Night Photography: Mojave Desert Bomber Gallery

An old Air Force B-52 bomber lies in pieces in the Mojave Desert under a full moon and star trails.

An old Air Force B-52 bomber lies in pieces in the Mojave Desert under a full moon and star trails.

A new gallery of Mojave Desert bomber night photography is now available. Three old airplanes are featured in these long exposure photos that were lit by the full moon.


Night photography: Supersonic jet bomber in the Mojave Desert

An old bomber jet lies derelict in the Mojave Desert under a full moon. The side view is a 40-minute exposure, and the other images are 16-minute exposures. Stay tuned for more airplane photos. 


WRLD: Japanese gangsters, heavy fiction, weird comics, demented prog, and even some references to photography

Hello, faithful readers. I'm sure all 2-3 of you are wondering when I was going to talk about weird things to watch and read and listen to again. Well, wonder no more. It's time for another installment of WRLD.


Nikkatsu Studios in Japan produced some of the coolest gangster films of the 60's. I noticed that Seijun Suzuki's Detective Bureau 2-3 was available streaming on Amazon, and always enjoy watching Jo Shishido in action. ***

I went back and watched Tokyo Drifter, and this film is still one of Suzuki's best. *****

Branded to Kill is Seijun Suzuki at peak weirdness. John Zorn's essay on this film for the Criterion Collection is what got me into Suzuki. Highly recommended. *****

For No Good Reason is a documentary that profiles the artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson. Watching Steadman paint and draw is cool, and there is a little bit of great HST footage. The talking head style interviews are a bit dry at times, and the film is marred by crappy, invasive graphic overlays. Worth watching if you're a big fan. **

Terry Gilliam's new film The Zero Theorem was released on streaming at the same time as the theatrical release. The plot and cast sounded promising. Unfortunately, the writing is not great, and neither is the CGI. Tilda Swinton's bit part as a virtual shrink is hilarious. The look of the film is wonderful, but when that thrill wears off the story and characters just don't feel cohesive. Worth watching, but not worth buying. **

A few people have recommended the film Frank, starring Michael Fassbender as a musician who never removes his giant fake head. Planning to watch this one in the next few days.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a documentary co-directed by Werner Herzog that profiles a hunting community in remote Siberia. Seeing how other cultures live can be a nice reminder that our day-to-day worries are definitely first world problems. ***

To the Wonder is Terence Malick's latest film and the only good things I can say about it are that I enjoyed the cinematography at times, and that I was really happy that Ben Affleck barely has any lines. A disappointing mess, and that's coming from a huge fan of his other films. *


Yuichi Yokoyama's Color Engineering is an amazing mix of abstract comic book narrative, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Wilder in stylistic scope than his also quite enjoyable book Garden, Color Engineering touches the abstract edges of how we comprehend and digest art and storytelling. Reading this book requires simultaneously decoding 4-5 art forms at the same time, which is very stimulating. Highly recommended. *****

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is Haruki Murakami's latest novel, and everyone in my book club thought it was sub-par when compared to the rest of his work. **

Gringos is a hilarious 1991 novel by Charles Portis involving a cult, some UFO freaks, and archaelogical hustlers. Highly entertaining. ****

Robert C. Jones writes ghost town books they way they oughta be. How to get there, a little bit of history, and most importantly - what kind of ruins are left to see. The Mojave Preserve is a beautiful, underrated place to explore, and Ghost Towns of the Mojave National Preserve is an excellent resource. ****

Fine Art Printing for Photographers is the third edition of Uwe Steinmuller's highly technical book on inkjet printing. If you want to make better inkjet prints, this book is an excellent resource. While I didn't know him personally, I followed Uwe's site, and was saddened to hear that he passed away last month. He will be missed. ****

Every year I try to read a big, challenging book. This year, I finally read The Recognitions by William Gaddis. A huge, complex story that centers around art forgery, The Recognitions is the literary bridge between James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. At times difficult, erudite, hilarious, complicated, and astonishing. **** 

The Wes Anderson Collection features an essay on each of his films through Moonrise Kingdom, combined with extensive interviews, and behind the scenes photos. The supporting artwork is fun, too. The discussions about Anderson's influences and working methods are really interesting. Essential reading for fans of his work. ****

Chester Brown's review of Ant Colony nails it: "Michael DeForge is that rare sort of cartoonist, a genuine artist with a unique vision and a teeming imagination. He’s not trying to create sentimental pap for a mass audience. I love his work, but I do wonder why any sensible, profit-minded publisher would release this crazy book." ****

Someone pointed me to a 2013 Slate article on Mike Mandel's Making Good Time. Mandel covers an early 20th century industrial photography team called the Gilbreths who put pulsing lights on workers and took long exposures. The photographs were then analyzed in order to improve worker efficiency. Mandel then provides his own modern update on this style of photography. A wonderful intersection of industrial photographic history, light painting, and humor. ****


Matthew Young's 1982 album Recurring Dreams was reissued by Drag City earlier this year. Subtle, wonderful headphone listening. ****

Some how Van Der Graaf Generator's Pawn Hearts has escaped me all of these years. Wow. This album hurts my head, but tickles a little bit at the same time. ***


I'll have some news soon on an exciting new commercial photography project. Until then, you can always follow the latest photos, news, and antics on FacebookTwitter, or G+.


