9 Questions on UrbEx

A fellow I know who is writing an MFA thesis on urban exploration sent me a 9 question survey on UrbEx. I thought a few of you might find both the questions and answers interesting. I’d be especially interested to hear YOUR answers to #5 and #9 in the comments section.

1. Did you have any early (childhood) experiences with abandoned spaces, or any memories that informed your curiosity for them?

Yes. I remember doing a steep hike with family along the Southern California coast to the site of a shipwreck. I returned to the site with friends in high school and revisited again in college. I’d forgotten about this experience until recently, when I happened across some old footage of the shipwreck online.

2. What was your first experience like? Were you alone or with others? Was it an impulsive trip or very planned out?

In high school I explored abandoned seacoast fortifications and bunkers in Southern California with friends. There was little or no planning — just teenagers driving around and goofing off. During college I explored the seacoast fortifications and bunkers of the Bay Area with friends. Again these were freewheeling adventures.

3. Briefly describe your political beliefs.

Voting on local issues is important, everything else is futile. I’m registered Green. I don’t read the paper. I don’t watch the news. These habits make my life much more peaceful.

4. Describe any powerful emotions you have experienced while on an urban expedition.

Depending on the location, the feelings can range from adrenaline charged excitement (holy crap look at this place!, did I hear footsteps?), to a calm, meditative observation (the quiet, my heartbeat, the stars).

5. Do you follow architectural practice in general?

What I photograph most often are buildings and vehicles. I enjoy studying architecture where I live and when I travel. This interest ranges anywhere from the modest 1920′s Craftsman homes in my neighborhood to a Julia Morgan designed building across town. From a ruined trailer park in one part of the desert, to a John Lautner home in another.

6. What do you think about the way the general population can access public, semipublic, commercial, infrastructural, and historical sites? Is everything as it should be?

Yes — it is what it is. A successful exploration could be anything from walking in to a public place, to getting permission, gray areas, or outright trespassing. Assessing the best methodology for accessing a site is just part of the work.

7. Do you make photographs when you go on expeditions? What do you look for in making these photos?

The experience of being at an interesting site under the moonlight is amazing. Photographs are a way to share the experience. The images are meant to document the location, with the added intangible mystery of place expressed through long, moonlit exposures.

8. Have any perilous encounters made you reconsider going back out on expeditions?

Nothing has made me want to stop. A few experiences have helped define the limits of my preferred access methodologies. I usually make better images if I’m not looking over my shoulder all the time.

9. What do you think of the newfound trendiness or UrbEx? Does it affect the way you think about or conduct the practice?

Is it trendy now, or does it just have a different name? I don’t use the term UrbEx. I prefer using terms like abandoned places and ruins. I don’t relate to a lot of the writing I’ve seen that uses the term UrbEx. The growth of UrbEx hasn’t affected my practice, but will hopefully increase the audience for my photography and photography workshops.

Night Photographer Jerry Day: One Night in the Valley of the Gods

One Night in the Valley of the Gods -- by Jerry Day

One Night in the Valley of the Gods — by Jerry Day
Valley of the Gods, Utah, 2009

Jerry Day has some great new work on his website, including the incredible long star trail image above. I often talk about making 6-8 minute long exposures with noise reduction turned off on the Canon 5D, and stacking multiple exposures for 20-30 minute long star trails. What you’re seeing above in Jerry’s work is this same technique, but for over 10 hours in total duration. Jerry and I exchanged emails about his technique:

Yes, this is a digital composition spanning the entire night, sunset to sunrise. Bracketed images at sunset/sunrise processed as HDR, merged and then layered on a base image of star trails from twilight to twilight – about 10.25 hours shot in a sequence of 6 minute exposures. At least 114 images total went into the composition. I shot two compositions that night using Canon 5D for the twin mesa view and the Canon 5D Mark II for the single mesa composition. Had a great night camping out under the stars.

My follow up question for Jerry was “what do you use to power a Canon 5D for a 10 hour exposure?”

I use a DC adapter hooked into a 12V battery pack – the same setup I use for astrophotography with the Canon 20Da. The coupler is modified by Hutech to be DC only – no need for the intermediate AC adapter and power inverter.

For the Canon 5D Mark II, I had the proper DC coupler, but intended to use the original AC adapter provided by Canon for use with the 20Da or 5D. Unfortunately, I found in the field that the coupler was incompatible with the existing AC adapter receptacle – I would need to purchase the full AC adapter kit for the 5D Mark II (Canon strikes again!)

