Travel Blog: West Virginia

 

Moundsville FrontLast year, I made the longest journey ever taken in my trusty FJ Cruiser to a remote town in West Virginia called Moundsville. I had never heard of it prior to an offer I received from a flickr contact who was planning a trip to shoot its famous prison. After some fairly effortless travel coordinating, I set out on a Friday night in April for the first leg of my thirteen-hour journey from Cape Cod.

I awoke in Allentown Pennsylvania having made it that far the prior evening.   This is what I considered to be a three-leg journey. Leg one was complete; leg two would lead me to airport in Pittsburg where I would pick up Mike Cooper.   From there, we’d make a short run of the final leg, which would put us in Moundsville.   By five o’clock that evening we had arrived at the Sleep Inn conveniently located in the Moundsville Wal-Mart parking lot.

The following day we made a trip the West Virginia Penitentiary, our primary destination for this visit. This sprawling, historic facility has been long since closed as a prison.   Now, it serves a few functions such as a training facility for police and guards from other correctional facilities.   On some nights, folks interested in tracking down ghosts and other oddities can explore parts of the building.

We took the daytime tour which was hosted by a former employee of the facility. There were no children in our group so we likely got some of the stories reserved for adult-only groups that covered cheerful topics such as murders, assaults, riots, horrible conditions and what landed some of the more famous residents at the prison.   Needless to say, most of the stories painted a picture of a horrible place to stay. It’s no wonder ghost hunters and the like enjoy frequenting this place.   It just so happens that night photographers often tread where ghost hunters journey and this is what allowed us to gain access to the prison grounds for a few hours after dark. The property managers are all too happy to offer nighttime access for a fee. Taking the day tour allowed us to get a good perception of the layout and give some ideas as to where we’d spend our time.

Most of my trips to the world of abandonment involve visiting old buildings out west. Very little scouting is done beyond reviewing images that other photographers have shot there or speaking to them about their experience. There’s a “watch your back” mindset that is ever present. Are those headlights coming toward us?   Was that a coyote? Is our vehicle safe?   While it does add some excitement to the experience, it also requires hyper focus and vigilance in paying attention to your surroundings.   I wouldn’t say it takes away from the creative process all that much but it also can keep you from really absorbing the moment like I might be able to do here on Cape Cod.   This night would be different though.   We’d been granted legal and unchaperoned access to several parts of the building including cellblocks, cafeterias and prison grounds within the walls.   The forecast for the evening was overcast.   We were going to spend most of our time inside anyway but part of me was hoping to see what this place would look like as moonlight broke through the prison glass and lit old cement walls and floors. This would also stop any attempt to shoot the outer grounds simply due to misty conditions and nearby light pollution.   On the flip side, we were going to have some very dark rooms to light paint.   That was an exciting prospect.

We returned later that evening at sunset following dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.   The prison employee met us at the main door and went over the necessary paperwork and conditions attached to our visit. After a few minutes of chatting, we began our trek into the prison.   Also happening that night was some sort of “escape room” event in another part of the building, which explained the number of cars in the lot. No matter to us as we were several walls away on a different floor.

Flashlights and camera gear in hand, our first stop was in the prison’s old post office space.   There was a tiny iron window area through which mail was handed through and this was attached to a larger sorting area.   As you would expect, the walls were textured with thick, peeling paint strips thanks to the high humidity levels often found throughout the facility. It had the smell of old wood and plaster, dust and paint.   Most places looked like this, with the exception of the cafeteria that had held up quite well probably due to having been the newer part of the property. Across the hall was a massive iron door. All though we could see through it to the stairs beyond, it was locked as the area behind it was deemed to be unsafe. Some of the floors above had collapsed due to roof damage.   We weren’t going to be able to go up there.

Technicolor RoomWhile shooting this area, a guard from a nearby facility who Mike had met during a previous visit arrived to check on us after learning of our arrival.   This turned out to be a great opportunity because he had keys to doors we would not have otherwise had gotten passed. He led us up the stairs to what was a former medical ward.   In one room was an exam table, in another a chair for a similar purpose and in another there was the remnants of the prison’s dentist office.   There were also a lot of bats flying around, hanging around and just generally being everywhere we seemed to go.   I watched Mike use a piece of cardboard and his Protomachine LED flashlight to light and photograph three bathroom stalls.   Despite the subject matter, I think that shot ended up being the best of his for the trip.   We spent a good chunk of our time shooting this floor, listening to the stories told to us by Mike’s friend about various things that had happened on that floor over the years, before heading back down stairs for a visit to the cellblock closest to the entrance. At one point, I made a slight detour to hit the cafeteria.   Because of its newer construction, I didn’t find it as interesting and worked my way back to the general area where I knew Mike to be. I also took a minute to pop outside to verify the conditions were still less than ideal for exterior shooting. They were and so I continued to what would be the final location of our four-hour visit.

We took turns shooting various cells and angles in that final block. This is where I would have loved to see moonlight streaming through the massive, tall windows in this part of the prison.   Regardless, the excessively dark spaces gave us a blank canvas to light and for the next hour or so, that’s exactly what we did.

Around midnight, we called it quits per our agreement with the contract we had signed.   That last hour really flew by and it seemed like things were coming to a quick end when we were just hitting our stride.   I think we both agreed that we could have easily banged out an eight-hour shoot here.   Once we exited the main doors back to the parking lot, it was back to the truck and a short drive back to hotel.

The next night was wide open as far as plans went. We hadn’t found a lot in the immediate area after doing some scouting the previous day.   After a good night’s sleep, we started looking online to see what might be available.   It didn’t take long to find Cass on the map.   Sure, it was over four hours away but it did have steam-powered locomotives, an old factory building, a vintage water tower and a train station. I knew that we were most certainly opting out of any useful sleep the following night by committing to an eight hour round trip drive but when would be have this opportunity again?   We left Moundsville around noon and headed south to Cass across interstates, over mountains and through small towns.   We arrived at about four o’clock and in time to talk to the Cass State Park employee on duty, plead our case and get permission to shoot the railroad grounds.   At this point, we had nearly three hours to burn before nightfall. There was no cell phone service here, which made any sort of further research impossible. We did a quick scout and headed to the closest gas station just a few miles away from the massive Greenbank Radio Telescope.   I had always wanted to see this place but never really paid attention to where it was…and suddenly, there it was!       On the way back to the railroad property, I spotted an old barn that made a great foreground for shooting the telescope. I made a mental note of it so that I could take that shot on the way out.

Good thing we had time because it took almost an hour for the pizzas we ordered at a local tavern to come out.   By the time we were done, night was falling and we were ready to start our shoot. Initially, we took turns photographing steam engine and the station before walking down the tracks to an old caboose, the water tower and the old factory structures.   On a length of curved track, just around the bend from where we were photographing were two idling steam trains.   What a great mood-maker for a night shoot these turned out to be.   We could hear their boilers chugging away, occasionally letting off some of that steam Tankedwhile the faint smell of coal filled the night air.   I have to say, it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had on a night shoot in terms of my surroundings.   Our last subject was the old factory. Unfortunately, the dew point was starting cause massive lens fogging on both of our cameras and this meant our shoot was over. We headed back to the truck and off to that little spot with the barn at Greenbank. Unfortunately, low-level fog had formed and was obscuring the telescope entirely. No chance of a shoot there.

