Social Distancing After Dark

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Saturday, April 11, 2020

While I’m not exactly going stir crazy just yet, I am getting tired of not working as a photographer during all of this social distancing and quarantining that is going on.  I am still being very responsible and going out as little as possible, but I am starting to look for things that I can do with the camera while still falling into the guidelines set due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  I started out with a local area which I hadn’t photographed before, I’ve been out in the backyard to shoot some pictures, and I’ve gotten an image after making a print delivery on the way back home.  All of these were welcome treks which allowed me to play with the camera a bit and create some new images while I was at it.  I’ve been very lucky that the images which I’ve captured have actually been quite good considering the amount of effort that I have been able to put into them.  I was still wanting to get out on a planned shoot where I had a working idea of what I wanted to capture.  That is kind of hard to do right now since what I am really wanting to shoot is landscapes.  Most of those areas are either closed off, or so crowded that I want to steer far away from them.  My secondary subject matter would be doing some rural photography but that so often entails knocking on the door of the property owners.  All of this makes it really difficult to plan out a trek on any real level.

As the weekend got started the weather was bright and sunny for the most part which wasn’t all that great for photography so I wasn’t feeling like I was missing out, but at the same time I was itching to be creative with the camera.  I was thinking about some options that I had and nothing really set right with me.  I got to thinking that this was the month that my Spring Decay Workshop was supposed to take place, but that had to be canceled for safety reasons.  I really hated that because the location for that workshop always looks good in the Spring.  That got me thinking about the idea of going out there for a few pictures.  I’ve been out there so many times already though that I wasn’t sure I would get anything any different than before.  Plus the sun was a little harsh and that makes for extremely difficult exposures.  However, what if I removed the sun from the equation and just went out during the blue hour and into the night to do some light painting?  That might just work out.  I would have the added benefit of being completely alone since Dean would be closing up the shop before nightfall.

When I had the plan pretty much set in my head and had a fuzzy concept of what I would be doing, I gave him a text to see if he minded me coming out to the shop and doing a little light painting.  Even though he has given me pretty much blanket permission to be on his property, I still like to make sure he knows I’m coming out there so that he can let the neighbors know not to shoot me.  I mean, I was planning on being out among his project and parts vehicles with a flashlight in the middle of the night.  Nothing at all suspicious about that!  Of course, Dean was happy to have me come out and said to stay as long as I wanted to.  He has always been awesome like that.  With that confirmation, I was ready to set things in motion for the night.  I already had the camera in the truck, I just needed to charge up the rechargeable Maglite which I have used as a background fill light on several occasions.

Speaking of flashlights, I wanted to try something a little different with this set of images.  I have usually used my incandescent Maglite for doing my light painting since it is a very warm light that tends to work well with the rusty hues of these old cars.  I was still wanting to use that primarily, but I was thinking that I might want to introduce a different color temperature to the mix by using my LED Maglite which I keep in the back of the 4Runner.  It is very bright, but it has a cooler color temperature and even a little bit of a green cast to it.  I was thinking that the contrast in light sources would provide some interesting elements to the images.

With everything ready to go, I headed out the door after dinner at roughly 7:15 and was driving into the setting sun bound for Outlawed Restorations.  It was nice to get out of the house again and to have a photographic destination in mind.  I was getting excited about the prospects of the evening.  Dean had told me that there was a new truck on the property and I was excited to see how it looked.  I was also excited to see what he had out in the front of the shop since he has always left something interesting out there for me in the past.  I was going to have plenty of time to scope out compositions when I got there before the sun went down which is pretty important when you are working in the pitch dark.

When I arrived, Dean was still in the shop and came out to greet me (from six feet away with a virtual handshake).  We chatted for a little while and he took me into the shop to check out the process on a ’55 Ford truck that is being powered by a 5.0L Coyote engine out of a late model Mustang.  The dash and firewall from that Mustang have been grafted into the truck and it is coming together very nice.  I’m really hoping for a chance to shoot this truck when he gets it finished.  I think it will be absolutely amazing as he is a true artist with metal and fabrication.  Anyway, after visiting for a little bit, it was time for me to get to work.  I grabbed my gear and headed outside to get started.