360 Night Panorama: Trailer, Hubcaps, Windshields, etc.

Trailer, Hubcaps, Windshields, etc.  - by Joe Reifer

Trailer, Hubcaps, Windshields, etc.  - by Joe Reifer

We continued to explore more of the amazing photographic terrain of the Valley Junkyard during this month's night photography workshop. One night we had some really great clouds, and I shot a few 360 panoramas. The old trailer, piles of hubcaps, and rows of windshields on racks made for interesting subject material. Clicking the image above will take you to an interactive version of the panorama.


Night photography in the junkyard: Mixing moonlight and city lights

My night photos straddle a weird line between documentary and art. I'm exposing and post-processing for an open, descriptive look. I want enough contrast to show form, but try not to be overly dramatic. The rich, saturated color palette has been tuned to represent how I saw the scene. Yes, it's an artistic interpretation, but hopefully more reality based than lurid.

To achieve this look, my exposure times for full moon photos away from city lights are typically 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This creates a balanced histogram that can sometimes look like daylight straight out of the camera. That's fine, because darkening the image in post-production tends to hide noise.

Clever title referring to the drought - by Joe Reifer

The Valley Junkyard is an urban location that's still large enough to let the moon light the subject. The city lights do have an influence, especially on the tone and color of the sky. The image above is 3 stacked exposures of 3 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. That's 1.5 stops darker than a typical full moon shot.

The extra brightness in the sky can make post-processing a little bit tougher. I often use Lightroom to develop for the foreground, and bring the image into Photoshop to darken the sky using a Curve with a Layer Mask. This process is faster, easier, and more flexible than making selective sky adjustments in Lightroom.


The truck image above is a stack of 8 exposures - each one is 2.5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This achieves 20 minute star trails without needing to run in-camera noise reduction. The truck image also benefitted from a Curves layer to darken the sky. I really enjoy the complementary colors of blue and orange. I usually do some minor Saturation and Luminance adjustments in the HSL panel in Lightroom. The real magic of refining the color palette happens in Photoshop using Selective Color, or Curves with a LAB color space conversion. You can see these techniques in action at my night photography workshops.

I'm still experimenting with the post-processing on the image above. I shot a 5 image bracket of 23 seconds, 45 seconds, 1.5 minutes, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. I used the 6 minute exposure for the sky/stars, and a blend of the 3 minute exposure and HDR file for the foreground. I also used the HDR file to recover some highlight detail along the horizon. The feel of the lighting is soft and quiet.

The gas pumps image is still undergoing some fine tuning. I shot 9 exposures - each one was 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. Seven of those images were used for the 21 minute star trails above. I omitted 2 images because the clouds were too dense, creating gaps in the star trails. Stacking star trails with fast moving clouds can create the ribbed effect that's prominent in the upper right. This image will benefit from some more fiddling with the sky colors, and some selective tone adjustments on the pumps.

I hope these meditations on shooting and post-processing under mixed lighting conditions are helpful. Stay tuned for some brand new 360 panoramas from the Valley Junkyard.


Valley Junkyard Night Photos and Sunset Time-Lapse

I've just returned from the Valley Junkyard Night Photography and Light Painting Workshop in California's Central Valley. There are some new images in the Valley Junkyard gallery. Eleven adventurous photographers joined us for the workshop, and we had a great time. I've spent 10 nights in the Valley Junkyard, and I'm still discovering new things to shoot. Troy Paiva and I will likely be hosting another workshop at this location in the spring of 2015. Contact me to get on the notification list - these workshops can often fill up quickly.

Below is a time-lapse video of the workshop participants enjoying the sunset, just before gearing up for their 3rd night of shooting in this amazing place.


Albion Castle: Cave Photo Shoot Under a Historic San Francisco Brewery

The Albion Castle is a fascinating and little known historic building in the Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco. The castle was built in 1870 by John Burnell, who started a brewery using the underground aquifer as the water source. Two stone cisterns were dug to capture the water. This area is accessed via caves underneath the castle. You can read more about the castle's history on Atlas Obscura. In 2005 I got invited to a party at the Albion Castle. The building was amazing, and the underground caves seemed like a perfect location for a photo shoot. I came up with a concept about a mob couple who visit the caves, and the husband gets killed and dumped in the water. I arranged access to return to the castle, and then found two willing participants to play the couple. Thanks Rick and Excelsus!