It took nearly five hours to get back. We made a brief stop along the side of the road so Mike could hit an old church we saw on the way there and after that it was a lot of conversation and caffeine to keep us going. Eventually, we arrived back in Moundsville – in full daylight at 7:30am.   I’d sleep until around 2 but that was the most rest I’d get for that day.

The prison and the railroad property were worth the thirteen-hour drive from Cape Cod.   Having split most of my shooting between the Cape and the southwest, this felt like it fit somewhere in between and a welcome change.   I dropped Mike back off in Pittsburgh so he could catch his flight home and made the journey to Massachusetts in one day.

As of this writing, plans are in place to return to both of these locations and two others in a few months. This time, a friend and fellow night photographer from out west will be joining us which is something I am looking forward to. Also, we’re making some tweaks to the logistics to minimize the driving between destinations.   Not getting a solid night of sleep between shoots is a creative-killer for me and so I am hopeful that our travel plans will strike a balance between driving, shooting and resting.

Enjoy a selection of images from this location below.   For more information on the places I mentioned here, check out these links:

http://www.cassrailroad.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia_State_Penitentiary

Cass Station.jpgGhost Hall.jpgHulk Exam.jpgMoundsville Front.jpgPostal.jpgRed End.jpgTechnicolor Cell.jpgTechnicolor Room.jpg

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Stopping For Gas

Gas Streaks 2
In October of 2015, I made what has now become an annual trip to California to shoot the area’s extensive array of abandoned properties and structures. We logged almost two thousand miles over a period of about seven days. I had just come off of a stint of working thirty one consecutive days at the office and I was exhausted; far more so than any other time in recent memory and certainly in a way that did not necessarily support the amount of travelling and shooting for which I had set myself up.  Still, given the choice between the office and a roadside desert location under a full moon’s light, the decision was an easy one.

Every photographer who has ever travelled with the sole intention of making their journey a “shooting trip” knows there is always one location that unexpectedly becomes photography gold. It makes the travel worth the work. It sets the tone for the rest of the trip. It gets the creative juices flowing and it often yields the most “keepers.”
Back in 2014, we travelled to an old interstate stopover in Desert Center, California to shoot some cars and a few buildings. Not far up the frontage road, and very near to the streaking highway traffic, was an old gas station that I had seen in photographs before. It was certainly on my list of places to shoot. After being run off by a shady guy in a white pickup truck who was apparently the unofficial mayor of Desert Center, we made our way toward that old gas station. Unfortunately, a slumbering semi had made the old structure its parking place for the night resulting in the station being unshootable. We wouldn’t be back in that area on that particular trip but we hoped it would survive one more year until we were able to get back there.   So many places are disappearing after decades of desert decay.  Would this one last just a little while longer?

Jump ahead to 2015. Enroute to a location that ultimately did not pan out just over the Arizona border, we passed that old gas station and confirmed that, not only was it still there, but the frontage road was closed due to a washout a few months earlier. What this meant for us was, if we could get to the station, we would not have to contend with any through-traffic making it isolated and ripe for shooting. It was finally time to shoot this location.

We pulled off the highway at the same exit near where we had been run off a year before and travelled up the frontage road, passing a few homes along the way and dodging between signs warning “Road Closed.” Ideally, avoiding the homes of these watchful residents would be best and we were granted that option when we noticed direct access from the highway to the gas station property if we were willing to sneak in between a few cones that were set in place of a now missing segment of guard rail. Presumably, this guardrail gap was made for work vehicles to gain quick access to the nearby washout without disturbing the same neighbors we were hoping to avoid. We made note of this and proceeded to make a quick daylight survey of the property after which we jumped back on the interstate and headed to Arizona.

Six hours later, we were on our way back. Our Arizona trip had yielded nothing worth keeping other than cheaper gas. Even the skies had conspired against us. About an hour away from Desert Center, those skies cleared allowing a bright moon to flood over the desert landscape. The stars were aligning for our station shoot and already I had the feeling that this night would be “the” night of the trip.

We pulled over along the interstate and slowly travelled beside the guardrail for a few hundred feet until we met the break. When it looked like no one would notice, we snuck between the cones and hid the rental car behind some nearby construction equipment. So far, so good.
At this point, the moon was still making its way from the east yet already high in the sky. Most of the clouds we had experienced east of there were barely visible on the distant horizon. Tractor trailers with their amber and red lights streaked by a few hundred feet away liked man-made meteors. We did another survey of the location, checking out how the moon was casting its light, what angles would yield the best shots and determining how we could both shoot without interfering with one another.

Star Sign
My initial setup was on the shadowed side of the gas station. This side also featured two opened doors that had likely once been the his and hers bathroom facilities. Nothing remained inside other than some broken tile and pieces of wood. The office portion of the gas station was also on the front corner of this side. All though efforts had been made to board it over as is always the case with such places, pieces had been pulled away or otherwise vandalized allowing access to the interior. This meant that there were light painting options.
Another big benefit of shooting from this vantage point was that the camera would be facing east. This would allow for some nice long star trails in a relatively short amount of time.
For the first hour, we took turns photographing this side of the station. My shooting partner was about twenty feet to my right. I’d open a shutter, he’d close his. I’d light paint at the beginning of my shot and he’d light paint at the end of his. It allowed us to overlap exposures which meant there wasn’t a lot of time standing around waiting on the other. Eventually, we separated and moved to opposite sides so the complications of two photographers shooting the same area became even less of an issue. I suppose after a few years of doing this, we’ve got it down to a science.
As the full moon peaked overhead, and the lighting changed as a result, I moved to the front of the station. This location had a lot to offer and moving even just a dozen feet away created a new opportunity. Being able to set up my tripod in the middle of the frontage road without worry of local traffic was great. I’ve had to cut a lot of long exposures short in other areas because of that random, late night pickup truck that just had to drive right through a shoot location. Sometimes, I get the shot but not without having to keep a watchful eye down the road. In this case, it was nice to just set up, relax and enjoy the ambient sound of the truck motoring by behind me while the camera did its thing for the next twenty minutes.

Gas Drain
My shooting partner was, at that point, just around the opposite back corner. As I take several shorter exposures that are later merged into a single image, it was no problem if his light painting affected one of my shots as I could easily remove that in postproduction. After seven exposures lasting three minutes each, I moved down the road a bit and began aiming in a more westerly direction as the moon moved along its path to now leave the eastern side of the structure in the shade.
The eastern wall of the gas station featured large openings as this was the garage side. That area was not immediately accessible from the same side but making a quick trip around the other side and through the office allowed me to light paint the garage. I entered and re-entered that large room several times as I tweaked the colors, exposure time and camera position for each shot. Of course, the first time in, I surveyed my surroundings to ensure there were no oil pits, trip hazards or critters waiting to strike. This was the second gas station we had hit within a few days and in both cases the structures were relatively cleaned out.

Garage Fire-2
After a series of long exposures from multiple positions, it was feeling like it was about time to wrap it up. About three hours had passed from our arrival, the moon was much further along in the west and the hour long drive back to the hotel was starting to weigh heavy on my mind. There’s a point in any location shoot like this when your mind snaps you back to reality somewhat as if to say “That was fun, you got what you came for, it’s time to go.” I had reached that point and so had my shoot partner.

 

Waiting BananaWe couldn’t leave, however, without getting a few parting shots of what we later dubbed “Bored Banana.” The banana was a creation of my travel partner and it made an appearance at several other locations, day and night, along the way. The gas station in Desert Center was his first appearance. I suspect he will return in future trips.

