Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Friday, February 5, 2021

I wish I could tell you some grand beginning to this trek, but it was more of an accident than anything else.  You see, Toni and I had gone to Winston Salem on Thursday to take care of some business.  While on 421 heading East I happened to see an old hotel sign that caught my eye because it was partially ripped from the framework.  I made a mental note to check that sign out when I had some time to kill.  That was kind of the beginning of this entry.  You see, ever since my last trek to Stone Mountain, I have been feeling a little uncreative which isn’t all that uncommon after a very successful outing with the camera.  I’m always a little hesitant to get back out there unless I have something specific in mind that might be better than what I have done previously.  I just haven’t really come up with anything at all that I wanted to shoot and that meant that I just hadn’t put much thought into going out again.  You can certainly see how that will quickly end up in a stagnation of sorts, so I have learned to recognize that and try to work around it the best I can.

Seeing that sign on the highway sparked my creative juices and fed into that decay photographer that lives within my head.  I kept thinking about this sign that was partially missing and how I might want to capture it.  I didn’t know what the surroundings were like which made it kind of difficult to plan, but I was at least interested in trying to figure something out with this sign.  It wasn’t until Toni and I were on the way home that I started to consider stopping by and scoping the sign out.  I mean we had to get gas anyway, and there was a gas station right there at the exit.  She gave me her blessing to take a quick detour and see what the sign was all about after we got gas.

I started off in the direction of the sign and ended up following my instincts to find it as it was on a side road off of the main road.  As luck would have it, I caught what looked like the back side of the hotel down one of the side streets and got turned around to go and check it out.  Sure enough, there was an old motel there that looked like it might be in the process of being renovated.  There were a couple of cars in the parking lot, but it wasn’t the motel that I was interested in.  It was that sign which was situated off in the yard well away from the building.  There were some obstacles to take into consideration with the sign and most of them were down at ground level.  If I were going to capture this sign I was probably going to need to avoid giving it an anchor to the ground and just leave it floating.  This was going to be a way to simplify the image, and I considered taking it a step further by looking at a long exposure shot after my success with that last shot at Stone Mountain.

The juices were flowing, and I was also seeing another sign that interested me even more than the partial sign.  It was the actual sign for the motel as opposed to the advertising sign that had caught my eye.  It was the smaller green sign with the paint peeling off of it and that antique look that really captured my imagination at this point.  I was considering black and white long exposures with this.  There might even be an opportunity to do some light painting with this sign in the pre-dawn hours as the clouds took on some deep and colorful hues.  There were a lot of possibilities here and I could sense myself getting excited.  I just needed to figure out the best time to come out here to give it a try.

Motel That Time Forgot“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Mor-Slo 10-stop ND Filter, 200 seconds

Later that night, Toni asked if I was going out in the morning to do any photography.  I think she is getting bored of having me at home roughly a week since the last time I did any photography.  I didn’t know how to answer her since I really hadn’t put any thought into going out yet, but I decided to look at the weather.  There were rain showers passing by through the night, but the morning was supposed to be kind of cloudy with a mixture of high and medium level clouds.  Those clouds were going to stick around until about lunch time when they would start to thin out.  That could be a good scenario for several different types of subjects, but since I had just been thinking about these old signs, that was the first thing that came to mind for me.  Could it be that easy?  Could I have spotted a subject and had a plan to shoot it less than 24 hours later?  It was seeming like that was the case.

I got an alarm set for 5:30 with the intention of leaving at 6:15 which would get me to the motel about 30 minutes before sunrise which would be enough to get that pre-dawn shot that I was looking for if the sky worked with me.  It was settled, I was going to make this happen.  I turned in early and was awake before the alarm rang.  However, I didn’t get moving at that point because I was still very warm and comfortable laying in the bed.  When the noise did start from my phone, I turned it off and checked the weather.  It was showing cloudy outside currently and the clouds were showing to have thickened significantly.  That could make things a little difficult because I wanted to have some texture in the sky, but not too much.  If the sky was completely overcast, I would not have that needed texture.  I decided to give it a shot anyway, if for nothing else to confirm that the compositions that I had in mind would work and to see what the nighttime lighting was all about.

