This past Friday, Jenny and I headed for SR 183, a stretch of road that links Castroville and Salinas, to find some funky stuff to photograph. We sought abandoned buildings, aging farm equipment, and rusting cars, hoping to convey the somber, strange, and even spiritual quality of the roadside at night. Once more we would experiment with the selected application of light in a long-exposure photograph. In other words, we're learning the art of light painting.
Our first lesson this time was the most basic: It's kind of silly to seek subjects for night-shooting - at night. This instinct gnawed at me as soon as we tossed our gear in the car, but I didn't realize it until we got fully underway. The combination of high speed driving, low hanging fog, and unfamiliar surroundings creates a navigational miasma in which we'd be lucky to find anything worth shooting at all. As experienced neon-photographers, this had never before been a problem for us; those destinations sometimes beckon from miles away. But when it comes to non-lit objects, it's better to scout locations by day and return at night with a specific idea in mind.
Fortunately I've long been able to trust my beginner's luck, specifically that quality of grace which allows me to enjoy good fortune the first time I try something (and the all-but-guaranteed certainty that I'll enjoy much less fortune if I push my luck a second time). So we plowed onward through the fog toward an unknown destination, me knowing (well, being pretty sure) that things would work out. Sure enough, after we pulled onto a farm road leading away from 183, we spotted a cool looking windmill; we knew this would work.
Still, we encountered some of the strangeness of practicing light painting in an unfamiliar environment. With any occasional burst of headlights coming our way, I suffered a sinking sensation of dread, and not just because our shot might be marred by the introduction of unplanned illumination. No, I felt weird, as if photographing a windmill from a public road is somehow illegal. I suppose the feeling arises from the reality that we plainly look suspicious, shining flashlights and taking pictures at night. Anticipating an awkward conversation with, say, a county sheriff investigating those strange lights, it'd be hard to articulate precisely why this kind of work makes sense.
Needless to say, I currently lack the confidence to tackle real guerrilla shoots - what some folks label Urban Exploration - at places that attract my interest. Oh sure, I yearn to bring a camera to contemporary boneyards at night, to traipse through abandoned motels, decaying diners, and nondescript junkyards, to photograph the obsolete stuff of modern life when the ghosts wander about. But those adventures demand a willingness to trespass, which to me raises the specter of late-night encounters that may be less pleasant than an impromptu chat with the law. That's why we're sticking (so far) with places that are publicly accessed and easily exited.
This shoot was a nice start, a chance to practice techniques that will allow for more flexibility and creativity in the future. Using the viewfinder, which is so much better than the camera's "live view," we were able to set a decent horizontal line (though I still ended up using Photoshop's "distort" option when we got home). At that point, we used our headlights to coax a good focus and set about lighting the scene. We employed our handy Maglite (along with a cheap Rayovac that throws wider, softer light) to paint the buildings and fields. It took a little finagling to create a nice image of a windmill and quonset hut, foregrounded by rows of produce [above].
These two images are my favorites, though we took about three hours to get them. As we're still learning the art of light painting, much of our time was spent conferring on technical issues and trying to suss out the answers to unexpected dilemmas. Of course we ooh'd and ahh'd at the pinwheel effect of stars turning overhead. But mostly we worked on problem-solving. Among the things we learned:
• f/5.6 is a useful baseline aperture for light painting. I gained confirmation of this fact after rereading Troy Paiva's "Note on Technique" in his 2003 book, Lost America. [a side note: Paiva's book, with its eerie collection of industrial detritus, inspired this project. I hope I can attend one of his weekend workshops one day and learn from a real master.]
• Many shots require far less time than than we thought: between one and two minutes, which is a good thing. Longer exposures increase the risk of noise, that pixely grain that shows up when a camera's sensor heats over time (of course, lowering the ISO to the equivalent of 100 is a good way to avoid that problem).
• "Red skies," sometimes caused by an excess of ambient industrial lighting, can be cured by setting the white balance for incandescent sources. Normally we stick with the camera's auto-white balance mode, but our D5000 seemed to switch its metering midway through this shoot. Fortunately the fix was easy and the results were obvious.
• Lighting empty space is harder than it looks.
We found that our initial method of painting our car's interior, Jenny swinging a green-gel covered flashlight, produced visible "brush strokes" that detracted from the image. After some experimentation, we agreed that diffused light is better than direct light. In this case, Jenny had the brilliant idea of simply taping a green gel over the car's dome light.
When we hope to light larger empty spaces in future shoots, we will likely rely on multiple bursts of a detached camera flash unit, preferably being reflected against a natural or artificial barrier. Of course, that means we are now in the market for a cheap but decent flash, and we might even search for a photographer's umbrella.
For now we have our memories of CA 183 and the moment when we got this shot [below]. So many times, Jenny and I would study the results of an experiment and wonder, "What went wrong?" But when we saw this image, with its alien glow and unexpectedly gorgeous background illumination, we knew...
We can do this.
(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)