Photo Shoot using Strobes, Gels, Tripod, Wireless Remote…and a Whistle

Dallas, Texas photographer Noel Kerns photographs abandoned buildings at night by the light of the moon, using handheld lighting – often with colored gels – to create unusual lighting effects.

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PHOTOGRILL: You photograph in old buildings & structures; what’s behind your interest in these places?

PHOTOGRAPHER: It’s often somewhat difficult to put into words what I find intriguing about these kinds locations; sometimes it’s the history, sometimes just the architecture…and sometimes, it’s simply the opportunity the location presents for a compelling or unusual shot. A common idea among Urbex enthusiasts is what’s referred to as “beauty in decay”…the idea that the effects of entropy on a place can render it aesthetically appealing. I see that, and I think many others do too.

PHOTOGRILL: In broad terms, what does your photographic style say about these places? What is it that compels people to your imagery?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I think one of the common threads that underlies most of my work is a sense of tension; an uneasy feeling created by a somewhat familiar subject such as an abandoned gas station or roadhouse rendered surreal as its filled with light. These objects are juxtaposed with other, unnatural visages such as car headlights that look like laser beams, clouds streaking across a moonlit sky, or turbulent water rendered eerily calm via a minutes-long exposure. Things we see and take for granted every day that take on a different appearance when time is elongated. Though none of these images in this photo-set are a prime example, a big part of the feedback I get from fans is based around simply being creeped out by the location and the lighting treatment. “Undisclosed Location” & “Pollard House” are prime examples of this. Something about a red glow inside an old house tends to make people uncomfortable.

PHOTOGRILL: Can you tell us about the gear you use to create these images?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I shoot with a Nikon D300, and for 99.9% of my images, I use a 12-24 zoom lens. There are several technical reasons why a lens in this focal range works well for this type of photography, not the least of which is the ease of focusing in darkness due to the large depth of field that a lens like this provides. Also, the perspective of a wide lens mirrors the way I tend to envision and compose these shots.

As for the other critical equipment, I use a Pixel Wireless Remote system to open/close the shutter from up to 100 yards away, and I use a Manfrotto tripod, equipped with their excellent Pistol-Grip ball head to provide a stable base for the camera.

For lighting gear, as mentioned above I use a combination of strobes and flashlights, often with colored theatrical gels, to provide the lighting effects in the images. Here’s a list of the rest of the gear that carry with me, usually in my photo vest:

  • Vivitar 285 Strobe, early 80’s model, running on NiMh rechargeable batteries
  • Yong Nuo YN460-II (As a backup)
  • X2000 Zoom Flashlight (Available through Deal Extreme) (bright & powerful)
  • C30 Zoom Flashlight (Available through Deal Extreme) (mid-level brightness)
  • AA Maglite (Excellent for close detail work)
  • Streamlight Twin-Task Flashlight (LED & xenon sources; a ‘swiss-army knife’ for interior work)
  • Custom-cut theatrical gels (12-15 different colors) (Rosco and “American DJ” Brand)
  • Lens Pen (Gotta keep the glass clean)
  • Buck Knife & Pepper Spray (You never know who or what you’ll encounter out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night)
  • Whistle (Last Resort…for when you fall through a floor into a basement in a ghost town at 2 AM, break your leg, and there’s no cell phone service!)

PHOTOGRILL: OK, so tell us about the featured image in this set, “RGB 5.0”. How did you find this scene, and how did you decide to construct and compose it?

PHOTOGRAPHER: RGB 5.0 is one of my most popular and best-selling images. It was shot on March 3rd, 2008 in an abandoned two-story industrial office building that had been converted for use as a music-rehearsal-rooms-for-rent facility. Demolished in 2010, the building was located in a sketchy neighborhood of downtown Dallas. It was replete with eccentric artifacts of small-time rock bands (such as this ½ mannequin) as well as homeless person belongings, from people who had passed through here and moved on, leaving some of their stuff behind. The building was basically two stories with dozens of small offices…vacant, trashed, and wreaking of decay.

Back in 2008, I typically shot these kinds on places alone, but on this unusually cold March night, I had with me a young urban explorer who had seen my work and was interested in learning my techniques. As we explored the building, we happened upon the mannequin legs, and a few rooms later, a collection of women’s shoes, lined up neatly against the wall as if they were in a closet. I immediately got the idea for the setup in RGB 5.0, so my protégé and I rounded up the legs & shoes, and took them back to 2nd floor landing.