The photos were taken with a Canon EOS 20D and 10-22mm lens. An off-camera 580EX was triggered with a Pocket Wizard. The flash was diffused but not gelled to create a warm against cool lighting scheme. I also used long exposures on some of the shots to blur Rick as he floated in the underground pool. And wow, that water was cold!

The biggest surprise in revisiting this shoot from 9 years ago is how much better the photos looked after updating the Process 2012 in Lightroom. Both the software and my post-processing skills have come a long way since 2005. I hope you enjoy the photos of this unique location. Below are a few outtakes:


Projections: Airplane Light Painting and Post-Processing

Photographer Tim Little made one of my favorite photos from the Eagle Field Night Photography workshop last year.  A tiny 2 seater ERCO Ercoupe airplane sits out near the runway at an old WWII training base. Tim saw the potential of projecting the little airplane's shadow onto a nearby storage container. Before opening up his exposure, Tim and I experimented with different lighting angles and distances to get the plane projection just in the right spot. If you're shooting with a friend, have one person stand behind the camera to see what the camera sees, as the other person tests the lighting.

Once Tim nailed the lighting, he took multiple shots at about 2.5 minutes f/11, ISO 200.  This exposure is a bit darker than an expose to the right (ETTR) image shot under full moon conditions. The slight underexposure helps keep the night time feel, and allows the light painting to pop.

Projections 01: Light Painting
Projections 01: Light Painting

1. Light Painting - Above is the single exposure that shows the best version on the light painting, which was done with a flashlight.

Projections 02: Stacking and Masking
Projections 02: Stacking and Masking

2. Stacking and Masking - The camera is facing roughly to the south, which makes the star trails almost horizontal. To make the star trails longer, multiple shots were stacked in Photoshop, using Lighten blending mode on everything except the bottom layer.

Tim also used a non-lighted painted shot from the stack to mask out the light on the airplane and cement in the foreground. Having a non-light painted image in your star trail stack gives you an easy way to reduce or remove light painting from your image. This effect makes Tim's image more mysterious, because the projected light doesn't have an obvious source.

The image is starting to look really good, but there are a few more post-processing techniques that will help make the final photo really sing.

Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

3. Curves for Contrast - After reviewing the histogram, I used an S-curve to increase the overall contrast. This gives the plane a bit more shadowy mystery, and adds more snap to the projected image. The sky looks better, too. The S-curve could also be applied in Lightroom in the Tone Curve panel.

Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

4. Sky Contrast Curve - Using the Quick Selection Tool (W), I selected the sky. Then I created a new curves layer to add more contrast to the sky and star trails. The red area shows the part of the image that's protected from this adjustment. This selective adjustment is possible in Lightroom, but easier to do in Photoshop.

Projections 05: Vibrance
Projections 05: Vibrance

5. Vibrance - Next was a Vibrance and Saturation adjustment. This pushed the plane and sky towards blue, and increased the color contrast against the warmer orange light of the plane projection. You could also use Saturation, Selective Color, or a LAB conversion for this type of adjustment. Vibrance could also be adjusted in Lightroom.

Projections 06: Off-center Vignette
Projections 06: Off-center Vignette

6. Off-center Vignette - To make the projection even more dramatic, I created a vignette around the projected plane shadow. The curve adjustment above darkens everything except the projected plane shadow. Because the projection isn't in the center of the image, I used the Gradient tool to make a vignette just in this area (indicated by the red mask). Hit G for gradient, and adjust your tool bar to look like this:


Create a new Curves layer, and make sure the mask is selected. Then draw a line to create your vignette. If you don't get it right the first time, just try again. You can also create an off-center vignette in Lightroom using the radial vignette feature.

Projections 07: Selective sharpening
Projections 07: Selective sharpening

7. Selective Sharpening - Using the Marquee tool (M), I drew a box around the airplane and hit Command-J to put this selection on a new layer. I applied sharpening to this layer, and then added a black layer mask by holding down alt-option and clicking the new mask icon (aka, the front loading washer). Using a soft brush at 20-30%, I painted in some extra sharpening on the rivets and peeling paint of the airplane. This adjustment could also be done in Lightroom with the adjustment brush, but Photoshop offers more control.

Projections: Final Image
Projections: Final Image

8. Output Sharpening - At this point, the image is ready for output. If you're in Lightroom, simply use the Export setting with the appropriate amount of output sharpening for screen. In Photoshop, flatten the layers, go to Image-Image Size, choose your dimensions, select Bicubic (best for smooth gradients), and click OK. Apply output sharpening using Smart Sharpen, Unsharp Mask, or a plugin. Then save for web.

I'd like to thank Tim Little for giving me permission to feature this image on my blog. Want to hone your skills on night photography, light painting, and post-processing? Consider taking a night photography workshop!