Haunting Classic“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2 , No filters, 199 seconds, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

It was now getting dark and I didn’t have much time to scope things out.  I had seen the new truck which was over on the far side of the property next so some other trucks.  It wasn’t anything that I was going to be able to work with right this moment, so I took a quick look around the shop as the sun dipped down below the horizon.  There was a nice Ford truck out in the front of the shop where I could very easily get an image of it, but the lighting was wrong for the image at the time.  It just wasn’t inspiring at all.  I looked at an old chopped Ford without an engine that I have made some good images of in the past, but again the light wasn’t right.  The only subject that I thought was ready to be photographed was the Oldsmobile tucked between two barns.  This Delta 88 is one that I had shot on a number of occasions and had done some light painting with it before.  One of the things that I had wanted to change with the image was to have a little more detail in the background which would necessitate more light.  I had that light now, and I could see the sky through the trees while the barn and trees still had plenty of detail.  It was dark enough to where the flashlight would make the car jump off of the background.  I got the camera all set up to get that front quarter shot with the trees framing the car as I had done in the past.

After setting the composition I started to look at the exposure and figured that it was just getting dark enough to start making some exposures at f/8 which would allow enough light into the camera while giving me enough depth of field to make the image work.  I switched the camera over to the bulb setting so that I could just leave the shutter open as long as I needed to.  I locked the focus on the front of the car and plugged in the remote release.  I locked the exposure open and listened to the 10 second count down which told me when the exposure was going to start which allowed me to get into position with the flashlight.

I was starting with the brighter battery operated incandescent light which was my favorite for this type of photography.  When the beeping finished and the shutter slid open in my camera I lit the front corner of the fender and started my meticulous painting process with the light.  However, something was wrong.  After maybe two seconds the light lost about 75% of its intensity.  I cycled the power button, but the light was still very dim.  Apparently the batteries were toast in this light after a winter of being in the tripod bag in the back of the truck.  I continued with the painting process to see if the dim light would have enough juice to make it work.  I was doubtful, but this would be a test image anyway to see how the ambient light was affected by the long exposure.  After I had painted the car with light I went back to the camera and stopped the exposure.  The image review popped up and I could tell that the light was not going to be any good for this night.  The exposure was good as far as ambient light though which was a good thing.

On the subsequent exposures, I used a mix of lights as I had intended originally.  I used the LED light for the highlights of the car and the background elements that I wanted to bring out.  The warm light was reserved for the rusty areas of the car and the foreground elements.  This worked out pretty well and gave the image some character that I really liked.  As the light in the sky faded, I got less and less detail in the background, but was getting my double light technique fine tuned.  My favorite image was about midway through the process and took just under 200 seconds to complete with both lights.  It had everything that I was after with the dual color temperatures represented and the deep blue of the sky in the background seeping through the trees.  It was just what I had envisioned!

However, when I got home, this image lacked a lot for me.  The colors were pale and to make them pop I was going to have to introduce more saturation that I wanted to.  I liked the concept, but the end result wasn’t quite what I had in mind unfortunately.  All was not lost though, I had also considered doing some of these images as a black and white presentation to add to the ethereal look of the scenes.  I made a quick conversion in Lightroom and saw that I would be able to get the image looking really good by removing the colors altogether.  I worked with the contrasts in the image until I had the right balance and in the end, I actually had an image that was true to my vision as far as impact and detail goes.  It had a certain quality that brought to mind this old classic coming out of a grave as a ghost of some sort.  I thought that fit this old car with the characteristic grimace thanks to a tree that had fallen across the hood.  I was well on my way with one in the bag.  I was feeling more creative even though I was down a major player in my flashlight arsenal.

Rust in the Blue Hour“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 197 seconds

I moved over just a few feet to another location that I had considered shooting.  I have always wanted a very dramatic look at the grill on this old rat rod and thought that I might be able to get it tonight.  I started to look at the grill and found that since the car had been moved, it was no longer resting on the ground which really showed the low slung nature of this car.  I couldn’t get the image to really come together the way I was wanting so I started to look at other compositions with this car.  While I was looking at it I saw the potential of being able to use the two different lights to good effect here.  The plan was to use the warm light to illuminate the rusty tones on the car and the roof while the cooler tones would be used on the wood siding of the old house as well as the grass to give a little color contrast to the scene.  The sky was still bright enough that I was pretty sure that it would represent as a really cool shade of blue to balance out the warm rusty tones.

