Taking a Walk in the Neighborhood

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy Independence Day America!  

There is nothing quite like celebrating Americana on the Fourth of July, and to me, nothing quite says Americana like looking back at years gone by.  The question becomes..."How exactly to do that as a photographer?"  Fortunately for me, I love photographing subjects that have been long forgotten.  It is part of my Wabi Sabi approach to photography.  Basically, I find beauty in things which are in a state of decay.  Wood, or steel holds a great potential to develop character as it ages, and moves beyond use.  I try to keep a running list of places where I can photograph these things.

This evening was feeling like one of those times, and I started to go through my list.  There were two places I was feeling like going, and both were relatively close to the house.  One of which was an old farm house that is just a tad over a mile from my house.  I have photographed it about three times in the past with varying levels of success.  Over the years it has become more and more dilapidated which has sparked my interest in it once again.  The first time I photographed it, and thus far my favorite time, it still looked rather nice.  Now, some 10 years later, it has lost that polish, and is looking right sad.

My other option was an early 80's model El Camino that was backed into some kudzu near Ogburn Station.  It was a little newer than I like to photograph, but there was something about how it was sitting that keeps catching my eye.  The major problem with that car is there is a trailer parked right next to it, which will really limit my compositions.

In both scenarios, I was going to have to include the sky.  This meant that I was going to need some interest in the sky.  Well, we were having some showers pass by, and the clouds were ever changing.  I was thinking some deep storm clouds would be great for the El Camino, and some lighter clouds for the old farm house.  As I was looking out of the back window, all I saw was solid overcast.  That would work for neither subject.  But, as 7:00 came closer and the rain was supposed to be out of the forecast, the sky started to break up to the West.  That meant that I would have some blue sky to work with shortly.  I made the decision to photograph the old house over the El Camino because I would have better lighting on the house.

Home Improvement in B&W
Since the house was so close to my house, I decided to go out for a little walk.  Nothing makes you feel quite as strange as walking through a neighborhood with a large camera backpack on while carrying a tripod.  So far, I'm the only one I've ever seen do this, but then again, everyone knows I'm a little strange so they shake their heads and go back to lighting their firecrackers.  It took about 15 minutes or so to get to the house.  It was largely in the shade, and the clouds were still pretty thick right over the house.

One of my biggest challenges with this house is the power lines that go right past the front porch.  They are all but impossible to keep out of the frame.  I figured that my best chance was to shoot with my 70-200mm lens, which would also minimize the sky in the frame.  I got lined up at the edge of the field, being careful not to disturb the crops that were growing.  I found out very quickly that the sky was just too bright for the exposure to be even close to even.  I added a 3-Stop ND Grad at an angle to control the exposure.  It worked, but there wasn't enough interest in the sky.  Instead of waiting for the sky to change, I decided to move in close to get some detail shots of the house to show the progression of age.  I kept the same lens, but stripped off the Grad filter.

Since the house was largely white, I actually shot these intimates with a monochrome concept in mind.  As I got in close to the house, I saw the stickers in the windows which said "HK Windows."  This was obviously a home improvement situation, and they were starting with the windows.  The irony here was nearly comical, and I chose to embrace that dichotomy in my photographs.

Home Improvement
My favorite composition from the intimate set showcased one of those windows and a cellar of some sort.  I liked the geometric lines and the textures so that meant that it would make a great monochrome image.  Oddly enough though, I really liked the color image as well.  There was just enough color to really make elements pop, and added to the textures.  In the full resolution image, you can make out every splinter in the wood, and ever flake of paint about to fall away from the siding.  There is so much story here, and the plot twist is the replacement windows.  

The sky still wasn't doing me any favors, but I was trying different compositions with different filters.  Nothing really made an image that I would call "art worthy", so I bypassed a lot of compositions and kept looking.  I had seen the open sided barn in the back yard of the house several times before, but hadn't really seen much photographic potential.  There was even a dusty old 60's pickup parked in there, but again, I had not seen much potential in it.  Since I was waiting on the sky, I decided that I could give it a little bit of a try though.

Barn Find
The barn still held no interest for me, but the truck was catching my eyes with all of the dust on it.  Judging from the inspection sticker (May, 1992), this truck has probably been in this barn since I was fresh out of high school.  It was cluttered with your typical barn stuff ranging from doors to lounge chairs.  In the past, this was enough to keep me from photographing this old truck.  Today was a little different, I saw the "junk" as part of the story of this truck.  It gave it a sense of place and history.  All of a sudden, the scene made sense to me.

I still had my 70-200mm lens on the camera, and I figured that to avoid getting too close to somebody's property, I would keep my distance, and go for the telephoto shot.  That actually worked well for the image since there was a support beam right next to the truck.  Had I gone in close with a wide angle lens, I would have undoubtedly distorted the beam.  Plus, I would have put more of the cluttered background in the image.  At about 135mm, I was able to keep the background to a minimum, but have enough of it to tell the story.  The beam was fortunately placed in a way that it wasn't dead center in the frame, and I could get it positioned in a way to where the truck wasn't obscured too much.  The composition worked, and the lighting was getting better with the clouds clearing away from the sun.  I shot about 10 frames of this truck from various locations, and different compositions.  In the end, the most direct image was the one that won out over the others.  It was simplistic, but yet had more layers than an onion.  Even the dust on the windshield conveyed mystery about this truck.  You can look at this picture for hours, and only come up with more questions.

Hey wait a minute, the sky was clearing.  Lets redirect our attention on the house again.  Yep, there was blue sky above, and I was looking at a pretty dramatic scene.  In fact, where I was standing, there was a dead tree branch laying on the ground right in front of the house.  That was going to be my foreground, and it matched with the house perfectly!  I swapped out my long lens for my 24-70mm, and added a polarizer to enhance the sky.  I framed the shot at about 35mm and dialed in the blues to the sky.  I looked at the histogram, and I was way off on exposure latitude.  I needed to add a ND Grad.  But I had a problem with that.  The house was intruding too much into the sky to make a filter usable.  I had only one other option.  I was going to have to shoot this one as an HDR image.  Looking at the latitude of exposure, I was looking at about eight frames to capture all of the tones

State of  Decay
I started to fire off the camera in quick succession to make sure that the sky didn't move too much.  The house was pretty much in the shadows, and the setting sun was not too far out of the frame to the left.  This was a very difficult shot to make, and quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I was good enough with HDR to make it work, and still look natural.  I made two different attempts with slightly different compositions.  The first one was eight frames and the second attempt was nine.  When I looked at the final compositions when I was editing the pictures, I found the tighter composition worked out better than the one that gave the dead branch breathing room.  

Well, I went out tonight to photograph this old house in an attempt to get something special.  At first I was thinking I was going to be disappointed, but when I reached into my bag of tricks, I came away with an image that is better than that favorite of mine from years ago.  While I used a few digital tricks to create this image in the modern dark room, the success of this image is due to the photographer's vision, and not digital manipulations.

Considering that I went out on a spur of the moment decision, I am very happy with what I brought back from the trek.  I shot 51 images, 17 of which represented just two images (the HDR ones), and I came away with four keepers from the evening.  That is a success in my books, and I had another opportunity to work on my HDR technique which is still relatively new.  This is only my second image to use that technique.

Now that the fireworks are winding down, it is time to get things finished up and get to bed.  My day job awaits me in the morning. 

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