My solution – set my alarm for about 3 hour intervals – crawl out of the bivy-bag, quickly swap battery pack and restart the timer. Done properly, the gaps in the star trails are not any more noticable than the 1 second gaps the Canon timer cable imposes after each frame. For my next outing I will have the proper adapters.

I’d like to thank Jerry for sharing his technique and equipment notes. Check out the rest of the night photography galleries on his website, Dark Sky Dreams.

Film vs. Digital Night Photography: Interview with Troy Paiva of Lost America

Recently I had the opportunity to view some amazing long exposure film images by my friend and fellow night photography workshop instructor Troy Paiva. The film images are 45 minute exposures at f/11 using Kodak E100VS film in a 35mm camera. I noted that Troy made both film and digital exposures from a similar vantage point for a few of these images, and asked if I could show some comparisons — he graciously agreed. Below are 3 sets of images with my thoughts on the look and relative strengths of each format, followed by commentary from Troy. I look forward to hearing your comments on how the film and digital versions compare!

Set #1 — Business Coupe

Business Coupe 45 -- by Troy Paiva

Business Coupe 45 — by Troy Paiva

Business Coupe 2 -- by Troy Paiva

Business Coupe 2 — by Troy Paiva

Joe: The long lines of the car are really accentuated by the huge star trails in the film version. The slightly lower and closer camera position, and light falloff on the back of the car really create dimensionality. I love the texture on the side of the car, the brightly lit rear wheel, and headliner details in the film version. Looks like the front part of the car had some fill light?

The digital version has the fantastic color blending, which is really set off by the subtle purples and oranges in the sky. The short star trails work extremely well in this case because the Big Dipper is so identifiable. The hard angle used for the green light painting really brings out the shape and texture in the car, and the positioning of the windows against the line of the mountains adds wonderful complexity to the middle of the composition. The shadows in the digital version seem more open, and the digital version feels much cleaner overall. Tell me about your strategy for the lighting in the digital version. Also, what was the color temperature to get the sky that color? Both images are very successful, but I’m partial to the film version.

Troy: The film image is lit by a natural xenon Stinger Streamlight from off camera-right, the same basic angle that I did the green flashlight in the digital version.  I was looking to pull out the form in the front fender and how it transitions into the body of the car.  The white balance on the digital image is 7500º, quite hot, but I wanted that warm sunset-y purple sky to compliment the predominant greens of the lighting.

These were shot right after sunset on the day after the full moon, when the moon-rise happened about an hour after sunset.  The digital image was done first and has no moonlight in it and just a slight touch of daylight (seen lighting the distant vehicles), so I knew that to get any light here, I would have to add it myself.   I light painted the hell out of it, from several angles, so none of the car’s form would be lost in silhouette.  The film version was set up next and was also started before the moonrise.  Over the course of the 45 minute exposure, however, the moon rose, but the angle of moonlight is still extremely low, creating long shadows and interesting highlights.

I like the digital version better, personally.  I think the color and sharpness rule the day.  I also like the ’70s Dodge Dart popping into the frame on the right, it balances the composition.  This is a copy of a similar set up done by one of our students, Tim Little, during the workshop, the night before.  When I happened upon him shooting this, I knew I wanted to do my own take on it.

Set #2 — 1972 Ford Galaxie 500

Freebie -- by Troy Paiva

Freebie — by Troy Paiva

The Bean -- by Troy Paiva

The Bean — by Troy Paiva

Joe: Unlike the first comparison, the compositions here are radically different. With a 45 minute exposure, you want a lot of sky. The film shot is more a “vehicle in context,” and the digital version is tight and textural. The digital version really sings for me in this set — the juxtaposition of the dense lines on the front grill against the moving plant is superb. The lighting on the grill and under the hood have a lot of texture and snap. Tell me about you lighting strategy for this image, and also the color palette choice — which is hugely important to making this image work so well.

Troy: When doing these extremely long film exposures I want a lot of star movement, so I tend to frame with a lot of sky to help make it the dominant subject.  The digital image is more about the car and creosote, and my lighting treatment on them, so I tightened up on those.

The film image has a little xenon flashlight on on the grille from camera-left.  The digital has lime-gelled LED light from the same location, but I also hit the underside of the hood and just got more light on the car in general.  I also used a green-gelled and snooted light on the headlights.  Is the green too similar to the lime?  Perhaps, but I really wanted the headlights to only be slightly different and not pop too much because I wanted the other areas like the hood and plant to not be lost while people are oogling the headlights.  It’s a fine line.  I also lit the driver-side fender with a natural LED flashlight to pull out some shadow details on that side of the car in an effort to give that deep shadow area some detail and give some pop to the creosote bush.Like you, I think the digital image is far more interesting and absorbing.  Truth be told, I wanted that much light on the film version too, but I simply didn’t hit it enough. Light painting on film is extremely difficult because you can’t preview the image to make sure you got what you need.  The digital version took 3 tries before I was happy enough with it to move on to something else.  Because of this, I keep my film light painting to a minimum.

