Light painting in the junkyard with Klaus-Peter Statz

Klaus-Peter Statz is a photographer based in New York City who has attended a few of my night photography and light painting workshops. I was impressed with the images that he made at last month's junkyard shoot. Six of his light painted night photos are featured below, along with some notes on the lighting techniques.

Joe: The Williams bus photo does a really nice job of isolating the subject. Can you talk about how you lit this image.

Klaus-Peter: Most of the bus was inside a garage in total darkness, just a small part of the front was lit by moonlight. I wanted to keep the "Midnight Express" feeling and lit the driver side of the interior with a flashlight, reaching in from the outside through a small window. The headlights were lit with a different flashlight, using a snoot. Finally, I used the snoot with a blue colored flashlight to light up the route sign. The cab light illumination was added in post processing.

Joe: This bus image has a wild blur. Did you zoom the lens or bump the tripod? It's a cool effect.

Klaus-Peter: This image is a combination of two frames, a regular long exposure plus a high ISO test shot during which I had accidentally bumped against the tripod. I first wanted to delete the blurry shot, but then played around with it in Photoshop, adding some more blur and came up with this result.

Joe: I like the pastel pinks and yellows of the bus against the blues and greens of the sky/tree. What was your lighting strategy?

Klaus-Peter: This bus was sitting right underneath a strong floodlight that gave it a yellow-greenish cast. I did some light painting on the interior with orange and red flashlights, but was not able to overcome the effect the floodlight had on the outside. I therefore corrected the white balance in post processing to create the pastel colors.

Joe: Great composition, and purple/green is a nice color combo. How did you light this one?

Klaus-Peter: The purple effect was already in the sky, I just emphasized it a bit in post. In order to add the green color I used a green flashlight from behind the bus to lighten up the interior, and added a pop of green to the outside from approx. 45 degrees camera left.

Joe: How did you light this image?

Klaus-Peter: It took me several attempts to get this image lit correctly. The final result is a composite of three images, one using a snooted white flashlight on the headlights, a second one with two pops of a strobe, with and without an orange gel inside the car, and finally the sign that was lit from the far left side with a flashlight. Thanks for helping to direct the lighting from the camera perspective - some shots are easier to achieve with a partner.

Joe: Was the bat-shaped shadow on the ground what attracted you to this composition?

Klaus-Peter: Exactly, the moonlight-created Batmobile reminded me of a similar shot I had done three years ago in the Mojave Desert with a '57 Chevy. It was fun to shoot.

I asked Klaus-Peter if he had a version of the previous image without light painting for the sake of comparison. Shooting one frame without lighting is a great way to see exactly what your light painting is adding to the image.

I'd like to thank Klaus-Peter Statz for sharing his images and light painting strategies. You can see more of Klaus-Peter's work on his website.


Night Photography: Big M Automotive

During the March full moon, I made a return visit to Big M Automotive with Troy Paiva. The Big M specializes in 50-60's Mercurys and Plymouths. Welcome to fin-land! We've been shooting at this location since 2009, and revisiting these classic cars was a lot of fun. Many thanks to the owner for his hospitality.

The owner's wife told me that the lettering on this car was from an adventure where the owner & a friend parked this classic Cadillac in front of a casino, and hinted that The Big M might be giving away a car. Viral advertising with a sense of humor.

Technical details: Four exposures of 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 were combined for 20 minute star trails. The light painting was done with a Stinger Streamlight flashlight from camera left. A low angle was used to skim the ground for texture, and emphasize the bulbous shape of the car. 
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 21mm.

I was scouting for interesting cars to shoot in the daylight, and was getting pretty free with my compositions. I took almost this exact same shot before sunset, and really loved the off-kilter compo on the back of the camera. Once the moon was up, I returned to do a light painted version.

Technical details: Four exposures of 4 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200 were combined for 16 minute star trails. You can see Venus setting between the trees. The lighting was done with a Streamlight Stinger flashlight. The door, floor, and lower dash were done from camera left. Some additional fill and the speedometer cluster were done through the back window.
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 16mm.

As a big fan of J.G. Ballard, the Ballard's Mopar Repair stencil on this car amused me greatly. Lining up the tree behind the C-pillar was the key to making the background work. This shot is pure moonlight.

Technical details: 4 shots of 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 were combined for 20 minute star trails.
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 16mm.

