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.

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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.

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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.

valleyjunkyard_20140908_008m_LABw.jpg

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.

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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:

gradient-settings

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!

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Shooting and processing HDR night photography from Mare Island

Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock
Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock

The Nocturnes head honcho Tim Baskerville lives on Mare Island, and has been hosting occasional night photography events there since 2006. Mare Island Naval Shipyard was established in 1854, and decommissioned in 1996. A wide variety of old buildings and dry docks remain. Mare Island has enough lighting for night photography whether there is a full moon or not. The mixed lighting conditions can be challenging for night photography. Below are four images from last Saturday's adventure, along with notes about how to shoot and process HDR night photography. The dry docks and cranes at Mare Island are always a interesting subject for night photography. Unfortunately, these areas are fenced, which makes getting a good camera position tough. A lot of photographers at the event marveled at my solution to this problem. I have a Gitzo 3541XLS tripod (now the Gitzo 3542XLS) that goes up to 6.6 feet tall. Add the height of the ballhead and camera, and you can easily shoot over a standard fence, which is how I got this shot.

The image is composed of a five shot bracket of 8 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. The 5 images were blended together using Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. Then I brought the blended image into Photoshop. Using a layer mask, I used the foreground from the blended HDR image, and the sky from the 2 minute exposure.

Natural Looking HDR

<rant> HDR is a dirty word (or dirty acroynm) in some circles, due to rampant abuse of HDR software. I used to blend exposures on a layer mask to make sure my photos looked like photos instead of clown puke. Over the last few years I've realized that HDR can be used for very natural looking results. I want my photographs to look like photographs, not some bad Photoshop filter from the 1990's. Anyhow, HDR can save you a lot of time when you're shooting at night under mixed lighting conditions. If you're interested in learning HDR techniques, I highly recommend Christian Bloch's The HDRI Handbook 2.0. Even experienced HDR shooters will pick up some great techniques from this book. </rant> Let's continue with some more night photography examples.

Mare Island crane truck C5 at night
Mare Island crane truck C5 at night

My compositional style typically favors the grand view instead of detail shots. I did two different setups for the picture of this truck, and ended up liking the tighter framing above. This image is a three shot bracket of 24 seconds, 46 seconds, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The three images were merged to HDR in Photoshop, and the resulting 32-bit TIFF file was processed in Lightroom. The light in the window at the bottom right was blown out, even in the shortest exposure. I was planning to shoot a few shorter exposures, but I had to move my tripod. I was setup in the middle of the road, and a car drove through before I could finish. The bright area could be adjusted by simply using the clone stamp to bring some tonal value back in the bottom window panes, although I'm not sure that it bothers me.

Mare Island buoys and cranes at night
Mare Island buoys and cranes at night

I scouted this shot during a walk at sunset, and was happy with how dark and mysterious the area looked at night. Shooting this image proved to be complicated because a bright orange building light behind me kept turning off and on every 2-3 minutes. I ended up with a five shot bracket of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The fifth shot was also 2 minutes at f/9.5, but at ISO 400.

The building light was on for a few seconds in a couple of the exposures. I thought this might help with a little bit of fill light, but it ended up making the resulting colors look weird when I merged to HDR in Photoshop. The Photomatix Fusion results looked better, but the image still had a slight HDR look. I used the 2 minute exposure for the sky, and tried layering the HDR version on top for more foreground detail. The tone of the image looked just about right, but the color in the buoys still looked a little bit off. I switched the HDR image layer with the foreground detail to Luminosity Blend Mode -- problem solved! The tone looked good, and the colors looked natural.

Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt
Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt

The hardest part of this shot was smelling the fumes from the nearby buildings that are used to paint large pipes. The foreground is a four shot bracket of 45 seconds, 90 seconds, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. After reviewing the bracketed shots on the back of the camera, I noticed that Orion's Belt would be in a good position in the sky soon. I waited a few minutes, and then made a 10 minute exposure at f/11, ISO 100. The 5 shot bracket was blended with Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. The foreground is the HDR image, and the sky is from the 10 minute exposure.

I hope these shooting and post-processing details are useful for those who are interested in shooting HDR at night. You can see bigger versions of these photos, and more night photography of Mare Island on my website.

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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.

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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: http://www.michaelbertrandphotography.com/

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