Shooting and processing HDR night photography from Mare Island

Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock
Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock

The Nocturnes head honcho Tim Baskerville lives on Mare Island, and has been hosting occasional night photography events there since 2006. Mare Island Naval Shipyard was established in 1854, and decommissioned in 1996. A wide variety of old buildings and dry docks remain. Mare Island has enough lighting for night photography whether there is a full moon or not. The mixed lighting conditions can be challenging for night photography. Below are four images from last Saturday's adventure, along with notes about how to shoot and process HDR night photography. The dry docks and cranes at Mare Island are always a interesting subject for night photography. Unfortunately, these areas are fenced, which makes getting a good camera position tough. A lot of photographers at the event marveled at my solution to this problem. I have a Gitzo 3541XLS tripod (now the Gitzo 3542XLS) that goes up to 6.6 feet tall. Add the height of the ballhead and camera, and you can easily shoot over a standard fence, which is how I got this shot.

The image is composed of a five shot bracket of 8 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. The 5 images were blended together using Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. Then I brought the blended image into Photoshop. Using a layer mask, I used the foreground from the blended HDR image, and the sky from the 2 minute exposure.

Natural Looking HDR

<rant> HDR is a dirty word (or dirty acroynm) in some circles, due to rampant abuse of HDR software. I used to blend exposures on a layer mask to make sure my photos looked like photos instead of clown puke. Over the last few years I've realized that HDR can be used for very natural looking results. I want my photographs to look like photographs, not some bad Photoshop filter from the 1990's. Anyhow, HDR can save you a lot of time when you're shooting at night under mixed lighting conditions. If you're interested in learning HDR techniques, I highly recommend Christian Bloch's The HDRI Handbook 2.0. Even experienced HDR shooters will pick up some great techniques from this book. </rant> Let's continue with some more night photography examples.

Mare Island crane truck C5 at night
Mare Island crane truck C5 at night

My compositional style typically favors the grand view instead of detail shots. I did two different setups for the picture of this truck, and ended up liking the tighter framing above. This image is a three shot bracket of 24 seconds, 46 seconds, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The three images were merged to HDR in Photoshop, and the resulting 32-bit TIFF file was processed in Lightroom. The light in the window at the bottom right was blown out, even in the shortest exposure. I was planning to shoot a few shorter exposures, but I had to move my tripod. I was setup in the middle of the road, and a car drove through before I could finish. The bright area could be adjusted by simply using the clone stamp to bring some tonal value back in the bottom window panes, although I'm not sure that it bothers me.

Mare Island buoys and cranes at night
Mare Island buoys and cranes at night

I scouted this shot during a walk at sunset, and was happy with how dark and mysterious the area looked at night. Shooting this image proved to be complicated because a bright orange building light behind me kept turning off and on every 2-3 minutes. I ended up with a five shot bracket of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The fifth shot was also 2 minutes at f/9.5, but at ISO 400.

The building light was on for a few seconds in a couple of the exposures. I thought this might help with a little bit of fill light, but it ended up making the resulting colors look weird when I merged to HDR in Photoshop. The Photomatix Fusion results looked better, but the image still had a slight HDR look. I used the 2 minute exposure for the sky, and tried layering the HDR version on top for more foreground detail. The tone of the image looked just about right, but the color in the buoys still looked a little bit off. I switched the HDR image layer with the foreground detail to Luminosity Blend Mode -- problem solved! The tone looked good, and the colors looked natural.

Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt
Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt

The hardest part of this shot was smelling the fumes from the nearby buildings that are used to paint large pipes. The foreground is a four shot bracket of 45 seconds, 90 seconds, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. After reviewing the bracketed shots on the back of the camera, I noticed that Orion's Belt would be in a good position in the sky soon. I waited a few minutes, and then made a 10 minute exposure at f/11, ISO 100. The 5 shot bracket was blended with Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. The foreground is the HDR image, and the sky is from the 10 minute exposure.

I hope these shooting and post-processing details are useful for those who are interested in shooting HDR at night. You can see bigger versions of these photos, and more night photography of Mare Island on my website.