The placement of the mannequin, as well as the angle and composition of the shot fell together quite naturally. It was now just a matter of deciding on the lighting scheme and executing it.

PHOTOGRILL: So tell us about the exposure and effects…how exactly did you create the lighting in RGB 5.0?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Well, first off, there is absolutely no ambient light in the room of any sort; it was pitch black in there. So truly, as a photographer, you are literally “painting with light”; if you want something to appear in the image, you have to put light on it.

Another thing to consider is the fact that, to pull off these handheld lighting effects while the shutter is open, one has to navigate the area of the scene in the blackness. That can sometimes be a bit unnerving, especially if the structural integrity of the building is in question. Fortunately, this building was quite sound structurally; all I had to do was design the shot, count the steps on the stairwell, open the shutter and feel my way around in the dark.

So, having pre-visioned specifically what I wanted the image to look like, it’s time to pull the trigger. I opened the shutter and made my way in darkness to the poster wall, and hurried down the steps (I already knew how many there were) to the mid-landing I and fired off two pops of blue-gelled strobe (medium setting); one to the left corner, one to the right. I then turned to face the side wall, and fired one pop of a green-gelled strobe, climbed the steps a bit and fired off one more pop to the area where the posters are.

Now, to create the red wall. I climbed the steps and made my way into the hallway at frame right. In a doorway across the hall, I fired off one pop of a red-gelled strobe aimed at the wall in the scene.

Now all that’s left is the detail lighting on the legs and fill lighting for the foreground. To do this, I made my way across the frame, out the left side of the image. I used a tightly focused mini-Maglite to paint the legs, then moved to just left of the camera position and used a Streamlight Twin-Task to paint the floor from a low-angle to pull out the texture detail in the debris on the floor.

All of this took 2 minutes and 53 seconds to accomplish (exposure times typically range from one to three minutes, with some as long as 10-12 minutes). The exposure was made on f/5.6, at ISO 200, with a focal length of 12mm. I should also note that this image was in fact taken with my old Nikon D80, as I had not yet upgraded to the D300 in March of 2008. The final image was the second exposure of two takes.

As a side note, while we spent nearly three hours exploring this building, this was one of only two exposures I made on the evening. We were surprised when we stepped out of the building that night to discover that while were inside exploring, Dallas had been blanketed with a layer of freshly fallen snow, which we couldn’t see from inside this old, boarded up abandonment.

PHOTOGRILL: What is your post-processing workflow for an image like this?

PHOTOGRAPHER: My general philosophy is to do as little as possible in the way of manipulating the source image; the idea here is to let the light-painting make the statement, and not turn a photograph into a piece of graphic art by over-processing it, as with HDR, Photoshop filters, etc.

Typically, most of the adjustments I will make to an image are done during the import into Photoshop, in Adobe Camera Raw. I may adjust the white balance, tweak saturation & vibrance slightly, and depending upon the values in the raw file, tweak the shadow & highlight values a bit if needed. After that, in Photoshop itself, I will address any perspective/distortion issues and crop the image to taste. My objective is to delicately tune the final image into an optimal version of what I had envisioned, while still remaining faithful to what the camera saw while the shutter was open. I try to maintain the integrity of a traditional photographic process, as much as possible.

With RGB 5.0, the RAW file out of the camera and the final image are almost identical, save for sharpening and a slight crop to the left edge of the image. Upon close examination of the edited file, I can see where I had done a mask of some sort in one area, but I no longer recall what it was for; I can’t find any substantial differences between the final product and the source RAW file.

PHOTOGRILL: Where can people who are compelled by your photography see more of your work?

PHOTOGRAPHER: My website is at Noel Kerns Photography, though a more complete collection of my work, including my latest images, can be found on my Flickr Stream.

I’d also like to mention my relationship with an outstanding new online gallery called ArtStar is a fantastic resource for budget-minded collectors of fine art, and I’m proud for them to be representing several of my images, including “Curiosity” and Prada Marfa”, both featured in this collection.

PHOTOGRILL: Do you offer classes or workshops for people interested in learning your photographic & lighting techniques?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Yes, occasionally. Drop me an e-mail at and I’ll keep you posted on workshop opportunities as they come available.

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