Mojave Desert Night Photography Flashback Trip Part II

Friday, September 25, 2015

10:30 a.m. - Breakfast at Katz-N Jammers in Lancaster. A guy parked out front has a comically oversized ball hitch mount on his rear bumper. He tells us it's for towing the Space Shuttle. Desert humor. 

11:30 a.m. - Apparently there are go-kart races going on, but it's so damn hot that we retreat to the air conditioned car. We visit Blackbird Airpark and Joe Davies Heritage Airpark. These adjacent parks are worth a look if you're in the area. They have an SR-71A and an A-12 on display. There's also a one-of-a-kind business jet prototype built by Burt Rutan.

12:30 p.m. - We drive across the desert to Victorville.

Photo by S Walsh

Photo by S Walsh

In Apple Valley, we encounter a car with MOAR downforce than mine.

4:00 p.m. - We arrive at our rental in Yucca Valley, and immediately learn how to operate the evaporative coolers. They work reasonably well.

5:30 p.m. - Dinner at Royal Siam in Joshua Tree. We sit at the same table as last time. I order the same thing. It's good.

7:00 p.m. - We drive out to Wonder Valley, the land of abandoned homesteads. Yeah, if you love forlorn, abandoned shacks, this is the place. Our friend and Joshua Tree resident David Dasinger shows us some good ones.

I started off with this photo of this abandoned camper, furniture, and detritus. This shot is 9 minutes at f/11, ISO 200 with long exposure noise reduction turned on due to the hot weather.

I turned around and walked about 10 feet before I set up this next shot. Two eight minute exposures were combined for 16 minute star trails -- both with noise reduction turned on. The EOS 6D allows you to buffer noise reduction until after your shots are over. The exposures run back-to-back so there's no gaps in the star trails, and then the camera runs noise reduction on both shots. During the 16 minutes that the camera is locked up, I got a snack and setup my next shot.

The fence posts around this abandoned house looked great from a lot of angles. The first shot is a 10 minute exposure, and the second shot is two 10 minute exposures, again with noise reduction on to combat the heat.

We scouted a few more abandoned homesteads, and made a few more photos before driving back to town.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The next day we remained indoors to stay cool because it was over 100º outside. In the evening we stocked up on sandwiches and drinks, and checked out the sunset at Amboy Crater.

We spent a few hours shooting the abandoned Roadrunner's Retreat on Route 66 in Chambless. I shot sixteen 360 night panoramas. As the weather was still almost 90º, I continued to use noise reduction. Each panorama requires 4 shots around, which would fill up the 6D's buffer. After waiting a minute or so, I could take an optional nadir shot. By the time I had my next shot set up, the noise reduction was usually done.

This technique uses more battery life, but really helps keep the long exposure noise down. Shooting in a t-shirt and shorts is nice, but cooler weather sure is easier.

The initial panoramic stitching is done, but I still have many hours of post-processing before the ground is patched and tripod shadows removed. We also spent a little bit of time shooting at Roy's in Amboy, and then drove back to Joshua Tree for some sleep.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The next day we made the 8 hour drive back to the Bay Area. Interstate 5 on the way home is always my least favorite part of the trip. I suppose we have to suffer for our art. I'm sure that hours of fixing the ground on these photos in Photoshop will confirm that theory once again.

For now, here's a 360 panorama with light painting from Roadrunner's Retreat. Click on the image for a larger view and enjoy!


Mojave Desert Night Photography Flashback Trip Part I

During the April full moon, I went on a night photography trip to the Mojave and Joshua Tree (Part I, II, and III). Last month, I went back. The weather was unseasonably hot for late September -- around 100º in the daytime, and often still over 80º at midnight. Here's what happened.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

10:00 a.m. - Depart Berkeley

1:00 p.m. - we eat sandwiches by the side of the road, and then take a detour off Interstate 5 to drive 33 through Coalinga.