Set #3 — Southbound Winnie

Southbound Winnie 45 -- by Troy Paiva

Southbound Winnie 45 — by Troy Paiva

Southbound Winnie 2 -- by Troy Paiva

Southbound Winnie 2 — by Troy Paiva

Joe: The film Winnebago image has the classic circular star trails achieved by pointing the camera towards Polaris (the North Star). Film is great for this classic compositional technique because you don’t have to worry about battery life or noise reduction. The color palette of the E100VS really works the deep dark cyans of the sky against the warm yellows of the desert sand. The film version has a lot of snap. The digital version has a quieter, more clean and subtle look in this set. The interior is lit with just enough light to add color and texture, and the headlight painting gives the front grill some personality. Can you talk about how much light was used on the interior. I’m also interested in any thoughts on compositional strategies with digital when composing in a northward direction?

Troy: I did the digital shot first here and saw that the North Star was lined up on the center of the vehicle, so I knew that it was a good candidate for a killer star spiral on a long film exposure.  I was really drawn to the blocky, chiseled symmetrical look of the RV here, so I composed to accentuate that.  I love that you can see the lights of Ridgecrest reflected in the windshield too.

In both cases, the interior  is lit with a red LED flashlight from both sides, basically doing my best to make sure the interior got filled with light.  The volume of light is much less on the film version.  Some of that is from the aperture of the film version being f11 (vs. f5.6 for the digital), but I just don’t think I put as much light in there.  It is, unfortunately, a very inexact science.  Both images also have snooted LED light on the headlights as well.  Note also that I burned down the chunk of white insulation in the lower left corner on the digital version, but left it on the film.  It was terribly distracting.

I’m partial to the digital version here too.  It’s just smoother and cleaner and the lighting pops more.  Yeah, I know, I’ve chosen the digital versions unanimously.  What can I say?  When I moved to digital in 2005 I said I’d never shoot film at night again and it took me 4 years to decide to tinker with it again.  I really wanted to see how I’d react to it.  While there’s nothing that can compare with these crazy-long star trails and that surreal softness to the shadows and overall quality of light, I just think the excessive contrast and grain, a byproduct of reciprocity failure in film exposures this length, renders the images less clear and tight.  Someday (soon) you’re going to be able to do 45 minute long digital exposures, retaining the best traits of both mediums.  I’m looking forward to that.

Night Photography: Night Writerz Podcast Interview with Joe Reifer

White Tractor -- by Joe Reifer

White Tractor — by Joe Reifer

The latest episode of the Night Writerz podcast features an interview with yours truly. Open up iTunes on your Mac or PC, search for the Night Writerz, and subscribe! Here’s direct link to episode #7 of this great podcast dedicated to night photography. The episode starts with a slideshow of night photography — make sure iTunes is setup to see the images at bottom left.

The interview starts at 5 minutes into the episode, and covers a wide range of night photography topics including exposure considerations, light painting, workshops, and the San Francisco Bay Area night photography community. Many thanks to Chad Clark of the Night Writerz for having me on the show! And check out the past episodes, including interviews with Troy Paiva, Chris Conrad, and Dave Black.

Now Playing: Guest of Cindy Sherman

Just heard from Stephen at the amazing Oddball Film & Video that the film Guest of Cindy Sherman is now screening in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater in the Mission District [Map]. Here’s an interview with filmmaker Paul H-O on salon.com, and a write up from Oddball’s private screening last Fall. If you live in the Bay Area, Oddball’s email list is highly recommended. Here’s the Guest of Cindy Sherman trailer:

Here’s a few quotes from the film:

“Overall the art world is bullshit.” – Eric Bogosian
“It’s one blow job after another.”- David Ross, Whitney Museum of Art
“I like the elitism of the art world. I think art for the people is a terrible idea.” – John Waters

Update: I saw the film and it’s thought provoking and recommended. The funny thing is that Cindy Sherman seems like the nicest most down to earth person, and filmmaker Paul H-O seems like a whiney complainer. According to this 2008 interview with Paul H-O, Cindy Sherman had quite a bit of control over what got shown in the final film and what didn’t. A little bit of further research yielded a great article on The American Prospect called Portrait of Misogyny that has some very interesting commentary about art world bubbles and gender roles. Guest of Cindy Sherman runs through Thursday at the Roxie.