 

 

 

 

A Gas Station Revisited

This year I was invited to participate in Orleans Camera’s annual gallery event entitled “Your Favorite Photo.” As you would expect, the gallery is exactly what it implies; photographers submit their favorite photograph from the previous year. My favorite image did not come from any of my Cape shoots but from the old gas station. I was already thinking about printing this image and this gave me a reason to do so now. My goal was to give this image a premium and unique presentation; something that went beyond the typical image-on-paper/wood frame offering.

Much of this type of photography lends itself well to aluminum printing. I’ve had some of my work printed on aluminum sheets before and had a general sense that the gas station image I had selected, entitled “Gas Steaks,” would look great on metal. The thing about aluminum prints is that they typically receive some sort of float mount and then are hung on the wall…and that’s it. All though I have a few prints hung like this at home, they don’t ever feel complete to me in the same way that a matted picture in a frame does. The aluminum print process results in an incredible image but the lack of a completed presentation can detract from the final result. I’ve seen similar presentations at art shows and galleries and I’m often left with the same feeling.

Just before the holidays, I had made the decision to give one of my images printed on aluminum as a gift. I started to brainstorm ways to overcome the presentation factor and eventually settled on a concept that called for the print to be float mounted within an aluminum floater frame. I hadn’t done this before nor had I seen that presentation ( in person) by anyone else. Some aluminum print companies offer that option but even they do not have a lot of examples of a completed project. I ordered a Nielsen Bainbridge aluminum floater frame and then recessed the print about half way down into it. This completed mounting retains the float effect but also pulls your eyes into the image rather than feeling like it’s being pushed off of a wall and at you. It’s subtle, but it seems to work far better than the standard frameless float mount or having the print floating evenly with the front of the frame. This was the completion to the presentation I had been missing and the final piece was really striking. I knew this would be a way to feature my work in a line of premium presentations in the future. When the opportunity to participate in Orleans Camera’s gallery came up, putting together a print in the same way was a no brainer. I ordered the print without a mount. After it arrived, I created a custom mount that aligned properly with the aluminum floater frame and assembled everything in short time. Here are a few shots of the final product below.  The final size measures 31″x21.”

Metal Print-2.jpgMetal Print-3.jpgMetal Print.jpg

This is now the second image I’ve mounted in this way and I continue to be very happy with the results.   From a materials standpoint, it does cost slightly more than traditional print framing but the impact of the presentation enhances the artwork beyond what I believe paper behind glass can provide.   Ultimately, I’d suggest that maybe one in five of my images lend itself to aluminum.  Over the coming months, I’ll be selecting five more photographs to present in this way as part of a limited, premium series for shows and galleries.
If you’d like to see the image behind this blog post in person, head on up to Orleans Camera at their Orleans location. It’ll be hanging March 4th through April 15th.  If you do see it, drop me a note and let me know what you thought!

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Review: Rokinon 14mm. Cheap but Awesome.

The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens is one of the best lenses I’ve used.   It’s also the second least expensive lens in my night photography kit – a fact that seems counterintuitive.

When I decided to expand my portfolio beyond long exposure, low ISO photography and into the realm of high ISO shooting I knew I needed two things which I didn’t have at the time.   The first was a camera that handled high ISO photography better than my crop-sensor Canon 7D.  The second was a lens that could achieve an aperture of f/2.8 or better. 

I started doing research and, assumed as most do, that finding a wide angle lens capable of my aperture requirements would run me several hundred dollars or more.  I had recently picked up the Canon 17-40 f/4 L and was pretty thrilled with its build quality and optics.  It had set me back around $700 which made it one of the more affordable premium lenses from Canon with the greater majority of them costing two or more times that amount.  Based on how pleased I was with this lens, I suspected that my next lens would also be from the Canon L series offerings.

The first lens that caught my eye was the Canon 14mm f/2.8 L.   This lens still fetches around $1500 new and around $1300 on the used market.   It was fairly soon after that when I started seeing this lens paired against the Rokinon 14mm in reviews.  I had never heard of that brand and as a result immediately associated it in my mind as a “knock off” product.

Fast forward a few weeks and by this point I had read enough about the Rokinon to decide that I wanted to try one before syncing the money into the Canon equivalent.   The price difference between the two was nearly $1,000 with the Rokinon landing at about $329 from most suppliers.  I figured that, at worst, I could try it and return it.  However, the night photographs being posted across the internet were impressive and I suspected I would not be disappointed.

Let’s be up front about what this lens does not do.   The Canon version of this lens has no autofocus abilities nor does it allow a camera body to adjust aperture via the menu.   Instead, you focus the lens manually and you adjust the aperture via a ring on the lens.  Undoubtedly, this helps keep the costs reasonable.  If you’re a night shooter, you are not concerned with autofocus and you likely don’t care all that much about how you access the aperture.   We’re used to a slow, methodical style of shooting and this lens supports that narrative well.   The only pitfall that I can see here is the lack of aperture metadata on your files.  That’s not a problem for me but just be aware of it should it matter to you.

The glass on the front of this lens screams "fisheye" but don't believe it.

The glass on the front of this lens screams “fisheye” but don’t believe it.

Also, it does not accept filters.   The included lens cap fits well on the permanent sun shade but the shade is not designed to accept filters because of it’s awkward design and the large curved glass of the lens itself.   I never shoot with a filter so for me it is not important.

Now let’s look at the positives and what makes this lens stand out.  The first thing you’ll notice is that this thing has some weight to it.  That’s not to say it is heavy to use, but rather it conveys a feeling of quality.   It’s fit and finish is quite nice and it looks good on the front of any camera.  Speaking of looks, you’ll also notice its massive, bulbous front glass which makes it appear as though this could be a fisheye.   It does have some degree of distortion as most lenses this wide do but this is not designed to be a fisheye lens. 

Optically, this lens is incredible.  It is sharp from corner to corner and all points in between.   This is a gift when it comes to shooting on full frame cameras as most lenses fall off softly in the corners.  When I had first purchased my Canon 6D and was looking for a wide lens, I rented the 16-35 f/2.8L II  as it was one of the lenses I was considering for purchase.  It was actually at the top of my list. I took it on a trip out west and used it as my primary night lens for the majority of the trip.  It’s a great lens!  Unfortunately, I found that the copy I had rented had very soft corners.  I don’t know if this is standard (I have heard it is common) but it was enough for me to cross it off my list of full frame options.  (Side note:    Crop sensor cameras cut the corners on lenses like this so if you’re shooting with a Rebel series or 7D, it’s unlikely you will have soft corners.)

Many folks have indicated they’ve had to return their first copy due to quality control issues of the glass.   The most common complaint seems to be a random soft spot or ripple that appears in the photograph.   Thankfully, my copy was good so I did not have that experience.   I tested the glass by taking a sky shot on a clear, moonless night and examining the star field for focus blurs, ripples and similar anomalies.  

This was one of the first shots I took to check for quality control issues...straight up at the stars.

This was one of the first shots I took to check for quality control issues…straight up at the stars.

Something else the lens handles quite well is an effect known as “coma.”  If you’ve never heard of it, that’s understandable as it doesn’t often affect the average photographer.  However, for those of us who shoot the night sky, it plays an important role in image quality.  In short, coma occurs when stars along the outer edges of the image appear to be squashed or have tails.  They remind me tiny pancakes.   There are many high quality lenses that don’t handle “edge-located” stars all that well and many of these lenses are some of the best you can buy.  So it was surprising to find that the Rokinon handles coma better than lenses costing two or three times its modest price.  In reviewing my own images, I saw very little of this effect and searching the internet reveals that this is standard for the lens. 