I miss the turn to continue on 33 South, and we drive by the impressive Pleasant Valley State Prison and Coalinga State Hospital facilities.

3:30 p.m. - We continue south on I-5 and exit at Lebec to have a look at Fort Tejon State Historic Park.

4:00 p.m. - We take the twisty side road through Gorman over to Route 138, the Pearblossom Highway. Onwards into the desert.

4:30 p.m. - We scout a nice looking location along the way, but it looks like someone is living in a trailer on-site.

Free beer at the Oxford Inn. Waiting for the Mojave to cool down & the moon to rise #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

5:30 p.m. - We check in to the Oxford Inn and Suites in Lancaster. The Oktoberfest special includes dinner, 2 free drinks, and breakfast the next morning. It's hot out, so we take them up on the drink offer.

We skip the Chicken Florentine at the hotel, and opt to eat at Taqueria Pepe del Toro instead.

8:00 p.m. - We take a look at a short dirt road down to a plane, and decide the sandy road requires 4wd. It's still over 90º, so we decide not to hike it. Leaving the car in this area would also not be smart.

8:30 p.m. - We stop to shoot an abandoned gas station. Above is how how it looked back in 2008 on Street View.

Some further research shows that the gas station was operating as a marijuana dispensary in 2014. The sodium vapor lights seem strong near the street, but after some test shots we decide to shoot anyways. I find an angle that I like, and set up a shot.

I stopped down to f/11 to get the nice pointed stars on the two light sources. I also spent some time adjusting the foreground/background tonalities using luminosity masks in Photoshop.

Above you can see how my second setup looked straight out of the camera. I knew that the perspective would need to be corrected in post processing so I shot slightly wide. I was able to correct the distortion during the RAW conversion in Lightroom. Then I brought the image into Photoshop to work on the tone and local contrast, again using luminosity masks.

I'm happy with the composition, but a 10-minute exposure doesn't fill the sky with enough star trails. This shot really needs more like 30 minutes for the trails to circle around Polaris. I do like the the complementary colors, and have created a look that is close to how slide film would have rendered the scene. While taking the photo, the couple that live in the trailer on the other side of the fence argue loudly about who has to do the dishes. We decide to move on to the next location.

10:30 p.m. - I hadn't visited the old Alta Vista neighorhood signs since 2007, so we headed that way for a couple of shots.

Midnight - We rolled past the movie set and Kill Bull church in Hi Vista. The church has a strong light on it, and I've shot the movie set under better conditions, so we moved on.

12:30 a.m. - The next location was an old stone church with a nice view of Antelope Valley.

My car was parked just down the road where you see the light streaks on the left. We saw a police car pull up and two officers got out to inspect my car with a flashlight, but they left after a quick look. We finished our shots, and then drove back to the hotel to get some sleep.


Amboy Crater 360 Sunset and Moonrise Panorama

A 360 panorama of the sunset and moonrise at Amboy Crater

A 360 panorama of the sunset and moonrise at Amboy Crater

Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark is out on Route 66 in the Mojave Desert, just up the road from the famous Roy's sign. You can hike to the top of the 250' cinder cone, but we just ate sandwiches in the parking lot instead because it was 93º outside. Take a look around from the vista point in the Amboy Crater 360 Sunset and Moonrise Panorama.


Paul's Junkyard 360 Night Tour

There are currently eight panoramas in the 360 night tour of Paul's Junkyard. This amazing Mojave Desert location has an active metal scrapping business, and also doubles as a storage yard for movie cars, old trucks, buses, farm equipment, and other wonderfully photogenic detritus.

These panoramas were shot during the October 2014 full moon using a Canon EOS 6D with an 8-15mm fisheye lens at 12mm. Most exposures were between 75-90 seconds at f/8, ISO 800. The images were processed in Lightroom, stitched in PTGui and Photoshop, and are displayed using krpano. Enjoy!