I left the house on schedule and arrived at the motel about 30 minutes before sunrise.  There were street lights in the area that were going to cause me issues with my original idea for the pre-dawn pictures, but I was still looking forward to getting some images of these signs.  I was a little disappointed with the sky though as it was mostly clear which was in direct opposition to the weather report for current conditions.  There were clouds to the South and I was hoping that they would make it up this way when the light got better.  After seeing what conditions were offering, I decided to start with the Yadkin Inn sign first.  I got everything set up and mounted my 24-70mm lens before finding that perfect place to place it for the composition.  The clouds were very thin and I composed an image that featured those clouds.  The lighting was such that with a polarizer attached, I had a shutter speed of 30 seconds which was enough to blur the clouds just enough.  The images were looking fair, but not quite what I was wanting.  Watching the sky to my back getting brighter, I decided that I had better give the other sign some attention before it was so badly backlit that I wouldn’t be able to capture any detail on what was left of the sign.

I picked up my entire kit and walked to the other side of the yard and got set up again.  I tried a few variations on the composition that I had worked out in my head and found that the only way to get this to work was to frame the sign tightly and crop out the part that had folded over at the bottom.  It actually felt more natural than I was thinking it would and I really liked how it was coming together.  There were also growing clouds in the background which made me happy.  I was shooting frames at around 20 seconds but needed more time to get the clouds to streak through the image.  I reached into my bag and pulled out my 5-stop ND Filter which gave me about a minute’s worth of exposure.  That still wasn’t enough, and I saw that there was a big bank of clouds getting ready to move behind the sign that I wanted to capture at around three minutes.  I did some quick calculations based on my current exposure readings and found that I could achieve my goal with a 10-stop filter.  That was showing to give me 3:20 worth of exposure and that would be just perfect.  I swapped out filters while leaving my polarizer attached.  I dialed in the exposure and waited for the clouds to enter into the frame.  It was a very long exposure and I wasn’t sure if I had the correct exposure because the lighting was getting very difficult with the back lighting getting brighter and brighter.  It was the words on the front of the sign that were so very important to me, and I didn’t want to lose those.

Yadkin Inn“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Mor-Slo 10-stop ND Filter, 131 seconds

When the camera finished the exposure I wanted for the results to pop up on the screen. When they did, I was very happy with what I was seeing.  It was the best image yet and I was sure that this would be the keeper of the day.  With the clouds moving over to where I might be able to use them for the other sign and the fact that the sun was now spreading light across the scene I decided to give that first sign another try with the stronger sunlight on it.  I picked everything up once again and moved back to the other side to get set up once again.  Since the clouds were looking different, I was able to use a different composition here that had a more fluid feel to it.  I still had the polarizer and the 10-stop filter attached which gave me a starting point for my exposure.  Knowing that the sun was brighter on the sign, I dialed back the shutter speed to 2:30 and let the first exposure fly.

When the image review popped up, I could tell that the sign was overexposed more than I thought I could deal with in post, so I decided on a shorter shutter speed of just two minutes.  I let that one get started and watched the seconds tick off on the top screen of the camera.  As the exposure neared completion the sun went behind a cloud and the sign went dark.  This was at roughly 1:15 on the exposure.  Knowing that I wasn’t going to blow the sign out with just that exposure, I decided to let it cook just a tad longer to get more exposure in the sky.  I stopped the exposure at 131 seconds which was just 11 more seconds than I had planned.  I was hoping that I had made the right choice.  When the image review came up, I saw no highlight clipping warnings and it appeared that my exposure was dead on for what I was after.  I ran several other exposures as the sky changed, but in the end, this was the one that I though had the best balance to it.

While working both of these images in the field, I was thinking that the first one would be black and white while the second one would be some level of a color image.  I knew that I wanted to give them both an arty feel, so that left things kind of open for me on the post processing side.  When I got home and started to work on them, neither of them felt right as a monochrome image.  They worked well that way, but I was left wanting color in both of them.  The first one, the motel sign just needed a touch of coolness to really sell the story, so I went with a very desaturated image leaning towards the cooler color temperatures.  I played with the different tones in a subtle way so that all of the colors complimented each other and set the mood.  Overall, I think that this is my favorite image of the day because of the way that it was presented.  The second image with that peeling and faded Yadkin Inn sign needed a bit more color to really emphasize the warmth of the sun on the sign.  I picked a color profile that allowed those warm tones to really shine through while muting the highlights.  From there, I just massaged the entire image until I was happy with how the different colors played with each other.  I was happy that I was able to bring out some of the warm tones it the clouds streaking by as that really helped to balance out the rusty tones and the reflected sunrise light off of the sign trim.