I got the camera set up fro this one pretty quick.  I had to use the flashlight to light the scene so I could see where things were lining up in relationship to each other.  The camera was dropped really low to the ground so that the chopped coupe would block the clutter behind it well enough for the composition to make sense.  I left the camera set to f/8 and started the exposures.  It took me three attempts to get this image here which was a duration of just about exactly what the Oldsmobile had been.  This was a good deal more difficult to light since I was actually lighting two different subjects in the frame with two different light sources.  Looking at the image on the image review I was pretty happy with how it turned out.  The sky was glowing behind the trees which I was hoping for and the car and house both exposed well with the added light from the two flashlights.  The ground even had a little visual interest to it from the quick swipe that I took with the LED light.  It took a little massaging in Lightroom to get it just the way I wanted, but the end result was very true to my vision and turned into one of my favorite images of this old rat rod.  With a slight crop to a 16:9 aspect ratio I was sold on the composition and layout of the image.

I was feeling like I was on a roll now.  The sky was doing great things and I was feeling more confident with using the brighter LED light for these exposures.  I decided it was time to look out in front of the shop as that is usually my last stop before going and I always wish I had tried it earlier in the evening.  I started to look at how things were positioned and decided that I would do well shooting from the opposite side that I normally do which would put the porch light of the shop in the background and leave the Ford truck in the shadow which was just fine for my purposes.  I debated on including the gas pump at the corner of the shop, but decided against it as that would add too many elements to the image without it adding to the story of the truck.  I framed the image so that I was able to get a little of the sky and trees above the shop to give a sense of scale to the image and fired off a test shot as I painted around the truck.

Copper Feet“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters 86 seconds

When my test image was done I realized a couple of problems with the exposure.  First of all, I figured that the porch light was going to blow out, but this was really badly blown out.  I had made an exposure of around two minutes at f/8 and that was just too much light into the lens.  In order to reduce the intensity of the porch light, I was gong to have to limit the light that came into the lens, but by stopping down too much, my light painting wouldn’t be as efficient which would cause the shutter to be open much longer leading to the same problem.  I remembered how I dealt with this the last time I shot a truck with this light included and decided to stop down to f/11 which would dim the light while allowing the light painting to still be effective over a shorter amount of time.  I was aiming for a 90 second exposure at this point which should reduce the intensity of the porch light quite a bit.

I tried another exposure with that idea in place and ended up with just under two minutes which was better, but not quite right.  I was on the right track with the formula though, and I was pretty sure if I could keep it below a minute and a half that the exposure would work out.  That brought me to my second exposure problem that I needed to deal with.  The face of the shop on the left side was in shadows and wasn’t getting much light for detail.  I didn’t want to use the LED light to light that since it would make the scene much too cool.  I didn’t have the time to use the lower power warm light after painting the truck as that would have added another 30 seconds to a minute.  My best option was to widen the beam of the warm light and use it static on the background.  Knowing that it would have an arch, I decided to use that in the image to help bring the attention to the truck cab.  I placed the light on the bedside just behind the cab and pointed it to the wall.  I checked the position and fine tuned it until it was just as I wanted it to be.  I then got ready for another exposure.

I locked the shutter button with the remote and got into position waiting for the beeping to stop.  When it did I knew that the shutter was open.  I started to count out loud while I was painting the truck.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand… and so one.  I did this out loud until I got to eighty-five-one thousand and ran back to the camera to stop the exposure at 90 seconds.  It turned out to be only 86 seconds, but that was perfect.  I had a really nice exposure and the histogram showed that I had plenty of detail in the image that I could work with.  I was pretty sure that I had the image that I wanted, but just to be sure, I shot two other frames with the same basic formula.  The exposures were close to the same which allowed me to pick the one that I liked the best without having to compromise on different elements in the image.