A quick trip to L.A.: Oil fields, twisty roads, art books, superchargers, and some photography

Last week I took a quick trip to L.A. to drive some twisty roads, tour an automotive manufacturing plant, visit a friend, and see a photography show. Buckle up, press play on the soundtrack, and let's go for a ride...


I exited Highway 5 at Lost Hills, and got on California State Route 33 to drive through the oil fields.

I got stopped for a while by road construction, and ate some pizza in the car. It was 99º outside. I tried to visit the West Kern Oil Museum, but it's not open on Wednesdays. Then I drove over 33 to Ojai. What a road!

I went to the largest independently owned outdoor bookstore in the country, Bart's Books. Cool place. The next day I drove a bunch of twisty roads in Malibu.

Hitting the canyons on a weekday was a lot of fun. Empty winding roads and great views. Then I cruised down Highway 1 into Los Angeles.

The next day I attended a tour of Edelbrock's facility in Torrance, organized by my mechanic and all around nice guy Neal. The factory was truly impressive, with a nice mix of million dollar machinery and good old fashioned work done by hand.

We got to see the new Edelbrock supercharger for the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86, and then we took over the parking lot for a photo shoot with our cars.

Here's how the LED-lit cutaway supercharger demo unit looks from the inside:

360 from inside the @EdelbrockUSA supercharger for the FR-S BRZ GT-86 #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The next morning I visited the Getty Center. I arrived about 20 minutes before the museum opened, and walked through Robert Irwin's amazing garden before it got crowded. If you haven't read Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, I can't recommend it enough. It's a truly mind expanding book for any artist.

The exhibit Light Paper Process: Reinventing Photography
 was really good. No photos were allowed, but there is a book. The prints by John Chiara and Chris McCaw were particularly great. McCaw's book Sunburn is essential for anyone interested in long exposure photography.

The weather and crowds started heating up, so it was time to say goodbye to L.A., and head back to the Bay Area.

Technical note: All of the photos except the 360 were shot with a Fuji X100s that I recently purchased used. I'm really impressed with the design, handling, and image quality of this camera. The optical viewfinder is fantastic. Brings me back to the days when I was shooting with a Leica M6. And being able to choose Provia or Velvia profiles during RAW development in Lightroom is fantastic. So far the X100s seems like the perfect travel camera.


The complete automotive history of the artist known as Joe Reifer

I blame it on Autopia. I've always love driving.

I blame it on Autopia. I've always love driving.

I've loved driving ever since I was tall enough to do some hot laps at Disneyland's Autopia. I grew up in Los Angeles where driving makes you a person. A person who can go places and do things. Driving unlocks a world of possibilities. I got my learner's permit when I was 15, and my license on my 16th birthday. 

Over the last 30 years, I've owned a series of practical, reliable cars that were suited to my current commuting and lifestyle needs. Point A to Point B. High performance cars were for people with a lot of money. Old cars were for people who could wrench and had extra space. I've always had sensible, boring cars.

Since 2005, I've photographed extensively in desert junkyards. I spent a lot of time looking at cars. I developed a new level of appreciation for automotive design and aesthetics. I started reading car sites like Jalopnik, Bring a Trailer, and Hemmings. I watched Top Gear. I started to become a bit of a car guy.

Fasten your seatbelts, and read on for my complete automotive history. It starts with a Pinto:

How many gallons of Armor All were rubbed into those fake wood panels?

How many gallons of Armor All were rubbed into those fake wood panels?

Car #1: 1972 Ford Pinto Wagon (1985)
86 hp, RWD, 4-speed manual, 2282 lbs., 0-60 mph in 11.9 seconds

My mom taught me to drive in the family station wagon, a brown 1972 Pinto Squire with fake wood side panels. This was the family beater car that primarily got used for trips to the beach. The four speed manual was easy to drive. I rubbed gallons of Armor All into those wood panels. The Pinto was slow, reliable, and had plenty of room for our Boogie Boards.