As with most wide angle lenses, there is some degree of distortion.  In the Rokinon’s case, there is something that is commonly referred to as “mustache” distortion.  It’s exactly as it sounds.  Straight lines along the hortizontal axis of your image will probably have this to some degree.   Thankfully, there are profiles available for Adobe Lightroom that quickly correct the issue.  You can also fix it manually in Photoshop.  No big deal.

I shoot the greater majority of my compositions while focused to infinity.  The lens markings have a wide swath allocated to the infinity range.  I took additional test shots, this time during the day, to quickly determine exactly where infinity was on my copy.  A dapped a drop of white-out on the lens ring to help me return to this quickly in the field.

Doing a search for Rokinon lenses will reveal an ever growing portfolio of products.   B&H in New York recently held a sale for Rokinon’s 8mm f/3.5 fisheye (crop sensors only) for only $179.   A 12mm f/2.8 fisheye for full frame cameras retails for $399.  Other available lenses include a 24mm f/1.4, an 85 f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 to name a few.  Mounts are available for Canon, Nikon and Sony.

If you’re thinking about getting into high ISO night photography, a Rokinon lens should be a serious consideration.   Not only is it priced to allow you to dabble your toes in this type of photography without breaking the bank, but you may just find that these lenses will continue to be your “go-to” glass as you learn the technique.

August Rising.jpgBeach Access 1.jpgBiggest Fan.jpgNauset Galactic.jpgNick On The Path.jpgRokinon-2.jpgRokinon-3.jpgRokinon-4.jpgRokinon-5.jpgRokinon.jpg

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It’s Okay If You Don’t Buy Anything

 

WindmillMemorial Day weekend  marks the first art show that I will be attending this year.  It’s in Brewster at Lemon Tree Village.

Many people throughout the year ask me where my studio is here on Cape Cod.   I don’t have one.  My website and various social media channels are my primary source of images.  Still, there are opportunities to come enjoy my photography in person and, no, you don’t have to buy anything.  I’m not expecting you to.

When I present my work at outdoor art fairs such as Lemon Tree, it’s typically the people who have never heard of me or Cape Night Photography that are purchasing my work, while those who have heard of me just come to see it.  I sell very few prints to “fans” compared to strangers. I’m totally fine with that and you should feel comfortable just stopping by to put a face with the photography.  I’m also happy to answer any questions about how I captured a particular image or in what ways I utilize my camera gear.  Consider the art show to be a mobile gallery popping up a few times a year, free for you to visit.

It’s also valuable to hear what it is that folks like you are interested in seeing printed.  I use social media metrics tied to Facebook and Flickr and also consider the comments written about my photographs when deciding what will get printed.  It’s always a very tough decision.  I have amassed several hundred photographs at this point.  Of those, I have to choose twenty or less to frame.   Yikes!    Sure, there are several images that I know typically sell but there are others that have never been printed and may do equally well.  It’s great to have people who follow my work online stop by to share their thoughts about what they see in person or what they’ve seen online.

Nearly every photograph I’ve shot has a story ranging from coyote attacks to near lightning strikes.   Often, you can connect more with an image you already enjoy by hearing the story behind it.   I don’t always post every tidbit from a night of shooting because sometimes you just can’t convey it via a caption on social media.  Being able to tell it in person allows me to convey the story in a way that can only be appreciated when heard.

So if you’ve got some time this weekend, come check out what I am now referring to as my “Mobile Gallery” at Lemon Tree Village in Brewster on Saturday and Sunday.

 

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The Path to Nauset Galactic

 

 

When asked to participate in Orleans Camera’s “Your Favorite Photo of 2014” gallery event,  I had a  bit of a struggle deciding which photograph I would print.   To be honest, I have several favorites from 2014.   Last year was an interesting year in that I think the amount of images I captured was less than previous years, but the quality of them was probably among the best I had produced thus far.  Many of the ones that topped out my personal favorites weren’t shot on Cape Cod but rather in the Berkshires and the Mojave Desert.  There were a few locally shot images that I kept going back to.  Nauset Galactic was one of them.Nauset Galactic

I remember that night pretty clearly.   It was one of the first nights out with a new lens and I was anxious to shoot with it knowing that light pollution on that side of the Cape was fairly tame.  It was also what I think of as “galaxy season,” when the Milky Way is rising in all its glory around 9pm.  I had just been there a few weeks before with the same lens on a full moon night and had already figured out that this lens was begging for a moonless sky.

Driving up to Eastham,  I was excited in knowing that, all though I had shot this area before, I was going to be shooting it in a new way which would lead to a different thought process in terms of composition and setups.   It gave me that old feeling of shooting at night the first time and seeing these places in a different light (or lack there of.)  It also meant that I’d be facing some new logistics issues without a moonlit landscape.  I was now working almost entirely in the dark.

The hours that I spent in the Nauset Light area was my most productive night on Cape Cod for the year.  I try for eight to ten “keeper” shots per month.  That night, I got eight in three hours.  Nauset Galactic, variations of Galactic Sisters, Galactic Shack and the Galactic Highlands (see a theme here?)  were all part of that shoot.   To be honest, the one that I thought would be my least favorite was the image that would become Nauset Galactic.

Compositionally,  I think a lot of the high ISO night photography that I see suffers from too much space and too little subject.   I know folks are eager to show off an amazing sky when given the opportunity but I also believe that the intended subject suffers from this mindset and creates some confusion as to what the point of the composition might be.  It can sometimes make the foreground look like an after thought. I’ve seen all sorts of weird, crooked, fisheye filled shots trying so hard to get to squeeze in that galactic band.  My rule of thumb is that they sky is the icing on the cake.  Too much sky is too much icing, and who wants to eat a cake that’s seven eighths icing?   A little planning goes along way.  If the Milky Way isn’t quite where I want it, I will wait it out or come back another night rather than force it into a composition.

When composing for Nauset Galactic, I recognized that the Milky Way had reached the right alignment with the lighthouse that would allow the inclusion of those leafy shadows created by a nearby floodlight.   All though the exposure time for this image was a mere thirty seconds, it took several tripod tweaks and focus adjustments to get a shot with which I was satisfied.  I even used my Protomachine LED 2 set to red to compliment the painted band at the top of the structure. On the camera’s LCD, I suspected I might have gotten a winner but wouldn’t know for sure until I saw it on the computer at home.

The image was the last one I processed from that night’s work.   I think I waited on that one because I knew it would take the most effort.   The lighthouse required no tweaking from what I had shot but the sky needed careful processing in order to bring out the galactic band and tone down some very slight light pollution; a balancing act of sorts.

The image is not a composite.  There are times when it’s necessary to shoot the sky and the foreground at different ISO levels and exposure times so that you can minimize digital noise in some places while keeping the camera sensitive to dim starlight in others.   This wasn’t one of those times thanks to the lens, the camera, and the majority of the composition being the sky.  When I was done, I realized that this was probably the best shot of the night.  I posted it online and many people seemed to agree.

I didn’t print it for several months until the holidays came along and I had opted to give one as a gift.   Night photography can be somewhat fickle to reproduce on paper.  How images look on a backlit computer screen can be quite different than under a light shined atop paper.  Alas, the only way to know is to pull the trigger and ink that paper.