For me, the best part of this image was the color balance.  The truck was white and blue with some rust mixed in which was cool for the most part and the perfect candidate for the cool LED light.  The building was very warm in color tone thanks to the porch light and the incandescent light that was shining on it which contrasted well with the cool truck.  The icing on the cake was the copper wheels on the truck that matched the siding of the shop almost perfectly which rounded out the image.  There was just enough detail left in the sky with this narrow aperture and relatively short exposure to provide the qualities that I was after, although I would have liked to have had a bit more exposure in the sky.  However, for the compromises that I had to make on this image, I am thrilled with the outcome.  I shot about a half dozen attempts here in order to get what I was wanting and it was the only image that I had to rush on to expose out of everything that I had shot for the night.  That porch light really makes things difficult when it comes to how long the exposure can last.

Emerging Rust“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 161 seconds

After doing what I was feeling like the most difficult image I was looking forward to going back to a simpler type of image.  I decided that I was going to go back over to the new truck that was on the edge of the property and give it a try.  There wasn’t anything all that special about the truck other than it was a new truck.  It was just a cab, but relatively complete which was nice.  Dean had it backed into the trees so it looked like the tree was actually giving birth to the truck.  I looked at the scene for a while with the help of a flashlight to see how I wanted to shoot this one.  I figured that a simple composition with the cab of the truck coming out of the right side of the frame with darkness to the left.  I was pretty sure that I was going to be cropping the image to reduce the amount of negative space on the left, but I figured I would leave that decision up to when I saw it on the computer later on.  I got the composition all set and locked my focus on the hood ornament before locking the shutter release.

I painted the truck for about two minutes using the warm light since the truck was mostly a rust color.  At the end of the exposure I closed the shutter and looked at the LCD.  Much to my surprise it was all very dark.  It was only then that I realized that I had forgotten to open the aperture back up to f/8 which was what I was used to working with.  I did that and repeated the exposure.  It went about two minutes and I stopped the exposure to look at the LCD.  That was much better with the histogram looking more like I was expecting.  The problem was the truck looked flat and lifeless bathed in an overly warm glow.  I had an idea to address that though.  I would use the LED light to splash some more intense cool light on certain areas of importance to break up the warm tones.

I started the exposure once again and did a completely paint with the warm light followed by a quick punch of LED light to the headlights, hood ornament, turn signal, and glass to give a little contrast.  I also hit the tree branch above with the more powerful light knowing that would give the leaves a little added punch and presence.  I stopped the exposure after 161 seconds which surprised me since I was adding another light source to my painting but was still getting similar exposure times.  It was just what was needed though.  The histogram looked good and splashes of LED light really set the image off just like I had wanted.  I was right to expect a crop and ended up doing just that when I got it home on the computer.  The crop was able to really localize the attention in the frame and gave the truck the visual weight that it needed.  It was a very simple image considering the much more complex ones that I had been working with through the evening, but I do like simple with it comes to light painting.  They require much less time to reshoot in order to get things the way that you wanted them.

Hope for a New Day“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 300 seconds

I was about to be done at this point, but felt that I had one more scene in me.  I started to look along the back row of vehicles to see if there was another one that caught my eye.  Not much had changed back here and I had shot them all at one time or another over the years.  I just wasn’t quite ready to quit just yet.  The only subject that made sense was the fire truck parked by the big barn.  I really hadn’t expected this truck to be here since I knew that the rebuild was ready to get underway.  I wasn’t unhappy to see it as I have gotten some of my favorite images from here with this truck in the past.  I had told myself that I wasn’t going to photograph it again tonight because I had an image that I was really happy with from a previous time out here.  I’ve tried to adhere to the principle of “If I can’t shoot it better than before, why bother?” here in the last few years to keep me from recreating the same images as before, or capturing images that are destined not to be added into the gallery.  That was almost enough to keep me from photographing this firetruck one more time before it went under the knife.


I was watching the sky and saw that there were clouds moving quickly across the sky and the stars were out.  This was going to add a little bit of a different vibe to a light painting attempt on this truck.  I knew that there was a strong composition using the truck and the splitting tree behind it as a visual anchor while letting the trees open up to the left of the frame to show the sky.  If I played my cards right, I would be able to get an image that showed off some color and movement in the sky which was my biggest reason in shooting this scene.  It was worth a try, so I set the camera up in a very familiar location.  I composed the image using the light from my flashlight and locked the focus on the grill of the old truck.

