Wagons and Wagon Wheels: Painting the Past

Thursday (29th) I will be leaving for the location scout for data to plan night one of the Bristlecone Pines Workshop in July.  And I really need to get Spring Semester’s grading done and turned in.  But c’mon, I had a chance to go shooting at the Antique Steam and Gas Farm Implement Museum in Vista, CA, so what can I say?  decisions, decisions… priorities, priorities…  So of course, since I am a photographer, I grabbed some gear and headed out.  While there I came across a couple of scenes that prompted me to try a Light Painting style but with a difference in approach.

Most of the ‘painting with light’ images I’ve done and shown thus far were done to yield a particular unique look typical of the approach.  The images become surreal in the sense that while obviously photographs, their lighting is not natural to this planet with its one sun.  Some things are lit that cannot be lit, angles of light are multiple and texture is extreme while shadows are deep and rich.  Don’t get me wrong… I love how they look!  But there are other reasons and ways to use the technique.

One fairly common use is to be able to light a scene when no other lighting is available.  In this case, the goal is a (relatively) normal looking scene that you might have lit with normal lights but you did not have any available or there was no way to power or to deploy them.  This first example is typical.  The Blacksmith barn at the museum is broken up into several “stations” to demonstrate various things blacksmiths, the backbone of life from frontier towns to well into the early 20th century, worked on.  I was attracted to the wheelwright station where wooden wagon and carriage wheels were made and repaired.

If a photographer was shooting this for a feature or editorial use and was unable to gain access to light it properly, using a flashlight might not be intuitive but it is a perfectly good option.  The problem at the wheelwright’s station was a perfect example: the scene was closed off in this dark barn with a makeshift “cell” door with a wrought iron grate.  Getting the camera to see through the grating was easy, but there was no power and no way to enter the station to place lights.

Here is a straight shot showing the situation with the only light being that sunlight coming through the windows.  I had to use ISO 640 and still open up the aperture enough for almost any exposure showing the stuff in the area.  But there is a lot of noise and the flares from the windows fill the lens with stray light dulling the shadows but still not letting you see the section clearly.  An HDR version helped but it still was not a good shot.  Painting With light was the answer but it is SOOOOOoooooo much easier to do at night or in the dark!

original shot of wheelwright station in the blacksmith barn at the museum as seen thourhg the closed grating doors.

original shot of wheelwright station in the blacksmith barn at the museum as seen through the closed grating doors.  Shot with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 24mm TS/E Tilt/Shift lens.

So with camera on  tripod with the front legs placed in through the grate to get the lens up to an opening, I was ready.  Fortunately the open grating extended beyond this station and over other display areas.  I used one of one of my bright Cree LED flashlights and by moving to the outer edges of the wheelwrightarea I was able to get a fair distance to each side and around the station so shine light on the various parts.  I made 24 exposures, each with the light aimed at something different in the scene.  The natural light was fairly bright in places so even though I had dropped the ISO back to 160 (the cleanest setting on my 5D MkII) I shoot at f22 to get the longest exposure [possible and still only had 4 seconds of exposure to avoid over-lighting the scene from the harsh window light and not seeing the effect of the flashlight.

A logistical problem appeared because my camera was actually resting against the grating which turned out to be flexible and if I leaned against it anywhere it moved the camera.  So I had to be very careful as I threaded an arm and hand holding the light through the openings in the grate.  I regretted not bringing my monopod mounted clamp to allow me to push the light further into the scene.

Here is the completed assembly of 24 frames.  It is an acceptable documentary shot though not a wall hanging example.  However all of the implements and tools are now visible.

Final version of the wheelwright station at the blacksmith barn of the museum.  24 frames with 7-Cree LED flashlight.

Final version of the wheelwright station at the blacksmith barn of the museum. 24 frames with 7-Cree LED flashlight.

For assembling this version I started with a base layer that had only a small section lit.  Then, one at a time, I brought in another frame, put in in a new layer on the top of the stack, and set the blend mode to “Lighten.”  This blending mode only blends areas on the top layer that are lighter than the layer beneath it.  I then used a combination of opacity setting and a layer mask to modify or erase anything from that layer I did not like.  When satisfied I then grabbed the next frame and repeated the process.  In the RAW converter (in this case Adobe Camera Raw) each frame was assigned my camera’s profile, had lens correction applied and because of the cold blueness of the Cree LEDs was assigned a white balance of “Shade” to come closer to the reality of it.

Once completed, I had to globally ‘cool’ it down just a little (the “shade setting  during RAW conversion was a bit too warm) with the photo filter tool and then removed the rest of the keystone distortion from the wide angle lens placed so close.  It took about an hour to assemble all of the frames into a final shot.

But I had initially had specific vehicles in mind to shoot.  Most places were simply to bright and I would have to come back when the sun was down for them.  But there were a few exceptions hidden back in storage.

What I think is a water wagon was at the back of one of the storage barns and caught my attention.  Here is a straight shot of it starting to fade into the darkness of the back wall.  Light from the open double doors at the far end of the barn is spilling in but falling off very fast so I had to boost the exposure in this straight shot so you can see it pretty well.

Old water wagon stuck back in the corner of a barn at the museum.  This is a "Straight" shot of it.  Canon 5D MkII with 24mm f1/4 TS/E and the light coming in from the foors to the barn.

Old water wagon stuck back in the corner of a barn at the museum. This is a “Straight” shot of it. Canon 5D MkII with 24mm f1/4 TS/E and the light coming in from the doors to the barn.

To make the image below I took 32 frames including the one above.  For a light I again used a Cree 11,000 lumen flashlight since I needed enough power to overpower the ambient light and allow a few seconds for the exposure.  For this shot the ambient light was thankfully a little darker than it had been in the blacksmith museum so the exposure for each frame was f20 At 8 seconds.  It was difficult to light because the wagon was crammed in tight against the wall and between other wagons so it was not easy to find a place I could squeeze in to aim the light and get back out without losing some hide somewhere. (Please, no rude comments about the REASONS it was hard to sqeeze into the tight spots…) However I was looking for sort of a “hybrid” look, not as surreal as other shots but with a bit more punch than simply trying to replace notmal lighting styles as with the shot above..

Assembly started with the shot above as a base shot.  For this assembly, I duplicated the base layer, activated the background (bottom) layer then copied the next exposure onto a new layer between the background layer and the duplicate layer.  The top layer (the duplicate layer) was made into a layer mask and the areas of light I wanted from the new exposure were revealed with a black brush and other parts, like me or the light in the frame, were simply not used.

This is far more tedious and time consuming than simply using the “lighten” blend mode as done above, but it allows so much more flexibility that it is, for me, more normal way of working, especially if I am going for that unique “Painting with Light” look and feel.   After about 3 hours of work, here is the final.  You can click on it to enlarge it for better viewing.

Final version of the water wagon shot.  Painting with Light approach using a Cree 11,000 lumen flashlight.  Canon 5D Mk II and 24mm f1.4 TS/E tilt-shift lens.  f22 at 8 seconds each for approximately 30 shots.

Final version of the water wagon shot. Painting with Light approach using a Cree 11,000 lumen flashlight. Canon 5D Mk II and 24mm f1.4 TS/E tilt-shift lens. f20 at 8 seconds each for each of the 32 shots.

By the way, that weird yucky colored area on top of the tank is a very long time accumulation of dust.  Click on the image for an enlargement (if you see a plus sign in the cursor you can click again for even more enlargement) and you can see how it and the cobwebs have claimed this great old implement.

OK, enough procrastinating…Time to pack for the trip and start the final grading process…

 

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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