The first one I printed was an 8×12 and thanks to some color profiles I had used before, the printer gave me a winner.   I knew that when given the opportunity and a reason to print a large version, I’d be happy with the results.

Not too long after the first printing, I received the invite to participate in the Orleans Camera Gallery Show.  As I mentioned earlier, I had several images I was leaning towards but then I saw the smaller print waiting to be mailed out and that’s when I knew that this was the opportunity to give Nauset Galactic its large format premiere.  I printed the image, framed it and drove up to the shop so that it could be hung for the opening.

Just this week, I received notice that it had been voted favorite of the show by attendees. All though this print might have been my favorite, I had no expectations that it’d be anyone else’s.   By request, it will remain on display for a little while longer after which time, I’ll bring it home and hang it…unless someone decided to add it to their own collection first.

If you’re interested in purchasing it, email me at tim@capenightphotography.com or contact Orleans Camera at 508-240-1300.

Galactic Highlands2-2.jpgGalactic Shack.jpgGalactic Sister 2.jpgGalactic Sister.jpgNauset Galactic.jpg

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Follow Up: Light Painting With The Protomachine LED 2

 

It’s been several months since I received the Protomachine LED 2.  The original review can be found here.  Having had all this time to get familiar with it, I thought a follow up would be warranted.

On Cape Cod, there’s not a heck of a lot to light paint. At least, not in what I consider to be the traditional sense.  I don’t have the same type of access to the abandoned buildings, old trains or junk cars that I enjoy when traveling out west.  Still, I have found the Proto useful in other ways.  Here are some examples of how I have utilized the Protomachine so far.

 

 

Foreground Lighting

Windmill

At its advertised maximum of four hundred lumens, the Protomachine LED 2 is quite bright when set to its whitest color balance.  Of the eight presets available, I have set one for maximum brightness and whiteness and another at the same brightness level but with a warmer tone.

In low ISO settings of 100 and 200, I find that about ten seconds of continual lighting is the right amount at either of these settings (maximum brightness.)  The Proto has a user selectable brightness setting ranging from 1.0 to 9.0 which can be adjusted in whole number of  one tenth increments.  One thing I learned early on is that it is better to sweep the light back and forth across the landscape by only rotating my wrist.  This ensures that the beam hits the same areas in the same way with every pass.  It keeps any shadows consistent which is especially important when trying to pull out texture.  The natural tendency for most people is to attempt to accomplish the same task by moving their entire arm back and forth.  DON’T!  This will blur those shadows and flatten the image.

In a higher ISO setting such as 1600, just a few seconds at a lower power (such as setting 3 of 9) was more than enough to light the foreground and nearby subjects.

This image of the windmill is a composite.  The structure and foreground were lit with the Protomachine at ISO 1600 while the sky was shot at an ISO setting of 6400.

 

 

Interiors

 

Inside Roys

 

 

Just as you can blast the foreground or landscape, you can dial Proto back to a gentle roar when only ambient or subtle lighting is needed.   Here is an example of an interior I shot earlier this month in Amboy, California.  I was thrilled to be able to get inside this little cabin at the old Roy’s along historic Route 66.    There was no lighting within the building leaving me with a clean canvas on which to paint.   For this image, I adjusted my brightness settings to level 3 of 9 and used one of my warmer color presets.  Rotating my wrist up and down (while keeping my arm still) allowed me to maintain surface consistency and evenly light the foreground.

I then took my Protomachine outside while the shutter was still open and increased its brightness level to maximum so that I could light the famous “Roy’s” sign visible through this cabin’s doorway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Vehicles

For the next shot, I was more interested in well-defined shadows and light beams.  I set the brightness level for maximum and lit the area underneath the cab for six seconds and the interior for four.  One thing to remember is that the moon can be both your enemy and your friend.  While providing the overall ambient light for your exposure, our lunar pal is also slowly erasing any of the light painting you’ve done. This was why I cranked the brightness here ensuring that my light work would not be erased.  For the most part, your light painting is safe when protected by shadows but beware of the “moonraser” if your lighting is outside of those shadows.   I lower setting was used to subtly light the side of the truck facing the camera.   This was all done in a single exposure.  The Protomachine is quite versatile in this way, offering a photographer many lighting options to enjoy while the shutter is open.  I find it both personally rewarding and challenging to do this in one take.  It’s not always logistically possible but I give it the old college try as often as I can. Exposure time is often the only limitation I encounter.

Broken One Nine

Large Foreground Subjects

Johsua Tree National Park is filled with massive, interesting boulders with all sorts of textures and shapes.  The Protomachine does a great job of bringing out these details when lighting from the side.  The image below features a rock formation that looks somewhat like a sleeping creature.   All though I might have relied on the silhouette alone to convey the overall shape,  I thought it would be equally interesting to see  what made up this rocky monster. Thanks to Protomachine’s wide (but not too wide) beam, I was easily able to evenly light this area to my liking.

Sleeping Giant

 

A little ways away from there was a Joshua tree sandwiched between two boulder formations and with that was another opportunity for lighting.  In this case I lit from three different locations during the exposure; from the left, from behind the boulder to the right and then green from the sky down so as to be able to just “tap” the top of the tree.  Setting the green at a lower brightness level allowed me to light the shadowed side of the tree without overpowering what I had just done with the rocks.

Fire Rock

 

People

I don’t carry a flash on me.   I’ve tried before but keeping track of colored gels and caps is just another opportunity for me to lose more things in the dark which is something at which I excel.   On occasion, I am presented with the opportunity to photograph a person.  For anyone who has attempted to shoot people at night (and I mean in the non-firearm sense), the term “rear curtain flash” may mean something to you.  In short, one of the best ways to properly light someone during a low light exposure is to pop the flash at the end of the exposure, rather than at the beginning.  This helps to freeze them in one place just as the exposure completes.  Having successfully done this before, I’ve started to employ the same technique with the Protomachine.  Let’s call it “Rear Curtain Proto” or “RCP”.   Below is a friend from Maine who posed for a portrait atop Cadillac Mountain at the Acadia Night Sky Festival.   I have to give kudos to him and his ability to stand incredibly and unusually still for a human being for the full fifteen seconds.   In the last three seconds of the shot, I swept him from head to toe with the Protomachine at half power.  The light was tuned to a warmer, natural tone. Success!

 

Galactipat

Is there anything about the Protomachine LED 2 that I don’t like?   Other than the constant worry that I will drop it (because I tend to drop everything at least once), there’s nothing about the functionality or the ergonomics that I don’t like.   Feature wise,  the only thing I’ve decided would make the Protomachine even more useful would be a built in strobe for those moments that you want to really freeze your shadows or moving subjects. Even better, a mechanism that could change the strobe’s color in the same way the current LED can be changed.  I’m fairly sure, however, that this technology does not exist.

The Protomachine LED 2 has a ton of fun applications.   It gives you added flexibility of composition, an infinite combination of colors and fits in one hand.  After months of using it, I still think it was money well spent and recommend it to anyone who wants to move their creative options up a notch with the simplicity and convenience of a single device.  I’ve retired all of the “cheapo” color LED flashlights I have used in the past.   They did great for me when I needed them but after having lit with the Protomachine LED 2, there’s really no comparison and no point to carrying the old tech.

