sunrise in order to provide a great visual anchor for the sky. However, now that I have gotten to know the building a little bit, I wanted to get in and try to tell its story through photos. I knew that I wanted to get in much closer than I had been before in order to get the debris around the grounds as well as the details of the broken walls. My thoughts were to do this as a black and white composition with a high contrast theme. Because of the parts that I was wanting to capture, I was pretty sure that the sky was going to be a large part of the frame, but I needed it to be in full daylight so that I could see the details in the walls as well as the textures. That was my basic approach to the composition for this building. It wasn’t overly detailed, but it was a start. I was hoping that it was going to be a good choice and that it would end up being a good image. But here is where the insecurities start, especially considering that this isn’t necessarily one of my most popular subjects when compared to broken down barns, cars, and dilapidated rural scenes. Even I was going to question whether or not this was going to make a good framed photograph on a wall. All I knew was that I really felt the need to capture this building before the bulldozers got to it.
Tuesday was going to be a very cold day here in Wilkes County and several days ago I had decided that I would be staying in for the day even though there were clouds forecast. I had been on a very successful morning’s trek a couple of days ago, and had just published my monthly Behind the Camera, so I didn’t really need any new content here in the blog. However, as the morning progressed I was looking at the clouds and saw that there was a good potential for some interest in the sky and I thought about what I could do to take advantage of the conditions. Honestly, the sky was going to be good for just about any subject that I wanted to shoot, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to shoot. That was when the old broken building came back to my mind. It was something that I had been working on in my mind, and the conditions were right for it. Why not go back out there and give it another try?
I waited until a little after noon when the sun would be on the opposite side of the street providing that soft light that I was wanting on the face of the building. I grabbed my jacket and camera before setting out in the 37 degree day. One thing that I hadn’t taken into consideration was the wind which was howling and quite cold. I’m not sure what the wind chill was, and I was afraid to look, but it felt every bit of 20-25 degrees. Oh well, I was out now so I might as well give it a try. It didn’t take long for me to get out to the Hwy 18 and to the building. Since I already knew what I was planning on doing, I pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked well out of the way so I could shoot in any direction that I wanted to. I grabbed my tripod and bag since I wasn’t sure what gear I was going to need for the composition having only a basic concept at this point.
I walked over to the corner that I found most interesting which was in the afternoon light quite well. The debris created much more of an obstacle than I had realized when it came to getting into position for a shot. It took me a while to get a composition worked out that showcased the different sections that interested me while keeping a logical composition that allowed the eyes to flow through the image. When I finally got it worked out, I decided to use my wide angle lens because I was quite close to the building at this point to get the most dramatic angles and a bit more depth to the image. I mounted that onto my camera which was then attached to the Acratech Ballhead. I plugged in the remote shutter release to ensure tack sharp images and started to get the composition fine tuned. This was much harder than it should have been as I tried to position windows in the right places throughout the composition while making sure that what was seen through them made sense, and that all of the angles were good. I also needed to keep the perspective of the building in check since I was shooting with such a wide angle lens.
When I got the composition figured out, I had the shot framed and the exposure set. However, I was checking everything before pressing the button and saw that my spirit level was vibrating slightly in the wind. That wasn’t normal since my tripod is very stable, even in the wind. It shouldn’t be vibrating, so I checked what my tripod legs were standing on. As it turned out, I had found a bit of squishy building material under one of the legs. That meant that I was going to have to reposition the tripod to get it on firmer ground. Such a simple rotation caused me to have to redo all of the compositional work that I had already done. It is all part of the experience and what I have to do in order to get the best quality image that I can. I was able to get my original composition back in short order and I got ready to release the shutter.
I had planned for this image to be a monochrome shot because the building was a pale beige and the sky didn’t have much color to it. I figured that it would be better off without color so the viewer could concentrate on the structure and the texture of the subject. As I was making exposures with the clouds moving, the sky started to open up above the building and there was a patch of blue for the briefest of moments. It was that blue that really played off of the beige colors on the walls and got me reconsidering making this a color image after all. That was actually just what happened when I got home and started to process the image. I loved the color tones in the image and it immediately warmed up the photograph and made it more inviting to look at. I did look at it in black and white just to check on my initial thought, but it just didn’t have the same impact as the color image did. You can see which way I ultimately ended up with this image.