I had spent roughly an hour in that field walking through frozen grass to the point that my feet were numb.  I could barely feel my fingers and it was time to go.  I’m still not quite sure what is going on with the motel as there were cars in and out while I was there, but no signs of work on the building.  I’m at a loss as to the story here, but I do know that I had a lot of fun capturing the signs which I had just noticed the day before.  I had at least two images in the can and I was itching to find something else to photograph.  My creative juices were flowing quite well at this point, although there might have been a little bit of ice in those juices.

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

I continued back to the West on Old 421 looking for some other targets of opportunity.  I have been out this way a time or two in the past, but haven’t really done much in the way of hunting for subjects.  That was what I was doing…although mostly I was just soaking up the heat in the truck.  I found myself in a fantastic fog which was getting thicker and thicker.  The more I thought about it the more I considered a small farm that is visible from 421 near where I was driving.  It would help to simplify the background and would minimize the power lines that had been messing with the composition in the past.  I found the road that would lead me back to the highway so I could give that idea a go.  As I got closer to the highway though the fog started to fade.  I was starting to consider turning around in order to chase the fog, but I didn’t know what I would be shooting back that way.  There was still a chance that there was fog over the farm and I wanted to see how that would look.  Just before the ramp to the highway I saw something that caught my eye.  It was a shop of some sort with several vehicles parked around it.  There were also some old sleds from the late 70’s across the street.  It was a lot of potential, and the light was looking right for at least a few compositions.  I decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush and I got turned around, abandoning the chance of getting the farm in the fog.

I looked more critically at the cars on the East side of the road.  They weren’t particularly interesting and they were also backlit by the sun which would limit my compositions further than the environment already was dictating.  On the West side of the street, most of the cars around the shop weren’t photo worthy at all, but there was a Chevy sitting on the side by itself.  The sun was shining on that car and providing some warm light to accent the warm shades of rust on the car.  The morning dew and last night’s rain were saturating the colors of the car quite nicely and the blues and reds painted on the white building helped to make the car stand out.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was good enough to give it a few shots to see if I could do something with it.

I got the truck pulled off the road and got out to get the camera.  As soon as the door opened up a dog started to bark and I located it quickly.  Fortunately it was tied up to the dog house, but it was not happy that I was there.  As long as he wasn’t going to come running over to me I was going to take my chances.  I knew that I wasn’t going to need to get in too close to the car which meant that I was going to stay pretty much on the shoulder of the road in the parking lot for the business.  I wasn’t trespassing, and wasn’t intending on messing with anything so I just continued on.  I grabbed my 24-70mm lens and a polarizer which was my go-to in this type of situation.  I started working out the composition which was a little difficult to do.  There was no way to use the building as a total backdrop because the angles just wouldn’t work out.  The tail was extending well beyond the corner of the building.  I wanted to give the frame more breathing room on the front of the car, but in order to do that, I was going to have to include the front of the building which was getting beaten by the sun and that would have caused a very big problem with brightness at the left edge of the frame.  Not wanting to have that bright facia compete with the car, I opted to frame the image just at the corner of the building keeping as much of the shaded side as possible.  I then included the trees behind the car which rose up to the sky.  The first compositions were horizontal, but they just felt too claustrophobic to me, so I changed gears and flipped the camera on its side for a vertical composition.  That allowed me to include the tops of the trees as well as a good bit of the sky above which was looking rather interesting.

I had a much better composition with it being vertical, but the problem that I was running into was that there was a jet contrail streaking up on the right hand side of the frame which ruined the flow of the sky.  As I was making exposures I could tell that the contrail was moving from right to left.  The sky was looking even better beyond that so I opted to wait for the contrail to pass by and the better sky to arrive.  It didn’t take long and I could have done a long exposure to streak the sky, but the direction of the clouds was better than the direction of movement so I stuck with a normal exposure.  Once the contrail was out of the way, the better clouds were in the frame and I started to make exposures once again.  It was just a matter of picking the one that had the best light on the car as the sun was constantly in flux with clouds moving across the sky in front of the bright orb.  I did mange to get this one here which I think included all of the best qualities of the scene.  I had the warm light on the car, interesting clouds, breathing room around the image, and no jet contrail.  I had planned on doing some more work with the horizontal image, but after playing around with it for a while, I decided it was just too closed in and it lacked balance.