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360 night tour of the International Car Forest in Nevada

Virtual night tour of the International Car Forest of the Last Church
Virtual night tour of the International Car Forest of the Last Church

Last October I visited the International Car Forest of the Last Church in Goldfield, Nevada. There are about 40 cars and buses buried nose first in the ground. The work is a collaboration between Mark Rippie and Chad Sorg. Have a look at the gallery of long exposure night photos of the car forest on my website. On the second magical night of shooting under a full moon in the car forest,  I shot 360 panoramas. Enjoy a 10 panorama virtual night tour of the car forest.

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Marquetry artist Ian Smith: 360 night panorama made of wood

Desert Center Gas Station Full Moon 360 Panorama — by Joe Reifer
Desert Center Gas Station Full Moon 360 Panorama — by Joe Reifer

In January, an artist named Ian Smith from Manchester England contacted me about creating a wood version of my Desert Center 360 night panorama.

Ian Smith works in the ancient art of marquetry, which involves cutting pieces of wood veneer by hand to create an image. Ian described the project as:

I am hoping to do a more modern pastiche of the baroque style (defined by bold curving forms and dramatic effects with a touch of the bizarre). I have been checking out your amazing work and in particular I love the 360 degree picture of the old gas station.

I sent Ian a high resolution image to work from, and the piece is nearing completion. I was really blown away by Ian's interpretation of the image.

Desert Center Gas Station Full Moon 360 Panorama -- marquetry version by Ian Smith
Desert Center Gas Station Full Moon 360 Panorama -- marquetry version by Ian Smith

After being marveled by Ian's work for the last few days, I decided to buy the marquetry gas station pano after Ian's big art show next month. I'm planning to hang the wood version on my wall. You can view more of Ian's work on The Marquetry Shack. And stay tuned -- Ian is already considering doing another wood version of one of my 360 night panoramas.

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360 Night Photography: Coaldale Nevada Ghost Town

Coaldale Ghost Town 360 Night Tour

Coaldale Ghost Town 360 Night Tour

Coaldale, Nevada was abandoned in 1993 or 1994. Located in a remote area West of Tonopah where Highways 6 and 95 meet, the gas station was closed due to leaking underground storage tanks.  I've driven through Coaldale numerous times on other trips to Western Nevada, but had never photographed there at night until last October when David Dasinger and I shot the town under a full moon.

I made a dozen 360 panoramas of Coaldale that night. My panoramic tripod head was setup to shoot 4 shots around at 5 degrees up using the Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens at 12mm on an EOS 6D. Exposures were 90 seconds at f/8, ISO 800. I'm not sure if it was the cold weather, but my focus was slightly soft within 5-6 feet of the camera that night. Everything else was sharp.

After stitching the 360 panos in PTGui, it looked like I had a big retouching job in front of me to get rid of the tripod, tripod shadow, and foreground seam lines from where the focus was a bit soft. I got busy over the holidays, and put the project aside. Yesterday I decided to have another look. I did a rough patch of the foreground using content aware fill in Photoshop. Then I brought the images into Pano2VR to build a virtual tour.

To get a rough idea of what the tour would look like, I used the patch tool in Pano2VR to generate a mirror ball over the tripod area. When I saw the image previews come up in Lightroom, I really liked how dark blue sky of the mirrored image sandwiched the content. The flat projection of the 360 looks like it was photographed from a reflecting pool. For a location with a lot of concrete in the foreground, this really made the images more interesting. Go on a 360 night tour of the Coaldale ghost town.