I saw the blue Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight next to the trees during my daylight scouting. I was testing my personal comfort zone with composition, and purposefully cropped out the headlight on the left. I also chopped off the right side of the Dodge on the right. But it still works. And it's fun. How much of a car in a picture is enough to get the idea of the car? No light painting here, just pure moonlight.

Technical details: Three shots of 6 minutes 40 seconds at f/8, ISO 200 were combined for 20 minute star trails. 
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 16mm.

This shot was purposefully underexposed by a stop to keep the mid-ground dark, and have the sky look like night. I knew the two billboards would blow out, and lined them up in relationship to the car's headlights - almost like an afterimage. The light painting was done with a Stinger Streamlight flashlight from camera right. The lighting plan was just to light the "face" of the car.

Technical details: Four shots of 2 minutes 30 seconds at f/8, ISO 200 were combined for 10 minute star trails. An additional exposure of 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 was made to have the option of more moonlit foreground and mid-ground detail, but wasn't used.
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 22mm.

The instant I saw this Plymouth next to the field with the lights from town in the background, I knew there was a picture here. At first, I tried shooting from the side at a lower angle, to emphasize the rear fins. After some experimenting with the composition. a 3/4 angle provided the best view of the car, nice light streaks from the road, a good rhythm with the utility wire, and a cool backlit effect on the plants. I stopped down to f/11 on this shot to get the star shaped highlights.

Technical details: Six shots of 5 minutes at f/11, ISO 200 were combined for 30 minute star trails.
Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at 30mm.


School Strict: Light painting a Fox Body Mustang at the Valley Junkyard

During the fall Valley Junkyard Night Photography workshop, we reviewed a photo of a car in front of a school bus during the critique sessions. The image resulted in a lively discussion about how your eye gravitates to any words that are in an image, and the importance of their placement.

The following night, I took a closer look at this section of the junkyard, and found a Fox Body Mustang behind one of the school buses. I set up on a 3/4 view of the car that looked good in the moonlight. I made sure to leave room for the detritus in the foreground. I made a point of keeping the strong vertical lines on the left side of the frame clean in the composition. I experimented with the camera height in order to layer the Mustang's grill and window louvers against the lines of the school bus.

I checked the composition, exposure, and focus using high ISO test shots. Once everything looked good, I set my timer remote to make 6 shots in a row. Each exposure was 3:20 at f/9.5, ISO 200. Stacked together this would give me 20 minute star trails.

Taking 6 shorter exposures allowed me to work without using long exposure noise reduction (LENR). I planned to leave one exposure with moonlight only, and light paint the rest. After reviewing the results on the back of the camera, I made 2 shorter exposures to make sure I nailed the light painting.

The 6 image star trail stack in Lightroom, plus 2 additional images for light painting.

The 6 image star trail stack in Lightroom, plus 2 additional images for light painting.

The light painting plan for this shot had 3 objectives:

  1. Light the hood and front grill of the car at a hard angle from camera left. This would emphasize the grid pattern on the grill.
  2. Provide some subtle fill light on the interior of the car by crouching behind the open door.
  3. Emphasize the strong lines of the window louvers by lighting through the rear window.

I used a Stinger Streamlight flashlight for all of the light painting. The warm color of the Xenon bulb blends nicely with moonlight and city lights at a color temperature of 3800K. The louvers and interior lighting were handled nicely during the 6 image stack, but I didn't put enough light on the front of the car. The lighting on the final 2 images solved that problem.

After developing all of the images in Lightroom, I used Photo -- Edit In -- Open As Layers in Photoshop. Then I put the images into Layer Groups to stay organized. The images below show how the star trails were stacked, and how the light painting was fine tuned with layer masks during post-processing.

Once the light painting was dialed in, there were a few more steps before the image was ready for output:

  1. Enhance the orange against blue color palette of the image using a LAB conversion technique. You can see this technique in action at my workshops.
  2. Select the sky, and use Curves to darken it down.
  3. Retouch a distracting piece of trash on the left edge of the frame.
  4. Output for the web using Lightroom.

So that's a lot to digest. Did you notice the placement of the letters on the school bus as framed by the car window? This took a lot of test shots to get right, but the little details are worth it.

The Valley Junkyard is an amazing place for night photography and light painting. Troy Paiva and I will be announcing a spring 2015 workshop at this location soon. Registration opens in mid-December. The best way to get a spot is to sign up for our email list.