I didn’t stick around at this location long because the dog that was barking was starting to get other dogs riled up in the area.  The last thing I wanted to do was to be a nuisance for the sake of a photograph.  I decided to pack it all in and continue on down the road.  Since I was close to the highway, I decided to go ahead and get on there, but not for the farm that I had thought about before.  I was still quite happy with the sigh images from the beginning of the day and had been considering one more sign which I had seen for years off of 421.  This was the old Winston Cup Series sign that was beside the North Wilkesboro Speedway.  It was just an old billboard with layers of advertising peeling off of the face, but it said so much to me about this piece of North Carolina History.  The sky was still decent and I thought that I could do something similar to what I did with the motel signs there.  That became my new destination.

Watering Hole“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

When I exited the highway, I started North headed into North Wilkesboro.  There was an old gas station to the left that I had seen many times before.  In fact, I had tried to photograph there before since it had an old stock car sitting out where the pumps used to be.  Sadly this shell had been picked clean and there was no longer much interest here for me which had caused me to drive on by many times.  However, in the wake of the sign photography that I had been doing this morning, I paused as I went past looking at the Sprite sign out front.  it was a very old design and I found it particularly interesting today.  What I found even more interesting was the sky behind the gas station.  The clouds were radiating around the station in a way that begged to be photographed.  I pulled off the road into the neighboring business’ parking lot and started to get my gear.

As I was setting the tripod up there was a Ford truck that pulled in and went to the dumpster on the side of the business.  He was going to be in my shot, but knowing how these things worked there was a very high likelihood that he would leave after dumping the garbage.  I continued to get my camera set up with the 16-35mm lens.  I had a composition in mind that would include the Sprite sign as well as the building, canopy, and old stock car.  Knowing that I was going to be shooting wide, I didn’t add my polarizer because it would undoubtedly cause banding in the sky which I wanted to avoid.  It was going to be a simple shot if the truck would move.

I found the spot to set the camera up and started to dial in the composition.  As I was hoping the guy got back in the truck and cranked it up.  I was home free.  He would be gone in a minute….

Wait a minute….

He just pulled to the front door and turned the truck off.

The station was obviously not open so I wasn’t understanding what was going on.  It was too late in the morning for it to just be opening up, but there he was unlocking the front door and going in.  Could I have been so unlucky as to have missed this photographic opportunity by a matter of minutes?  I decided to hold out for a little while to see if maybe he would move the truck to a better parking place that was hopefully not in my shot.  After about a minute, which I had been using to get the composition fine tuned, he came out and climbed up in the truck.  He cranked up the motor and pulled forward.  I was feeling lucky again…but wait…

He stopped right in front of my camera and rolled the window down.  He asked me what I was doing.  My first thought was to give him the long answer, but I was watching the clouds moving out of the frame quicker than would allow that.  I simply answered “I’m taking a picture.”  I tried not to sound too smart-assy in my response.  I mean I was standing with a camera on a tripod, I probably wasn’t baking a cake.  Anyway, He asked what I was taking a picture of.  Ok, this was really testing my sarcastic nature and I fought back the urge to say something stupid.  I just simply said that I was shooting the building and the Sprite sign.  Then came the question….”Why?”  Well, my normal response would have been that I am a landscape and decay photographer and I really liked the scene as it fit in my wheelhouse of subjects.  I liked the old stock car, the timeless design of the building and canopy, and the dated sign out front rounded out the story which was then crowned by the awesome clouds above.  No, there was not time for all of that, so I just said “because it was pretty.”  Apparently that was the secret code because he told me to have fun with that and he was off.  I finally had my unfettered view of the building while the clouds were still perfect.

I cranked off a quick exposure and found that it was a tad overexposed with the sun glinting off of the building.  I also saw the opportunity to get rid of a power pole by correcting for a bit of perspective distortion.  This allowed me to open the lens up just a tad knowing that I would be throwing the upper edges out of the final mage once I set the verticals up.  That second exposure was the money shot here and I loved everything about it….except for the dumpster that was sitting to the rear of the stock car on the grassy median.  It was not a terrible distraction, but it was a distraction for me.  I wrestled with whether or not to leave it in the frame, or to clone it out.  After seeing how the image looked processed, I decided that I owed it to myself to try and get rid of it.  It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, and I was left with a much cleaner image.  Ideally I don’t like removing elements that are this big from an image, but since it didn’t affect the composition or the feeling of the scene one way or the other, I felt that it was permissible to remove it.

