Light Painting and HDR

I got invited by my good friend Andy to visit the old Seaholm power plant in Austin. This plant served the city until 1989 and was officially decommisioned and designated for repurposing in 1996. The building has sat idle for years, but preparations are now underway to turn the property into office and retail space, as well as condos. Unfortunately, the turbines and other equipment have already been removed, leaving behind a shell of a building. Regardless, we found some cool stuff to shoot.

Some of the most interesting places to explore were in the catacomb-like subterranean levels. The concrete levels were very dark, lit only by whatever daylight filtered in from windows in the upper level and fell through the holes in main building's floor where the turbines used to sit. This environment presented a challenge, even for HDR capture. In a lot of places, I could barely see and needed a flashlight to illuminate things. My camera was wanting bulb mode and I would have had to push the ISO quite high to get shots in a timely manner. So, I decided to try something new.

I'd heard of light painting before, but I'd never tried it myself. This seemed like a great opportunity to give it a go. The basic idea is that you use a long shutter speed and "paint" the subject with a flashlight to light whatever you want to expose. It took only a little bit of experimentation to get some good results. There is definitely skill involved to evenly light things and not leave flashlight "brush" strokes. You also have to look at the scene and figure out where to light. You don't want to remove all shadows and end up with a flat looking image.

For this shot, I used my flashlight to illuminate the graffiti painted wall during the long exposure. I liked the look I got, but I still wanted to bring out the gritty textures some more. In post processing, I ran the single exposure through NIK HDR Efex Pro. While HDR is generally used to compress dynamic range, it is also great for opening up the textures in an image. Being in this place felt like a creepy level in a video game and I really wanted to communicate that. The tonemapping process brought out the textures, but also increased light levels in shadow areas that I wanted to keep dark. So, just I blended the tonemapped file with the original to help get the lighting where I wanted while keeping the dark shadows as they were originally.

This image was a challenge to compose and capture. A little bit of light is falling from above, enough to make out the stair case. The small room behind the stairs was pitch black. I had to use my flashlight to compose and focus the camera. Next, I experimented with a couple of long exposures while painting in the stairs and the background. One nice thing about capturing the scene with light painting was that I was able to keep a tighter aperture for good depth of field. Without the light painting, I would have had to use a wide aperture and higher ISO with excessively long shutter times to expose for the dark room. To get maximum grit, I again used HDR Efex Pro to tonemap the single exposure and blended it with the original to adjust for the best shadow areas.

Light painting is certainly a useful technique that I will continue to experiment with as the situation calls for it. It takes a bit of practice to get the fluid movement of the light correct. You have to figure out where to light and how fast to move the flashlight. Check your LCD and histogram after each attempt and see what you are getting. In the areas that you illuminate, check for even coverage to avoid brush strokes of light. It might be a good idea to have a couple of flashlights of different power levels with you. My Surefire flashlight has a high and low mode that I found to be handy. Combined with HDR, light painting is an especially powerful tool in my photography toolbox.

Different Perspectives on the Holly Street Power Plant

Some of you may remember a story I posted a while back about getting chased off of a public sidewalk by security guards at a decommissioned power plant. A lot of people asked why I didn't stand up for my rights on the spot. Instead of arguing on the street with security guards and potentially the police, I thought it best to move along and resolve the matter with the appropriate authorities. My intent was to call Austin Energy and possibly city offices in the morning, but before I could look up the numbers I was contacted by someone from Austin Energy who had stumbled across my blog entry about the event just a few hours before!

All things ended up for the good and I was invited to come out to the plant and photograph the plant inside and out. So, I rounded up a group of some of my photog friends and we got a special opportunity to shoot this great place before it gets demolished later this year. Because I knew ahead of time that lighting conditions would be poor without any power to the old plant, I invited a bunch of guys like me who tote around tripods for HDR shooting. I want to thank Ed at Austin Energy for making this happen. A huge thanks also to Carlos and Bobby out at the plant for graciously guiding us through the building and waiting patiently for us to get our shots.

I thought it would be cool to share a shot by each photographer. It's great to see the different perspectives we captured. My favorite personal shot was this control room. I had to climb a creaky staircase to get to this dark room. Only a little light filtered into the windows from across the turbine hall. It was so surreal seeing the room empty and dusty with things in place as if everyone just got up suddenly and left. It was a creepy feeling and I just took this one shot before moving on.

Michael Connell

We had a long time to play around in the turbine room of the plant. I did a lot of closeup shots and would have liked to have gotten a grand view of the room, but I didn't find a composition I liked. My good friend Andy came through with this shot. His overhead view from a balcony outside of a control room is just the ticket.

Atmtx Photography

This staircase was shot by Dave Wilson. Being as afraid of heights as I am, I opted not to wander out on the many outside stair cases. This HDR shot brings out some great tones from the rusty structure. There is a warped perspective created by the lens that draws me in and makes me think of how I feel when confronted by stairs at a great height!

Dave Wilson Photography

Alex Suarez was a little late in joining us but he got some nice closeup details. I like his shot of this confined space entry point. His B&W treatment is very suiting for this shot.

Alex Suarez

Here's a "Why didn't I think of that?" image. Michael Tuuk grabbed this cool shot of one of the entry doors to the plant. I really like his composition with the reflections in the door and the towering structure of the plant up the side.

Michael Tuuk

My friend Van got this great shot of another control room. I love this wide angle capture of the entire room. It's amazing work in very difficult lighting and his HDR treatment makes this image really pop.

Van Sutherland

Last, but certainly not least, is an artistic shot by my friend Tony Tobin. Tony has great skill at capturing artistic shots, especially in low light scenarios. I like this shot of his through a cable rack. The shapes, lighting, and bokeh are very appealing.

Tony Tobin

There you have it, 7 perspectives of the Holly Street Power Plant from 7 photographers. We're only a few days out from the shoot, so be sure and check our sites for more to come as we process the images we captured. We had a blast!