Eagle Field night photography: Radio Room moonrise or UFO sighting

The night of the full moon is a good opportunity to integrate the moonrise into your photos. I'd been doing some shooting in the old Eagle Field radio room during last week's night photography workshop, and thought the mannequin watching the moonrise out of the window would be a fun image. There was a tungsten bug light hanging outside the radio room that we'd been turning off so people could light paint the various old pieces of equipment inside. I turned the light back on to help frame my shot, and made a few high ISO test images to check composition, focus, and exposure. Then I turned down the ISO, and made this exposure of 3 minutes at f/11.

Radio Room moonrise or UFO sighting #1
Radio Room moonrise or UFO sighting #1

The shot looked pretty good. So I turned off the light, and went outside the room to try lighting the scene with a flashlight. I experimented with various angles until I noticed the projected shadow of the mannequin on the wall. I went back inside, and set the camera to make a few exposures. My favorite light painted version of the image is below.

Radio Room moonrise or UFO sighting #2
Radio Room moonrise or UFO sighting #2

These photos were shot with an Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 lens on a Canon EOS 6D. This lens has very little distortion. The camera was tilted up slightly, but I was able to use the new Upright feature in Lightroom 5 to quickly correct the perspective. I'd composed the shot a bit loosely to leave room for the cropping that was necessary for perspective correction. Upright worked surprisingly well for this interior shot.


Moonlit Motorcoach Madness: Night 360 Panorama with Light Painting

This full moon 360 night panorama includes light painting on two of the classic buses. I was able to find a camera position where there was no overlap between shots on the areas that I planned to light paint. I knew the lighting on the bus inside the garage would be more tricky, so I did one take without lighting, and then 2 versions with light painting before rotating the camera around to make the rest of the shots. I also did a practice shot to make sure that I could nail the light painting on the back of the bus on the trailer.

Shooting 360 Panos at Night: Noise and ISO

The pano is composed of 4 shots around with a Canon 8-15mm f/4L fisheye at 8mm on a Canon EOS 60D. I also made a 5th shot to patch the ground (i.e., the nadir shot in panospeak). Each exposure was 90 seconds at f/8, ISO 800. Balancing the exposure time and ISO is important when shooting 360s at night. If the exposure times are too long, the stars may not line up well. By testing different exposure times and ISOs, I've found that I can usually shoot up to 90 seconds at ISO 800 without an objectionable amount of noise. This particular night was pushing the limits because there is more noise in long exposures when it's hot outside -- and it was about 70º at midnight when I made this pano!

Light Painting a 360 Panorama

I used a Streamlight Stinger flashlight for the light painting on both buses. There was already moonlight on part of the bus in the garage. I went inside behind the blue wall (between the buses) and lit the front window and top of the bus. Then I walked back outside and lit the side of the bus at a shallow angle. The blend of moonlight and light painting was optimized using a layer mask in Photoshop before stitching the pano in PTGui Pro.

The bus on the back of the trailer was lit from over by the left corner of the blue building. The test shot looked a little bit too flat, so I chose a more shallow angle to show contrast and detail. If you zoom in on the bus, you'll see a little kiss of moonlight on the top left corner. I love it when a light painting plan comes together.

Update: A second panorama has been added to the tour.


Night photography: The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard

The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer
The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer

Exposure and noise reduction settings for star trail stacking

Five exposures of 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 were stacked for star trails. When you make multiple exposures for star trails, the interval between each shot must be 1 second or less, so there are no breaks in the trails. You can light paint during the exposures, but you won't be able to review the results on the back of the camera until the stacking is done.

The 6 minute exposure time was selected because f/8 is the optimum aperture for both sharpness and depth of field. The 5D Mark II can make clean 6 minute exposures with in-camera noise reduction (LENR) turned off as long as the temperature is under about 60°. Shooting with LENR turned off is much more efficient because you don't need to wait for noise reduction to run after every shot. This also helps conserve your battery.

Start with the light painting, and leave one dark

When you're doing a series of light painted exposures with stacked star trails, it's a good idea to not light paint on one of the images. This moonlight only image will give you a base for adjusting the lighting in post-processing if necessary. The recommended shooting strategy for a shot like the one above is to do a series of shorter exposures for light painting first. The process of light painting and then reviewing the image on the LCD allows you time to really assess your lighting and composition. Once you've nailed the light painting, you can decide if you want to commit the time necessary to fill the sky with star trails, or move on to another shot.

