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.