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WRLD: Grandmaster, Magic, Big Star, Townes, Creation, Cutie, 1-800-MICE, H Day, Abandoned Futures, Coin Locker Babies, Satellites, Mogwai, Exploding Star Orchestra

Watching

The Grandmaster

Last month Martin Scorsese interviewed Wong Kar-Wai about his 2013 film, The Grandmaster. The cinematography is amazing, and overall the film is pretty good [Amazon]. ★★★

Deceptive Practice

The best documentary I've seen in ages is Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay [Netflix, Amazon]. Ricky Jay's dedication and artistry are inspiring, and the film is riveting from start to finish. Highly recommended. ★★★★★

Big Star

This documentary profiles the Memphis rock band Big Star from their early years to post-breakup. Essential viewing if you're a fan [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★

Be Here To Love Me

Be Here To Love Me is a portrait of singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A haunting look at a tortured artist [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★★

Upside Down

Upside Down is an uneven documentary about the UK label Creation Records. Selling records and partying with Scottish accents, it's half entertaining and half annoying [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer profiles an 80 year old Japanese artist and his wife who are living in New York and barely making ends meet. I had high hopes for this one after the preview, but the film focuses too much on the antagonistic wife [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

 

Reading

1-800-MICE

1-800-MICE is bonkers. Blurbed by Daniel Clowes and Matt Groening among others, but none of them get it quite right. Surreal, absurd, extraordinary, and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

H Day

I've been a fan of Renee French since 90's comic books Grit Bath and The Ninth Gland. H Day tells parallel stories on facing pages without words. One side is about migraines, and the other is about an ant invasion. Mysterious, weird, and quite enjoyable.

Abandoned Futures

With a cover photo from the Pearsonville Junkyard, night photography workshop alum Tong Lam presents well crafted photos of some world class ruins. Tong doesn't like the term ruin porn, and instead makes a case for the history of ruin lust. Abandoned Futures contains some of the best writing on the symbology of ruins in recent years, and is highly recommended.

Coin Locker Babies

I've read quite a bit of Haruki Murakami's work, but hadn't read Ryu Murakami until my book club selected Coin Locker Babies. This novel is the story of two orphans who are abandoned at birth in a coin-locker, and are raised in the shadows of a ruined factory town. While the violence was a bit graphic for my taste, there were some hypnotizing sections that gave me new insight into why I photograph abandoned places.

Satellites

Satellites is the result of an amazing 7 year journey exploring the forgotten outposts of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but it's definitely worth seeking out at your local library.

 

Listening

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has been in heavy rotation during January. Maybe because it's good workout music? The Drowned in Sound review of the album is right on target.

Exploding Star Orchestra

The Exploding Star Orchestra takes a wild journey through large ensemble jazz improv with a wide array of field recordings. A wild but engaging sonic ride. Here's a nice review on Dusted.

 

Doing

  • A wonderful English artist is producing a marquetry version of one of my photos. I'm excited to see how this turns out, and will share photos when it's done.
  • I've switched from using a Really Right Stuff pano-head to a Nodal Ninja Ultimate M2. More on this decision later.
  • My office is loud. I tried a lot of noise-cancelling headphones. All marketing hype aside, the Bose QC 15 really do work the best. Audiophile magazine Sound & Vision nails it in this Bose review. If you need to shut out the world, this is 300 bucks well spent.
  • I'm shooting video at work. It's way harder than shooting stills. But fun. I'm learning Premiere, too.
  • A couple of my Holga images are in a recently released color grading book. More info when I get a copy.
  • I'm online less and less these days. I still like looking at pictures on Tumblr. That's about it. You wanna talk? Send me an email. And don't be surprised if my online presence becomes a bit more sporadic this year.
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What's Left: 360 Degree Photo of Room 158 at the Madonna Inn

What's Left: Room 158 at the Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo
What's Left: Room 158 at the Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo

Room #158 at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is called What's Left. The wild room design is a patchwork of fabrics, carpet, and wallpaper collected from other rooms at the hotel. Explore the 360 degree photo of What's Left.

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Valley Junkyard 360 Night Tour

Valley Junkyard 360 Night Tour
Valley Junkyard 360 Night Tour

The Valley Junkyard is an old-school, post-war junkyard with thousands of cars from the 1930's to 1990's. Click the 360 night panorama above to take a virtual tour of this amazing place. The 360 night tour features nine night junkyard panoramas. Look for the little white dots along the horizon to link between panos.