Shorter exposures for light painting

In this case, I actually started the series of star trail stacking images, and went to help someone with another shot. I was confident that I liked the composition, and knew I could come back to add the light painting. Half an hour later, I reviewed the moonlit images on the LCD. I made three additional exposures of 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 for light painting. I didn't worry about the interval between exposures, because these additional shots were only for the foreground subject, not the sky. The shorter exposure time of 3 minutes allowed me to work faster, and made the light painting more contrasty because there is 1 stop less moonlight on the foreground.

The star trail images were stacked in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode, and the best of the 3 light painting exposures was added to the foreground using a layer mask. Bringing the light painting in on a mask allowed me to make subtle adjustments to the lighting.

Explain the light painting and win a print

Can you tell where I stood to do the light painting? The first person to correctly answer the question in the comments wins a small print of the image.

Hint: Almost all of the lighting was done from one position, and a little bit of fill was done from a second position. Look at the shadows, and explain what was lit from where.

The print will be a 6" x 9" image on 8" x 10" paper. Lower 48 only.

Update: The image was primarily lit from camera right at a 45° angle from the right of the machine using a Streamlight Stinger flashlight and a piece of Cinefoil to control spill. The tires would have been completely black without light painting, and required quite a bit of light. The shadow on the circular piece between the tires, and the shadow on the left front tires are the key to lighting direction. The interior was lit from the same position, and I pivoted slightly to add a little bit of fill to the tires on the right. A small amount of fill was added from camera left to the muffler area and the 2 metal pieces that stick out above the windshield.


Night photography: Dodge Charger light painting step-by-step

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

During the Paul's Junkyard Night Photography workshop, I worked with photographer Michael Bertrand on light painting a cool old Dodge Charger. Having someone stand at the camera position while you test your light painting is a big time saver. Instead of waiting 2-3 minutes to see the results of each lighting experiment, I was able to give Mike feedback right away on the angle and intensity of the light. He did all of the hard work, I just stood behind the camera and watched. Let's take a step-by-step look at Mike's shot.

Step 1 - Headlights and interior

Mike wanted to light the interior of the car with a red-gelled flash. If the camera position is low or high, sometimes a flash can be placed directly on the back window of the car. This only works if you can hide the light source from the camera. Stick your face where the flash is going to go and check to see if your camera can see the light. In this shot, the camera position dictated another technique -- Mike simply opened the passenger side door, did a few flash pops inside the car to bounce the light around evenly, and then closed the door. The car may move slightly during this process, but it's such a short amount of time in the overall exposure that it doesn't compromise sharpness.

Mike walked to the front grill and lit the headlights using a flashlight and cardboard snoot. The key to this technique is to figure out how far away to stand in order for the circular beam of the snoot to fall in the right place. This ended up being about 4 feet away for a few seconds on each headlight.

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 2 - Grill experiment

The shot looked good on the back of the camera, but the face of the car was still mostly a big black hole. The grill on this Charger is really deep, and I suggested that Mike try lighting just the front of the grill, but leave the inside dark so the headlights will pop. This take was lit from camera left at a shallow angle along the front of the grill with a snooted and gelled flashlight. The amount of light is right, but looking at the results on the back of the camera, we realized that the grill needs light from both sides.

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 3 - Almost there

To get even light on the front of the grill, Mike counted his paces from the front of the car to make sure he was the same distance away. Paying attention to the height of the flashlight, and counting the amount of time the light is on are also helpful. The backlight was added by going around the rear of the car and sweeping a flashlight a few inches above the ground to pull out texture. The shot was really coming together now, but there's too much light on the inside of the left front wheel.

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 4 - The final shot

Mike really nailed the light painting on this final shot. Instead of sweeping the flashlight on the ground, he held the beam steady for a few seconds to add texture to the ground but maintain the integrity of the curvy shadows. This also solved the problem of not overlighting the inside front wheel. The red interior light has a nice glow, and the natural bleed of the pink/magenta headlights on the areas of the yellow grill looks great. Mike worked quickly and methodically, and was able to nail all of the light painting in the camera. Those of you who've tried these techniques know that this isn't easy!

Technical details and a note about exposure

This image is a 90 second exposure at f/8, ISO 200 using a Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens at 12mm (18mm equivalent). A technically correct expose-to-the-right shot for the light of the full moon would have been 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. An exposure time of 90 seconds underexposes the background by 2 stops, which keeps the sky and the background dark. Using the exposure time to control the tonality of the background really helps the light painting stand out.

I'd like to thank Mike for letting me share his light painting setup. To see more of his work, visit: