Yard Art at Night

· Reading Time: 10 minutes

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

It feels like it has been forever since I was out with the camera.  The weather hasn’t been all that great until this past weekend when I found myself not feeling so good.  In fact, I am still getting over whatever has been bothering me since Friday, but I had waited long enough to get back out and try something.  Knowing that the weather was going to be clear for most of the day, I opted to get an early start and do a little light painting to get the day off to a semi normal start.  I knew just the subject that I wanted to photograph too.  I had been keeping an eye on this old VW Bug at a European repair shop that is on the way to my Grandfather’s place.  They have this really cool rusted out Bug sitting on the corner of their parking lot surrounded by brick pavers and sitting on a bed of pine straw.  It is obviously yard art, and not my typical decay setting since it is very staged.  However, the Bug just has this cool quality that I can’t quite dispute.

Every time I go by there I think about how I could photograph it. The composition would be rather cluttered as it is flanked by buildings, fences, billboards, a huge gas station, and whatever is sitting in the parking lot beside of it.  I’ve stopped there a few times with my cell phone and looked for compositions that would minimize those things without any luck.  No matter where I put the camera, there was something that was fighting for the attention with the bug.  For probably a year I struggled with how I would photograph this scene.  A few months ago, I had decided that doing a little light painting would be the best choice for this subject, but even that had its drawbacks.  First of all, there was a lot of ambient light from the street lights and from the gas station across the street.  There were also lights on the shop in the parking lot that had to be taken into consideration.  Traffic could potentially be another problem as headlights moved across the scene and added yet another source of light that I couldn’t control.  All of that was just elements that I would have to adjust to as I set the shot up.  The biggest concern was what was parked next to the car in the parking lot.

It seemed like every time I went by this car there was a late model Audi or BMW parked next to it.  That just didn’t tell the story that I wanted to tell.  Occasionally the space next to it would be empty, but a couple spaces down would be something large and white that would show up all too well in an image.  It just wasn’t the time to capture this one.  About a week ago, I was driving by and saw that things had changed and I really liked what I was seeing.  There was now a VW Bus parked next to the Bug.  This was perfect!  They were both Volkswagons from the same generation.  I didn’t care for the burgundy color on the van, but I couldn’t be too picky.  That night was just too cold to go out and try to do anything with night photography, and then when it started to warm up the rains came.  I was also not too steady on my feet.  I had to put it off and hope that the van was still going to be there when I felt up to shooting the car.

That was where I was this morning just before 5am when Toni woke me up on her way to work.  Would I be lucky enough to have the van still be there after nearly a week of putting this off?  Could I pull off a good light painting shot with all of the ambient light that was around the area?  Could I even get a composition that I liked?  I couldn’t answer those questions in bed, and before I talked myself out of trying, I got up and got ready to go.  It only took me about 20 minutes since I knew I would be back before the sun came up for my breakfast.  The trip out there took about 10 minutes during which I spent most of the time figuring that when I got out there the van would be replaced by something that wouldn’t work out.  I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to create an image like what I had been imagining for quite some time.

Some of my questions were answered as I rounded the corner and saw the Bug.  The van was still parked next to it!  OK, I could deal with this.  At least my success or failure for this shot would be mine and mine alone.  I had as good of a scene as I had observed for the last year.  The lights weren’t too bright in that corner of the parking lot, so I was feeling pretty confident that if I stopped the lens down a just a little from normal I would be able to control the light enough.  I got parked and grabbed my gear.  I knew that I was going to be getting in close and shooting wide both for the effect that I was after and to keep me out of the road.  I went ahead and selected my 16-35mm lens which I rarely use for automotive photography, but there are times when it is the best one to use.  I thought that this would be one of those times.  There was no need for filters, but I was going to be shooting long exposures so I added my remote shutter release before mounting the camera to the Acratech Ballhead.