The fuel level is low. The fuel level is low.

The fuel level is low. The fuel level is low.

Car #2: 1982 Datsun/Nissan Maxima Sedan (1986-1991)
118 hp, RWD, 3-speed AT, 2793 lbs., 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds, 21/28 mpg

By the time I got my license, the Pinto was gone, my Mom got a new car, and I got to drive her 1982 Maxima. This was right around the time that Datsun was transitioning to the Nissan name. My friends and I referred to this car as "the gray, box-like vehicle". I drove this car for 5 years and it was very reliable. The most notable feature was the voice warning system that uttered classics like "the a jar".

How many flowers will grow, bloom, and die before this Volvo will get up the Grapevine on I-5.

How many flowers will grow, bloom, and die before this Volvo will get up the Grapevine on I-5.

Car #3: 1976 Volvo 245 DL Wagon (1992-1993)
Specs from the sedan version: 89 hp, RWD, 3-speed AT, 3924 lbs., 0-60mph in 14.6 seconds

During my college years in Santa Cruz, I sold the Maxima to save money and rode my mountain bike everywhere (a 1987 Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo). I started playing upright bass around this time, and needed a car to get to gigs. I bought a beat up Volvo wagon for $450. The struts for the rear lift gate were broken, so I carried a big stick in the back to prop it open. At almost 4000 lbs. and 89 hp, the Volvo was extremely slow, but very reliable.

Thank you for the car, I will turn it into a truck. 

Thank you for the car, I will turn it into a truck. 

Car #4: 1986 Toyota Corolla LE Sedan (1993)
74 hp, FWD, 4-speed AT, 24/32 mpg 

Around the time I finished college, my grandmother stopped driving and I got her Corolla. I took the back seats apart so I could fit my upright bass inside. I really wanted a truck, so I sold the Corolla after a few months.

Simple. Boring. Reliable.

Simple. Boring. Reliable.

Car #5: 1987 Toyota Truck (1993-1998)
103 hp, RWD, 5-speed manual, 21/26 mpg

I bought a used, standard, bare-bones, regular cab 1987 Toyota truck with a camper shell in 1993, and racked up about 100K miles in 5 years. This truck had the venerable 22R engine and a crappy Earl Scheib paint job. I built a wood platform for the back that hid my musical equipment. I also used the platform for camping by putting a futon on top. The bench seat was uncomfortable for long trips, and the mileage wasn't very good. The truck was slow but very reliable. Who knows, it may still be going strong.

Another boring, reliable, practical car.

Another boring, reliable, practical car.

Car #6: 1997 Honda Civic HX Coupe (1998-2000)
115 hp, FWD, 5-speed manual, 2324 lbs., 36/44 mpg

Eventually I was commuting and wanted something that got better mileage, and had bucket seats. The Civic was the first car that I ever bought new. The HX was the fuel efficient variant that got great mileage, but had no guts. The HX got 38 mpg in mixed driving conditions, which was pretty amazing.

It did nothing really well, but it got me and my stuff where I needed to go.

It did nothing really well, but it got me and my stuff where I needed to go.

Car #7: 2000 Subaru Outback Wagon (2000-2008)
165 hp, AWD, 4-speed automatic, 21/28 mpg

I was doing more road trips and bike racing, and wanted a vehicle that could do light offroad driving and haul more stuff. The Outback was another practical choice. Despite the cult-like following, I didn't find it to be a very good car. Poor mileage, slow acceleration, ponderous handling, emissions and suspension problems, and a leaking head gasket at 65K did not add up to a great ownership experience. Despite the flaws, I drove this thing for 8 years and it never left me stranded. 

The next person who asks if I can hose this thing out gets punched in the face.

The next person who asks if I can hose this thing out gets punched in the face.