Since the truck was white (in color as well as manufacturer) I decided to embrace that with the cooler LED flashlight which I would have to be very careful with since it was so bright.  It would be all too easy to burn the white in the exposure and blow it out.  I was going to need to do this quickly to keep the exposure right.  I left the camera stopped down to f/8 because I really wanted to keep the ambient light of the sky behind the truck.  With all of this in mind I started the exposure and moved across the truck quickly and then focused my attention the tree which I wanted to be visible in the light as well.  I ended up with about a three minute exposure when I was all finished.  The histogram looked good and I didn’t blow out anything on the truck which was good.  The tree looked fair, but I needed to give it a bit more attention.  The biggest problem that I had was the sky in the background.  it was far too dim for my liking and just looked like a dark void.  I was going to need more exposure to get the sky to render the way I wanted it.

I set up for another exposure and released the shutter.  I painted the truck as I had before and then spent more time on the tree.  I hovered on the tree trunks for what seemed like three minutes whistling a song to myself to pass the time.  I felt that I had a long enough exposure so I went back to the camera and stopped it.  This image looked much better at just over four minutes, but the truck wasn’t as well exposed as the first one.  I decided to go again and said that I would let it go for a total of 300 seconds, or 5 minutes to get the sky just a little brighter and to let the stars streak just a little more for added impact.

I started the exposure again and hit the parts of the truck that I had missed before and tried to get nice even lighting over the whole thing.  I then moved my attention to the tree and settled down for a nice restful session of illuminate the wood.  This went on for a very long time and I was sure that I had enough light on the tree to make it pop.  I then hit the grass just to add to the foreground interest of the scene before going back to the camera.  I was at 250 seconds which wasn’t enough for the sky to render like I liked so I let it run for a while longer.  I was no longer adding any light to the scene, only letting the ambient light build up.  At 300 seconds I closed the shutter and waited for the LCD to pop up the review image.  I had nailed it, and had gotten some great color in the sky as well as a bank of clouds that had moved in overhead.  This was the image that I wanted and I was pretty sure that it was going to be better than the last time I painted this truck.

Just to be sure that I had the image that I wanted, I flipped the camera on its side and repeated the process vertically.  My intention was to get the truck and the tree in case the sky didn’t come out as well as I had thought it would.  I repeated the process, but painted the tree much higher which took more time.  I still stopped the exposure at 300 seconds and captured a small segment of the sky in the frame.  I liked this one in the camera, but when I got home, there was no comparison between the two compositions.  The horizontal one won out by a long shot.  It actually turned into my favorite image of the night which was saying something considering I was very happy with each of these images.

Light painting is a very fun technique that I started getting into last fall and I’ve gotten better and better at it as I’ve practiced more with it.  I think that it fits this particular subject matter so well with the colors and textures.  I’m happy that I have added the cool light source to the mix and am looking forward to getting my brighter incandescent light back in service.  Considering that my primary light wasn’t a part of the evening I am extremely happy with how these turned out and am very impressed at my ability to adjust to equipment problems.  Of course, the batteries dying was something that I really should have checked on before going out and I’ll do that next time for sure.  All in all, it was a really great evening and I am just thrilled with the resulting images.

If any of these speak to you, please let me know so we can start the process of getting a print in your hands so that you can truly enjoy the image as it was intended.  There is just no substitute for seeing a tangible photograph in your hands.  A computer screen will never show the artist’s true vision because of all of the inconsistencies with monitor settings, and the reduced color space of the internet.  I would love to help you get that special image up on your wall to be enjoyed and appreciated for all time.

Thank you for joining me on this trek.  It was a great evening to get out and I am happy that I got to see Outlawed Restorations in the Spring even though my workshop has been canceled.  If you are interested in shooting some of these subjects, I do have another workshop scheduled here in the fall which will be an all day workshop.  Without patting myself on the back, this is one of the best workshops that I put on and it is one that covers a topic that is not often found in workshops.  I’m just hoping that things have gone back to somewhat normal by then so I don’t have to cancel that workshop either.

Until next time…