I didn’t stay here long as there was just the one picture that I wanted to capture here.  I thought about doing some isolations on the sign, but I decided against it.  This sign needed the rest of the scene to tell the story, and the scene needed this sign.  It just all worked together so nicely I didn’t want to ruin the formula that I had going.  I still had another sign to photograph a few more miles down the road and the light wasn’t going to get any better.

Series Finale“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Mor-Slo, 10-stop ND Filter, 20 seconds

I made my way to the back side of the speedway where the old billboard stood.  I had been by here before and decided that I didn’t want to photograph it because of the power pole and lines that were so close to it.  After my experience with the two signs from earlier this morning, I was feeling a little more able to work this problem out than I was before.  I got pulled off of the road and started to look at the scene.  The good light was on the East face of it which I suspected.  This also allowed me to capture the sign without any distractions behind it.  I just had to be careful with the pole and lines in front of it.  I could see one basic position where I could avoid the pole, and just get the power line in the frame.  That was going to be my best shot, so I pulled out the long lens and attached it to the camera.  Since I was shooting at the perfect angle to the sun, I added a polarizer to deepen the sky and give the sign a bit more pop.

I got the composition framed up as I had planned and it looked pretty good.  I only had a single power line to deal with in post later on and that wouldn’t be too difficult of a problem.  I started to make exposures with the clouds behind the sign.  My original concept was to make this a texture piece with the clouds in sharp focus to compliment the textures on the sign.  I quickly decided that this wasn’t going to be good.  There were too many textures going on and the sign was no longer the focal point like I wanted.  It was time to lengthen the exposure again like I had this morning.  I was figuring about two minutes would work out just fine and that was going to mean a 10-stop ND filter would need to be added.

After I got that slid in and the exposure compensated I fired off a two minute exposure.  When it was finished I looked at the LCD.  There was no definition at all in the sky and that was no good.  It was just a pale blue and it lacked any drama at all.  I figured that I needed a quicker shutter speed at this point and started making faster exposures by adjusting the aperture.  Nothing was working out, and I eventually decided to take it off of bulb mode and go back into manual.  From there I could use the histogram and keep my exposures under 30 seconds.  I found that was the key to giving me the sky that I wanted, and eventually shortened the exposure to 20 seconds which looked to be perfect.

I had made a lot of exposures of this sign over the course of about 20 minutes at this point.  Of those exposures I was pretty sure that I had one that would work.  Since there were no other compositions to be had here, I decided to pack it all in.  It had been a fun morning and with all of the exposure trials that I had done I was looking at 98 frames of just five subjects.  It was a lot, and I was figuring that I would have either five or six images when it was all said and done.  My goal was to process most of these in a fine art style and possibly go with monochrome for a couple of them.  As it turned out, I did all of them in color which surprised me.  It was the broken Motel sign that won my heart for the day though.  It just captured that feeling that I wanted so well.  My second favorite image was the one of the old gas station primarily because of the sky above it.  That image just came together so beautifully and was just what I wanted when I had never even considered this composition before.

If one of these is your favorite and you are interested in getting a print, I would be happy to get that print into your hands.  You can either order it directly through my gallery store, or you can email me and we can work out the options.  If you are interested in how I edited these images I am considering doing a live webinar format run-though of my editing process in the next couple of days.  I I get enough feedback to make it worth my while I will add it to my store here and will charge $10 for each viewer to get a link to the webinar.  It won’t be a tutorial, but I will talk about how I edited the image and take you through the edit from RAW to finished.

I hope that you enjoyed this trek and that you liked the images that are a little different from my normal decay images.  It is fun to step outside of the box from time to time and try something a little different.  I’m thrilled with how these came out.  Hopefully it will be an opening into some new directions that I can take my photography in the future.  Remember, if you are looking to expand your own photography, I am doing an online class titled “An Introduction to the ‘Art’ of Photography” starting the last Saturday in February, and wrapping up the following Saturday.  I hope that you will join me as we will learn the creative basics of photography and how to use the settings to your advantage.

Until next time…

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