Car #8: 2006 Honda Element EX-P (2009-2012)
156 hp, AWD, 4-speed automatic, 19/24 mpg

Not willing to dump a couple more grand into repairs on the Outback, I bought a used Element. Yes, I drove a toaster. It held a lot of stuff. You could stuff bikes in the back without taking off the wheels. The seats folded down into something that resembled a bed. It was funny to watch rear seat passengers try to strangle front seat passengers with the seatbelts when exiting the vehicle. There was also a ridiculous manually operated sunroof over the back seat and cargo area. Despite flipping the bird to aerodynamics, being the king of body roll, and having questionable aesthetics, this was a practical, reliable vehicle. I even took it off-roading in the Mojave Preserve. But yeah, the driving dynamics left a lot to be desired.

Yet another practical, reliable car.

Yet another practical, reliable car.

Car #9: 2012 Mazda 3 iTouring Hatchback (2012-2015)
155 hp, FWD, 6-speed automatic, 28/39 mpg

I started commuting 30 miles each way to work, and part of the drive was on twisty roads. The Element really sucked for this task. I was getting 19-20mpg and gas prices were going through the roof. The Mazda 3 was a reliable, practical replacement that got 35-40 mpg. The 3 had about the same horsepower as my previous 2 cars, but weighed under 3000 lbs. It wasn't fast, but it did OK. For an economy car, the chassis was reasonably lively. The smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission was light years ahead of my previous Honda and Subaru 4-speeds. 

The road noise was pretty bad at freeway speeds, the build quality was so-so, and the stereo sucked. The design of the interior was silly, with so many buttons that I felt like a fighter pilot. But the car got great mileage and there were glimmers of fun handling on the twisty roads.  

"He who shall be last, shall be sideways and smiling" - Jezza

"He who shall be last, shall be sideways and smiling" - Jezza

Car #10: 2013 Scion FR-S 10 Series (2015-present)
200 hp, RWD, 6-speed AT, 25/34 mpg

Back in 2012, I saw a photo of a 1971 Datsun 240Z next to a new car called the Scion FR-S. The FR-S looked like a cross between a 240Z, 80's Celica GT, and an Italian exotic. I was smitten. And when I saw that pricing started at $25K, I was interested. Very interested.

Growing up, my dad had a series of Z cars, and the FR-S looked like a modern equivalent. A simple, stylish, lightweight RWD sports car with great handling. And it was still somewhat practical. But mostly it looked fun.

Over the next 3 years I followed the reviews, videos, and development of aftermarket parts. I told myself once they hit 20 grand that I'd buy one. Last year I rented a Subaru BRZ for a weekend through RelayRides. The BRZ and FR-S have the same Subaru boxer engine, and are essentially the same car except for some interior options, suspension setup, and minor exterior details. Anyways, a weekend in this car sealed the deal. I started searching AutoTrader for an FR-S. 

A couple of months ago I traded in the Mazda 3 for a used special edition FR-S with 8K miles. The car is really fun to drive, but still gets 30 mpg. Like many 2+2 sports cars, the back seat isn't really usable. Other than that, the FR-S is amazing. I dream about twisty roads. 

I've added a few custom parts including an arm rest, shift knob, and a hidden hitch for a bike rack. I dumped the intake sound tube and installed a Perrin catback exhaust, and now it sounds like a proper sports car. The special edition FR-S has the upgraded features of the BRZ including a nicer stereo, climate control, push button start, and HID headlights. 

Most importantly, every time I get into my car, even if it's just for a quick errand, I'm smiling. Life is too short to drive boring cars. I made this mistake for decades, but now I know - if you love driving, drive something you love.


Mojave Dinosaurs: Concrete Sculpture Ruins in the Desert

These crumbling concrete dinosaurs were built in the early 1970's in a small Mojave Desert town. The creator originally wanted to make a miniature golf course. There are five panoramas in the virtual tour. These panos were shot using a Nodal Ninja R1 on a carbon fiber pole.