You can get your own Protomachine over at their website:

www.protomachines.com

 

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Understanding the Awesomeness of the Canon 6D’s GPS

Not a lot has been written about the GPS functionality of Canon’s DSLR other than a few line items in general product reviews.  I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to run through this incredibly useful function and illustrate how it makes my life easier when used in conjunction with Lightroom and Google Maps.

To be clear, the GPS function is not for navigating.   It’s for geotagging.  It attaches a set of coordinates to each photograph’s metadata so that the subject’s location can be noted on a map.

Admittedly, I never thought much about needing the GPS function.   I had never used a camera that had a geotag function and had never thought twice about not having it.  Knowing it was included in the Canon 6D was a bonus but not a deal maker or breaker.  Now that I’ve used it, however, it’s doubtful that I’ll want to shoot without it.  I think of it as that feature I never knew I needed.

The receiver itself is located on the top of the camera near the hot shoe.  This is why the top of the 6D is plastic so as to allow the receiver to detect the GPS signals. The GPS can been enabled or disabled via the menu. It has two primary functions. Users can set an update interval or the camera can continually track your location so a “trail” can later be created on a map.

Shooting at night often means hanging around a particular location for quite a while.  To conserve battery and avoid needless GPS updating, I set my update interval to five minutes.  If I am on the move hiking in a subject rich area such as a junkyard or in Joshua Tree, I set the interval to one minute.  This allows me to get very specific information about subject locations.  The best example of this was my trip to Joshua Tree last year.  Anyone who has been there knows that every tree in that park has its own personality.  I’d like to be able to find each of them again if the mood strikes and thanks to the 6D, now I can.

Thank You, Lightroom

The "Map" tab in Lightroom

Once I get the files onto my Macbook, I pull them into Lightroom.   Up until I started using the 6D, I hadn’t noticed that Lightroom featured a tab labeled “Map.”   This is where things get really cool. Clicking Map allows Lightroom to interface with Google Maps.  A window displays and drops a flag on each set of coordinates generated from image files.  If looking at a wide area, a single flag will display a number which indicates the number of photographs shot in the vicinity.  Zooming in will cause the flags to separate so you can see the location of specific subjects.

Look at the left hand side of Lightroom while inside the Map tab and you’ll see some useful information including coordinates and elevation!   You may ask yourself why you would need the coordinates when Lightroom already conveniently processes them to a map for you.  As of this writing, I am not aware of a way to easily output this information to the custom maps that I have created on Google’s servers directly so being able to copy the coordinates and paste them directly into Google is nothing short of metadata gold!

Coordinates from a recent visit to Martha's Vineyard.

Coordinates from a recent visit to Martha’s Vineyard.

 

For the last few years, I have used Google’s map service to create and maintain a visual list of places I’ve visited or want to visit. I log into Google’s free “My Maps” service via my Macbook and do all of my work there. I am cultivating such a map right now for an upcoming trip.  I find that more and more photographers are doing the same and if you’re not, you may want to consider it.  When processing my images from each location, I take a moment to drop the coordinates collected from my 6D’s raw files and then plug them into my super-map. I label, name and describe each location. Doing this makes it incredibly easy to share coordinates with people the people I trust.   I get a lot of “where is this” and “where is that” emails from folks.  If it’s a publicly accessible location and I believe the person asking isn’t on a mission to go vandalize the subject, it’s as easy as emailing the coordinates.

Navigating Back

Now that I’ve extracted location coordinates from my files via Lightroom and dropped them on a map, how can I use that information?   Google Maps allows users to create what’s commonly called a KML file.   This contains coordinate data, labels, and descriptions.  This is, in effect, a data layer that gets placed on top of a map.  The ultimate goal, at least for me, is to get back to these places using my data in conjunction with a navigation tool.  In this case, that tool is my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 with Google Navigation.  Thankfully, there is an app called KML, KMZ Waypoint Reader Free.   Using this app to open the KML file (which I typically email to my phone) presents me with a list of all the fun locations I’ve tagged.   Clicking on anyone of them opens Google Maps on my phone, drops a pin on the location and offers me the option of navigating to it.   Cool!

All though I am no longer on IOS (Apple), I understand that there is a similar option to do the same thing on the iPhone and iPad.

The only downfall to using your phone as your GPS is that you need an active data signal on your device to keep Google loading base maps properly, unless you know the steps on how to save a map for offline use.  Conversely, you may find in your research that there are stand alone GPS devices with preinstalled maps that may accept KML files.  I could imagine such a thing being quite useful when traveling the far reaches of the Mojave area.  Heck, I get no signal whatsoever when visiting Joshua Tree so I could surely use one a standalone GPS.

One other thing to note about the 6D is that it does not fully disable the GPS when shut off.  There are complaints of battery drain even with the camera switched off and this seems only to be the case when the GPS is left enabled.   Good practice always means taking the battery out when done for the night anyway but just be aware of this should you decide to leave your battery in.

If you have an opportunity to pick up a 6D or another camera with a GPS function, I highly recommend it.  You might be surprised how much you’ll end up incorporating the geotagging function into your process.  As new DSLRs get released, I suspect this feature will become standard as it is relatively inexpensive to produce.  Soon, you’ll be on your way to tracking your shoot locations and maintaining a map of your travels.  We’d all like to think that we’ll remember every single place that we’ve been.  The more I shoot, the more I know that it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.

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Mojave Tropico

Outhouse

Having now traveled out west several times, I’ve become familiar with many of the interesting locations available for a wayward night shooter like myself.  If you haven’t already figured it out, I do tend to have my favorites.  Mojave Tropico is one of them.

This particular spot is not at all what it seems.   To the casual passerby, the two main structures along this winding desert road appear to be the remains of a gas station and general store – the markers of a business long since closed. Despite this location’s remote placement, you might be able to justify the idea of a business being established here thanks to the gold and silver mining that occurs nearby.   Perhaps workers stop for fuel and a snack or maybe grab their lunch while enjoying the view of sprawling land that would eventually become the home to a massive wind farm.   However, this was never the case.  No one ever stopped to eat or gas up, nor to enjoy the view, nor to so much as ask for directions.   Mojave Tropico is a carefully crafted movie set.

Mojave Tropico

When I had first been introduced to it by another photographer, I assumed it was one of a myriad of abandoned buildings that I had passed on my journey through Mojave.  It was only later that I discovered the history of the lot based on some internet research.  According to Mojave Tropico’s website, you can rent the lot for filming.  The buildings can be opened up, props restaged depending on your specific needs and so on.

One of the reasons I like to return to places previously shot is because I often realize missed opportunities after returning home.   Since this place gets used now and then, the props get moved around which means new ways to shoot this location frequently present themselves.  You don’t typically see that unless a place starts caving in on itself or otherwise gets vandalized.

Another reason I enjoy this location is (at least for me)it’s the quintessential place for a night photographer to enjoy some “off the grid” style night shooting.  Behind the property is a patch of land leading to Silver Queen Mountain. In front, just a long and lightly travelled road.  On either side, a whole lot of nothing. It’s very quiet, it feels far away and I could spend hours there if given the opportunity.   A real benefit to this location is the excellent view of the wind turbine farm located across the road and a mile or so away.    Living in New England, spectacles like this don’t exist.  There are turbines spread around here and there but that’s the extent of it.   Independent of the perceived aesthetics of a wind turbine by most folks, for the purposes of night photography they create some really cool backdrops.  They are a sea of red blinking lights. Between the two buildings is a water tower, a makeshift fence and some barrels.  Along the side of one building is a fake outhouse and a Joshua tree which I am fairly sure can be moved making it more of a prop than anything else.  Also adorning the property is a beat up, ancient pickup truck parked next to a weathered and tattered looking sign.  It faces the wind turbine farm as do the buildings so shooting it from the back end forward lets you frame the shot to include the turbines.  This angle is often shot by photographers because it’s one of the best angles the site has to offer. I shot it too.Mojave Tropico

I’ve made a total of three visits to this spot.   The first time around was for only about a half an hour before heading out into the nearby wind turbines for some up close and personal time.  The second stop was at the beginning to show a friend the spot during the day and to make plans for a second stop a few days later on the way back to L.A.  The third was that trip back to the airport and timed in such a way that we caught the moon’s light just as it was peaking over a nearby mountain.  We were running on time (maybe a little early) so thirty minutes to an hour was about what we could spare before continuing south.