Funny thing about this image though, it was kind of a test image because I had already been thinking about doing a long exposure with the high winds. In order to do those, I really have to see how the images turn out with a regular shutter speed to properly evaluate how the image should look when stretched out to many seconds, or even minutes. There are times, like this time when the test shots become good enough to be keepers in their own rights and this was one of those times. I was really happy with the way that this one turned out, but I wasn’t done with this composition, not by a long shot.
I had put a lot of time and effort into getting the composition figured out as well as the exposure. I was happy with how they were both looking in the image review and histogram, so I decided to go with my long exposure concept because the wind was blowing the clouds over me in the right direction to make this very dramatic. I was sure that this was going to be a monochrome image as the long exposure clouds almost always look best in black and white. Knowing that my exposure was set for 1/60 of a second, I pulled out my ND Filter app and dialed in a 10 stop and a 15 stop ND filter to see what my options were. I was given the choice of 15 seconds or 18 minutes with the two filters. I was actually looking for something in the neighborhood of two minutes to start with and neither of these would give me that option with the aperture set at f/11. I could either stop down, or I could boost my ISO to reduce the 15-stop shutter speed. That would allow for too much noise to enter into the image so I thought that I would start off with stopping down the lens and keeping the ISO at 100.
If I were to dial in an aperture of f/14 which was as far as I wanted to go to keep diffraction from becoming an issue with all of the hard edges in the scene, I was looking at only 25 seconds worth of exposure with a 10-stop ND. This was a far cry from two minutes, but it was enough to consider it a long exposure. I decided to give it a try so I slid in my 10-stop Mor-Slo filter into the filter holder and I released the shutter. When the LCD review kicked on, I was shocked at how much the clouds had been moving. It gave me almost the streaks that I was after. Just to see if I could stretch it out a bit more, I stopped down to f/16 and went for 30 seconds. This one also turned out nice, but there was a little bit of softening in the details at this aperture, and apparently the wind had picked up because the tree which was only mildly blurry at 25 seconds was very blurry over 30 seconds. It was a distraction, so that image didn’t make the cut. I did one other exposure with the same settings with the same outcome. It looked like 25 seconds was going to be my friend. When I looked at it on the computer it was that one that won hands down and got the editing treatment. Because of the blur in the trees, this one had a different crop applied to it making it a 4:5 crop as opposed to the 3:2 crop that I was able to do on the other one. That eliminated the tree that was most blurry and allowed me to have a shaper composition where it mattered.
When I was done with the long exposures I decided that I was ready to shoot some detail shots of the building. Obviously, the wide angle lens wasn’t the best choice here so I decided to swap over to my telephoto lens. In order to do that, I needed to slide the ND filter out of the holder. That was easer said than done because by this point, my fingers were frozen. I wasn’t able to feel anything with them which made it very difficult to do activities like moving filters around and changing lenses. I was able to make it happen though, and I had the long lens mounted in a couple of minutes. I started to look for compositions that made sense and decided to concentrate on the windows showing the background sky which I knew would add just that pop of cool color to the scene that was predominantly warm.
I found a few sections on the inside which caught my eye. I tried both horizontal and vertical compositions making use of my RRS L-Plate to keep the lens in the same position between orientations. I shot a total of three different compositions and when I got home I only really liked one of them. As I had suspected, it worked better in color, and I liked the horizontal composition between two doors with the broken wall and broken roof framing opposite corners. You could see the trees through both doors which I really liked and it seemed to have the best flow out of all of the images. There was a story here, but you had to look. There might be just enough clues here to let you know that you are looking through an interior wall based on where the floor used to be, but I think that this really borders on being an abstract in a way. That was a large part of why I liked it so much. There are so many layers to look at and so many textures that your eyes get lost in the frame and you start to not really care what it is that you are looking at. At least that is my response.
The other images were similar to this, but didn’t quite capture the feeling that I wanted to convey for this story. I want there to be questions. By looking at this series of image and knowing that the building was blown down by a strong wind not long ago, you can piece together more of the story which may make this particular image more interesting, but it could also mean that it loses a lot of the qualities that I like about it with the questions that are asked by the viewer. I’m really not sure how this one will be received, but I really like it and I’m glad that I decided to shoot some isolations of this building while I was there.