These 360 night panoramas were photographed during the December 2013 full moon. Each panorama was created from 5 images shot with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens on a Canon EOS 6D. Most exposures were around 1 minute at f/9.5, ISO 800. The images were stitched together in PTGUI Pro, and  the 360 tour was created in Pano2VR Pro.

In April of 2014, Troy Paiva and I will be teaching a night photography workshop at the Valley Junkyard. The first workshop sold out in a few hours from our email list. If you'd like to find out about future workshops, contact me to be added to the list.

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The Panographers, Episode 5: Panography of the Dark

The Panographers, Episode #5 features the work of some amazing photographers who shoot panoramas at night. The photographers in this episode are: Aaron Priest, Chris Georgia, Joe Reifer, Joergen Geerds, Jörgen Tannerstedt & Thomas Hayden. Great to meet everyone and see their work! Big thanks to The Panographers kingpin and all around nice guy Gavin Farrell for organizing and hosting these sessions.

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Stalker, Zona, Roadside Picnic, and down the Tarkovsky wormhole

Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker
Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker

Since discovering Stalker in early 2012, I've taken a much deeper dive into the world of Andrei Tarkovsky, and have now seen 6 of his 7 films. If you enjoy exploring abandoned places, and are open to taking a meditative look into what it all means, then Stalker is essential viewing.

In the near future, an unseen alien force has taken possession of an area of Russian wilderness that authorities have dubbed The Zone. The only thing known for sure about the region is that few who enter it ever return. Led by a Stalker, one of a small group of outlaws able to safely navigate the Zone, a renegade scientist and a cynical, burnt-out writer penetrate the dangers outside in search of the power and transcendence rumored to exist inside. The Stalker longs to un-do a mysterious physical transformation the Zone has performed on his young daughter. The scientist will risk anything to see that reason triumphs over faith. The writer seeks a germ of inspiration that the crumbling and corrupt world beyond the Zone no longer provides.
Together, these three men become desperate pilgrims walking a desolate trail leading to one of the most enigmatic and tantalizing endings in the history of cinema. A haunting and honest meditation on the intersection of science, feeling, and faith, Stalker is both profoundly unsettling and deeply moving. - Kino Video

Stalker becomes more rewarding with multiple viewings. Tarkovsky is a master of the long take, and many of his films are light on traditional narrative. This isn't easy viewing. That's OK. Like a lot of great art, the viewer needs to do a little bit of work to get the most out of the experience. The four books and two documentaries below will help you explore the world of Tarkovsky:

Geoff Dyer's Zona is theoretically about Stalker, but it's also about how our relationship with art changes over time. Wonderful, light hearted ramblings on a difficult, heavy film.

Roadside Picnic - Stalker is based on the Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Beyond being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, I don't usually read a lot of sci-fi. Roadside Picnic was a fast, fun read. Reading the book before seeing Stalker won't ruin the movie for you. Tarkovsky's film jettisons the narrative in favor of spiritual and philosophical explorations.

 

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue - After watching Stalker, I watched Solaris again, and then saw Andrei Rublev, Mirror, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice. Johnson and Petrie's book was a really helpful guide to understanding Tarkovsky's history, themes, influences, cultural context, working methods, and critical reception. I was initially concerned that this book might be too academic, but it's got an easy to read style, and is very insightful.

Sculpting in Time - I haven't finished Tarkovsky's essays on filmmaking yet. I'm taking this book a little bit at a time, but it's certainly essential reading for understanding Tarkovsky's universe.

 

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich - Chris Marker's (La Jetée) documentary has a mix of clips from all 7 films, Tarkovsky directing, and Tarkovsky re-united with his family during his final illness. Recommended.

Voyage in Time - If you're going down the rabbit hole (or perhaps wormhole), the documentary Voyage in Time follows an exiled Tarkovsky scouting locations in Italy with Antonioni's screenwriter Tonino Guerra. This one is slow going, and for the completist only. Probably works best if you've seen Nostalghia.

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