We rolled in some time after 6 pm. As it was November, the nights were starting early which is helpful when trying to pack in a few hours of shooting before heading to bed at a reasonable hour.  All though we saw the moon rising over the horizon as we approached the exit leading us to Mojave Tropico,  a tall and rocky peak directly behind the location added another twenty minutes to the moon’s  arrival time there. Despite the returning of the rental car and getting to the airport hotel weighing on my mind, I was happy about getting a shot or two here.   Parking across the street, we geared up and made our way to the building lot which was surrounded by a set of barbed wire lines.

Initially, I was concerned about some heavy cloud cover that was lingering in the east but it moved on leaving behind some light and random clouds that only added to an otherwise great night sky.  Most of these clouds were moving directly overhead or passing by to the south so I did most of my shooting in that direction.  Not surprisingly, my favorite shots incorporate those skies.

I tend to go through phases when it comes to lighting.  I do very little artificial lighting here on Cape Cod (all though owning a Protomachine will change that) but when traveling out west I really do enjoy lighting things up.   On this night, I had my usual gambit of colored and uncolored flashlights.   All though this area was ripe for some funky lighting, I decided I wanted a more natural approach to highlighting the one thing here that kept catching my eye which was the moon cutout on the outhouse door.  Since I use cooler white balance settings at night, lighting with a warmer toned xenon or similar flashlight creates a nice contrast with the rest of the image. For these shots, I used my Maglite mini which is fairly dim by today’s standards.  However, for my purposes is perfect.   I’m relatively confident that this light might not even be offered anymore having been replaced by an LED version.   There’s actually an LED conversion kit that I picked up but admittedly I prefer that yellowy glow so I switched it back.

I spent most of my time working the outhouse side of the gas station while my partner moved around.  As with the other locations we had shot during the week, we did pretty well avoiding each other.   Now and then, a mining truck carrying who knows what would drive by and we’d just casually make ourselves invisible by disappearing behind something.  I’d leave the camera right where it was so as to not kill the shot.  At one point, I actually entered the outhouse so I could attempt to backlight the moon cutout but I wasn’t thrilled with those results.  Mind you, I would never try to light paint a real outhouse for all the obvious reasons including but not limited to death, disease and ghoulies.

Out House 2

Some of the images from this last stop after my ten nights out west ended up being among my favorites.   The moodiness of this stop thanks to the positioning of the moon, the surroundings and the great skies of the night really hit all the marks for me.

A week earlier, I had shot in Pearsonville and had an equally great shoot but learned something about the location; I didn’t like it so much when the moon was setting.   Something about the way the light hit was not working for me.  I suspect I might feel this way about Mojave Tropico as well.   I can somewhat envision how this place may look when the moon gets across the sky’s midpoint and starts heading downward.  From what I’ve seen of other photographers images, most everyone seems to prefer the earlier light as well all though that could be nothing more than coincidence of timing.

As I start to make plans for my next trip out that way, this location will certainly be on the list.  We both agreed that spending more time here during the next go-round would be a good decision so you can expect to see more from here in the future.  In the mean time, enjoy some shots from previous visits below.

The TowerOut House 2Tropico MoonriseLast NightPreferred ParkingOuthouse

 

 

 

 

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This Weekend, Art Show Season 2014 Begins

 

Lots of photographs ready for new homes back in 2013.

Lots of photographs ready for new homes back in 2013.

I cannot believe it’s already Memorial Day weekend.  This means it’s also time to kick off the 2014 art show season.  This same weekend last year was cut a day short due to high winds but it also marked the single best day I’ve had in about five years of doing these shows.

I’ve signed up for four shows instead of six this year.  At this point, I’ve done the same shows enough to know which ones are worth showing up for and which ones I can sit out.   Along with this show, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and a mid September show in Falmouth make up this year’s roster.

Even if you’re not in to photography, there are some really unique vendors at this weekend’s show such as the woman who makes jam that tastes like ice cream.  How cool is that?  But if you are in to photography, I’ve got more framed photographs than ever including many fresh images captured over just the last few months.

Stop by Lemon Tree Village off of Route 6A in Brewster this weekend.  Even though it will not be warm enough for the beach, the weather looks good enough for some strolling around outside here on old Cape Cod.

 

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Review of the Protomachine LED 2


I recently received a royalty check for book sales in the last half of 2013 and it was enough to make getting a new piece of equipment I had been eyeing possible.   One thing I promised myself early on was that any money generated from book sales would be reinvested into photography.   I turned my sights and my wallet on to a unique device called the Protomachine LED 2.

Protomachine LED 2

The LED 2 is activated by a trigger located under the light emitter.

The Protomachine LED 2 is an advanced lighting tool designed with the light painter in mind.  Features include a dimmable RGB LED bulb that can produce a full spectrum of colors with user- adjustable hue and saturation, an exposure timer and a maximum output of about 400 lumens (white.)  All this, in a battery powered, handheld package designed and manufactured in the U.S.  As of this writing, the Protomachine kit retails for $545. The kit includes the Protomachine LED 2, two batteries and a charger.

I first became aware of the original Protomachine a few years ago when the light painter and photographer behind Lost America, Troy Paiva, began posting subjects lit by a first generation Protomachine.   He had a lot of positive things to say about it from the get go and it was great to see how he incorporated it into his light painting style.   Having used colored theater gels and flashlights for so many years, it was easy to see his enthusiasm in having the ability to consolidate many of  his gels and lights into a single, multifunction device.   Initially, I didn’t think it would be something I’d really need for the level of light painting that I do.  Most of my work here on Cape Cod is best lit by moonlight alone. On occasion, I use a warm toned Maglite or a white LED flashlight. However, if I had a dollar for every time I said I didn’t need something and then bought it anyway, I’d own a lot of additional things that I said I never needed.

I ordered the Protomachine around May 23rd and it arrived about a week later having made the trip from coast to coast. The first thing I noticed was how well the order was packed.   Getting  through the tightly packed bubble wrap revealed two boxes- one containing the Protomachine LED 2 unit and one holding the battery charger.  The two brand new batteries were attached to the side of the charger’s box.

Of course, I decided I needed to open the Protomachine box first because I’m an impatient person.   The Protomachine itself was sealed inside the same type of bag that you’d find a motherboard or internal harddrive packaged meaning that it arrived dust and moisture free.   Lifting it out of the box, I was immediately struck by the weight of it.   Finding the balance between a heavy piece of equipment and something that is light in the hand but doesn’t feel cheap is probably a difficult line to walk.   If this was a consideration for proto designers, they did quite well.   According to the manufacturer’s website, the device comes in at about .85lbs without batteries and 1.1lbs with batteries.  To me, this felt as well made and as solid as any other piece of brand name gear I’ve purchased in the past.  It had the right weight to it meaning it felt like you could hold it without tiring your wrist.  It also didn’t feel front heavy despite the metal heat sink encompassing the bulb housing.   Ergonomically speaking, it sits in the hand somewhat like a garden sprayer.