It had been a while since I had worked with the telephoto lens so I was having a good time with it. I backed up a good bit and decided to see how the compression would do with the scene from a distance. I had to change my angle for the composition because I was shooting on the top of an embankment which made it impossible to go any further to the right without tumbling down to the road. The compression I was seeing in the wider focal lengths of the lens were not bad at all. It gave a different view of the building and told different parts of the story. What I found was that the horizontal compositions seemed very flat though, and the only way that I could get excitement in the image was to shoot vertical and concentrate on the triangles within the image. This seemed to be much better and the whole frame took on a triangle type appearance in my eyes.
I shot several variations on the theme like this with the long lens before realizing that I was hovering near 70mm and wanting to go wider. I decided to swap into my standard lens for the remainder of the shoot to see how that would work out. I started to work my way closer in to the building once again and found that I really liked the depth that I was able to achieve with the wider angle, which was still at 50mm or tighter. I found a good composition that I liked and started to work it. The sun was starting to come out at this point so I decided in order to get a little more drama in the sky, I would add my Color Combo Polarizer. This is usually an easy task, but with my fingers full on frost bitten screwing that 105mm filter onto the adaptor ring was an exercise in frustration. I cross threaded it to start with and had the hardest time getting that straightened out. In fact it was taking so long I had to put the filter down and make an exposure as I could tell that the light was getting really good in that moment. I came back to the filter and finally got it to seat in the threads and screw down. I mounted the filter and continued to make exposures.
When I felt that the good light was over as the sky was constantly clearing I decided to call it a day. I knew that this was not going to be fun as breaking down the camera when I had no feeling in my fingers was more difficult than I like to admit. I pulled the filter holder off of the lens and tried to unscrew that 105mm thin mount filter and all I could do was get the adjustment ring to turn. I couldn’t get my fingers to feel the really narrow ring that was actually holding the filter to the mount. I spun and spun and would occasionally get it to break free and twist, but it would lock up within a quarter of a turn. I was getting nowhere, so I went back to the camera and started to break it down which require less fine motor skills. eventually I was back to the filter and was twisting like crazy again. My fingers which were all kinds of ashy from the cold were leaving a white dust all over the filter as my skin was being sanded off with every turn. Now I was introducing friction numbness to my fingers so I had to flip the filter and twist with my left hand. I figured that would be a waste of time, but it was my only alternative. Surprisingly, it worked and I got the filter free without dropping it. I got it all stowed away in my bag and got into the truck with the heat set to wide open.
The bitter irony here was that I didn’t use any of the frame that I captured with the polarizer. The light just wasn’t as good as it was before, and the sky wasn’t nearly as interesting. I could have avoided all of that drama with the filter, but at the time I thought that I was going to have something much better by using the filter. It just goes to show you that I will only use a filter when there is a benefit to be had, and if there is none, then I will leave it off. The lighting was just too good as it was without the need to alter anything about it during most of the shoot.
Normally, this wouldn’t be that cold on me, but with this being the first really cold day my skin just wasn’t used to it and it complained loudly. In time I will get more accustomed to the cold and will be able to deal with it much easier. I will also remember that I have gloves for just this purpose. By the time I thought about them, my fingers were already numb and I knew that the gloves would do no good as there was no body heat to maintain in those digits. I do love this time of year for photographs, but it does come with its own challenges, much like the 90+ days of summer when I am so sweaty that I can’t function. It is all part of being a photographer I suppose, so I relish the challenge.
I do hope that you enjoyed this trek and a little bit of the back story behind this building. I will be trying to find out more about it, and I hope to be able to shoot it again before it is gone. I know that I am taking my decay photography a little too far with this, but there is just something special about this building that interests me. Whether or not somebody might like these images is immaterial to the equation. I shot these for me, and it was something that I felt needed to be done. Of course, if you are odd like me and enjoy these images and would like a print of any of them, I would love to speak with you about matching a print up with you. You can also order directly through this website if you are interested in my standard sizes.
The year is wrapping up quickly at this point and I am trying very hard to put together my 12 most significant images from the last 12 months. It is very hard this year because the most significant images are not even close to being my favorite images, or even the most well received through social media. Last year there were a handful of images that really stood out from the crowd and the selection was much easier. I’ll be interested to see how the pieces fall, and I hope you will join me for that special blog entry later on this month.
Until next time…