I took the whole rig over to the corner where I intended to shoot the car.  My first composition started out with the Manfrotto tripod very low to the ground so that the van would block the wallpack light on the side of the building.  There was another parking lot light that was also blocked by the van which was nice.  There was a bright glow on the building, but there was nothing that I could do about that.  I framed up the shot that included the brick pavers and tried a 30 second exposure at f/11.  It was a little dark, even with the extra painting which I just didn’t have enough time to build the effect as I wanted.  The next exposure was set to Bulb and went for about 70 seconds which gave me plenty of time to paint the whole car. That one turned out pretty nice, but the composition was not all that strong.  I had moved into a less than flattering position just to avoid the light on the wall.  Since I had a workable image there, I moved to my right just a little bit and started to compose a shot that captured the Big from the front quarter and offset it from the van behind it.

The composition flowed much better, but I had a very bright wallpack light to deal with now.  I stopped the lens down to f/13 to see if that might help control that light a little bit.  I knew that I was going to have to be quick with the light painting since every second that the shutter was open there was a very bright light source beaming right into the camera.  I got the composition fine tuned and started to do some painting.  I was finding that the wallpack wasn’t causing too much problem, or at least no more than I was willing to accept.  The trick was getting all of the car painted without wasting time.  I had exposures ranging from 70 seconds to nearly 2 minutes.  They all had different looks to them which is the magic of this type of photography.

After a total of nine exposures I decided that I had enough to work with when I got home.  Traffic was building and the headlights were starting to cause me problems anyway.  I packed everything away in my Lowepro bag and made my way to Chic-fil-a to get a vanilla milkshake.  Yes, I know that sounds odd, and it wasn’t my breakfast.  It was actually a treat for my 99 year old Grandfather who loves their milkshakes.  It would be waiting until Christmas morning in the freezer for him to have for his breakfast.  Yeah, we do things strange sometimes.

When I got home and started to go through the images, I was more impressed with the original composition than I had thought I would be.  There was also a square crop and a native horizontal image that I liked.  I started to work doing the processing on two of them which were my favorites and found that the exposure between the two were very similar.  The difference was the composition.  I debated on the two compositions for much longer than I was used to doing, but in the end chose the more dynamic composition which included the wallpack light.  It just conveyed the story better than the other composition I thought.  I did crop it down to a 5×7 frame to eliminate some of the extraneous details on the sides.

A Bug to the Light“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 87 seconds

This was one of those examples where I did a lot of post production work to it on a local adjustment level.  I probably worked on this image for about 45 minutes which is a lot for me.  When it was all finished, I toggled between the original and the finished image and saw very little difference between the two on a grand scale.  There were just some added highlights and changes in saturation levels.  It was all quite subtle, but there was a noticeable difference in the presence of the Bug in the finished image which was my goal for this photograph.  I did have to be very careful with the use of warm and cool tones in the picture though as I wanted to keep a very balanced image overall in terms of color contrasts.  The overall look of the scene was rather warm when I got done which I wanted to tone down.  In order to do that, I actually embraced something that I usually try to minimize.  That is the blue hue to the pavement.  Normally I will warm that to neutralize the pavement a touch, but this time, I wanted the cool tones in those shadow areas so I actually cooled the color temperature just slightly there and added some saturation back which I had taken out of the surrounding elements early on.  There was a lot that went into this image, but it is actually still very much true to the RAW file that I started with.

The resulting image is one that is a little different from my normal decay shots since it is quite obviously yard art in its execution.  However, I think that the way that I captured it compliments that fact and embraces the stylized look of the scene.  I know that it does simplify the background so the light painting did just what I was hoping.  The light on the building, well I chose to embrace that.  With the narrow aperture, I ended up with a star effect around it, and you can just see one of the beams flowing across the parking lot, in front of the van, to the Bug.  I left that alone as it was a nice little subtle detail that linked the light and the bug which helped to make the elements cohesive.  I’m not sure how well this one will be received, but I’m really happy with what I got after a year of figuring out how best to capture the scene.

Thanks for joining me on this really quick Trek that got me home long before the sun came up.  I hope that everyone has a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Until next time…