I had the opportunity to use the original Protomachine model while attending one of Troy Paiva’s workshops in 2013. Troy brought his older unit and several workshop attendees showed up with the LED 2 model.  My understanding is that he had been a tester for the early model and provided input on the design and feature set of the new LED 2.  The older model was designed more similar to those hardware store lights with the handle at the top.  All though easily useable in that configuration, the redesigned Protomachine LED 2 is much more comfortable to hold.  The newer design feels more natural to aim.

Hue, saturation, brightness and exposure time are all controlled from the rear screen.

Hue, saturation, brightness and exposure time are all controlled from the rear screen.

Powering up the LED 2 for the first time, I was greeted with a graphic on the unit’s rear OLED screen.   Admittedly, I’ve never owned a flashlight that boots up.  I bet you haven’t either.  It adds to the “this is really cool” effect.   All though the screen is necessarily small based on the LED 2’s available surface area, it’s very readable.   The four memory buttons, a joystick (with press-to-enter function) and the screen standby button are all located around the OLED  display area.  The buttons are easily accessible during one handed operation.

The “trigger” button to activate the light is located under them lamp itself on the front of the handle and is easy to press with your index finger.  Click once for on and click two for off.  Simple.

My unit arrived with the four main presets programmed to a basic color scheme (red, blue, green, white).  I tend to use these colors fairly often so there is a good chance I will leave them as they are.  I may adjust the white to the warmer xenon color I prefer.  Users can reprogram these buttons to whatever colors they commonly access.  Each button can store two color presets, the second color is accessible by double clicking.   Beyond the eight available, remembering the number values assigned to other colors I might frequently use will get me to them quick enough.

One of the best features of this light is something that you may not notice immediately.   Many lights that I’ve used tend to be designed with the idea of getting the brightest beam of light to the farthest point.  Some lights can be adjusted to give you a wider beam but at a much lower apparent brightness.  The Protomachine has an excellent diffused pattern that keeps the light even and avoids hotspots.  According to the website, “the beam pattern is fixed at roughly a ~25° cone (included angle) and gently tapers off to zero at ~40°.” For light painting, this is important and certainly can assist in avoiding a lot of post production correcting or multiple attempts at completing the same shot in the field.  With the type of lighting gear I’ve been using,  hotspots have been my nemesis.   The Protomachine’s ability to diffuse also helps keep the colors and saturation consistent across the illuminated area.   One of the multicolor LED lights that I primarily use tends to discolor at the edge of the beam cone.   This is not a problem for the Protomachine.  For lighting the interior of old buildings, cars, or landscape foregrounds this is perfect.  I’ll still use one of my maglites to hit distant objects with a tight, focused beam but in those cases, I’m not looking for colors anyway.

Caution!The printed manual is well written and easy to understand.  Best of all, it’s short and sweet.   It’s printed on a durable paper stock that is a convenient size for easy storage in a camera bag.  Honestly, once you spend a little time with the Protomachine, you tend to figure it out fairly quickly.  Certainly take the time to read the manual and to acknowledge the safety notifications of using such a bright light.   I wish I had before I had shined the light on my dog and he turned to ash.   Just kidding, of course.  I would never point the light at anything with eyes, and you shouldn’t either.  Ash is hard to clean up.

When not in use, my LED 2 will be residing inside a Pelican Storm i2050.   This was a gift last Christmas that just so happens to be the perfect size for the LED 2 and the two batteries.  It’s not quite big enough to also hold the charger and wall wart but it does appear as though the Pelican 1400 series would meet that requirement. As the manual recommends, you should remove the batteries when storing the device for extended periods. Chances are, you’re doing that already with your existing equipment.  All though the Protomachine feels durable and well made, why not give it that extra level of protection when not in use?  Besides, nothing says you’ve got a serious piece of technology like owning a Pelican case.

Speaking of batteries, the LED 2 operates on two rechargeable 18650 lithium ion batteries.  They basically look like super-sized AA batteries.  They’re not terribly expensive and they are readily available online.   I had heard that the original Protomachine was using a battery similar to what you’d find in a cordless drill so this is certainly an upgrade.  Understandably, the batteries I received with my device needed to be charged overnight.  The Protomachine’s website doesn’t recommend using these batteries in freezing temperatures or trying to charge cold batteries due to the damage that can be caused.  Important safety tip.  It’s also important to note that the Protomachine does not have a true “off” switch so much as it has a “screen off” button.  The screen can be toggled on or off as needed which is helpful when you’re trying to preserve your night vision. Without the main LED engaged or the rear OLED screen switched on, the Protomachine likely still draws a little juice with the batteries installed which is another good reason to remove them when storing the light.

Signals

This is a single exposure using the Protomachine set at low power for both green and red. f/5.6, ISO 1600, 30 seconds.

My first night out with the Protomachine LED 2 was at a location in western Massachusetts.  I had been tipped off about some old Metra double decker passenger cars that were sitting in the woods waiting for recycling.  As the area was fairly dark, I found that cutting the Protomachine down to low power was more than enough to light the outside of the train cars and about half power worked well for the inside depending on the color chosen.   Switching between colors and power settings were fast and simple after the first few minutes.  I learned fairly quickly that I want a holster to store the Protomachine in between exposures or while I am tinkering with the camera.  After using the Protomachine on and off for about two hours at various power levels, the battery icon reported I was still working on a full charge.  I would be comfortable shooting with the same set of batteries for a few nights without being too concerned that they’d die out on me.  For my purposes, the Protomachine’s battery life is exceptional.  I’ll still plan on keeping a spare set of batteries around in the event of a battery failure or for traveling.

The only issue I had was one of user error when I had inadvertently set the Protomachine’s exposure time to one second which meant the light shut off almost immediately after being switched on.  I had a small panic attack before realizing my error.   All though I didn’t have use for the timed exposure feature on this shoot, I know I will be using it in the future.  There is also a counter that activates when you switch the light on and I found that to be helpful.  I often times will be happy with one area of light painting and not another so this will allow me to accurately duplicate the “keepers” while tweaking the other areas.  No more counting in my head!

To the uniniated, someone may ask whether you need a flashlight priced at over $500.  Of course you don’t!  But, do you need a specialized  lighting tool designed with the night photographer/light painter in mind?  You bet!  And that’s the difference.   A portrait photographer likely wouldn’t hesitate to spend this much or more on a high quality flash or a lighting package and no one would question the expense.  This is no different.  It’s about having the right tool for the right job.  For light painting, there’s not likely a better tool.

The Protomachine LED 2 has armed me with ability to really create some interesting night work.  I’ve barely only scratched the surface of how it will impact my night photography style but I’m excited to keep working with it and to see what kind of opportunities it will open up for me.

For more information, visit Protomachine’s website here.  Check out the gallery below for additional images of the LED 2 and the Metra cars.

Rear ScreenLED 2Watch Your EyesTriggerRear ScreenDiffuserBack and HandleRedBatteriesChargerAll Aboard.jpgFront ViewLast Stop.jpgProtomachine set to blue.Signals.jpgProtomachine set to red.The LED 2

 

 

 

 

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