Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mike Cooper's Nocturnal Kansas

"Vermilya-Boener" - a limestone Italian Villa style house built north of Lawrence in 1868 ~ © Mike Cooper
(Click to enlarge and read more info, including light painting details.)
W. S. Kelly Gas Station
Mike Cooper's nocturnal, photo documentation of rural Kansas began almost four years ago. Mike had never had any formal training in photography, let alone night photography. "I had seen some [night time exposures] online that looked pretty cool so I decided to give it a try.  I spent evenings sitting in my wife’s sewing room researching on the internet to figure out how it was done.  [As] an insurance adjustor by day, I drive about 450 miles a week through the rural areas of Kansas so I knew I could probably find some combines or tractors to use as subjects.  I really didn't want to invest much money in equipment if I wasn't going to like it. I already had a basic DSLR, so I bought a used Streamlight Stinger flashlight and cheap shutter-release cable off of eBay, as well a few lighting gels [to get started]."

Above photo taken with the Sony A350. Exposed for 74 seconds. Light painting with red, blue
and purple gelled flashlight; sodium vapor lighting to the right side of the building. One of Mike's
earliest night photos, before his focus was on rural Kansas. Abandon station is located in Cogar, Oklahoma.

Mike describes his style of night photography as "bright" —he likes his photos to be very “light,” especially through the use of the colored light painting. He enjoys night photography because of the unusual conversations that come from the property owners, as he tries to convince to them to let him onto their land. He usually carries some prints to show his past work. "They argue with me that [their property] can’t be taken at night," says Mike. He is amused when they can't believe that their abandon building will ever be as bright as the examples in his prints!

"District 34" - The one-room, Bichet School, built in 1896 ~ © Mike Cooper
A 182 second exposure with the Sony A560, using a blue gelled flashlight.
This is a good example of Mike's "Bright" night photography style. 
"The Drunkards' Masterpiece" - Stone house in the Flint Hills of Kansas (built circa 1840)  ~ © Mike Cooper
The story passed from father to son was that the two gentlemen who built it were drunk more than
they were sober. 180 seconds exposure with a Sony A560, during heavy cloud cover and
a lot of wind. Light painting with Protomachines set to violet and soft white.
"Abandoned II" - an abandoned gas station alongside I-35
Challenges: Because Kansas is a fairly large state, it is not unusual for Mike to drive 2+ hours one way to a location, photograph into the night, and still have to drive home in the early morning hours.

But his biggest challenge has been trying to figure out who is the right person to ask for permission on various abandoned sites. "I became a little pickier about trying to get permission after a run-in with a county sheriff that ended with me in handcuffs," laughs Mike. He thought he was going to have to call his brother-in-law to bail me out of jail. It should be no surprise that he hasn't taken any pictures in Harvey County since that night!

Equipment and software: Mike recently upgraded from a Sony A560 to a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm lens.  (All of the photos shown above were taken with the Sony A350 or A560.) He's using his Gitzo Explorer tripod and Arca Swiss ballhead that were purchased from eBay, but he originally started out with a cheap aluminum tripod.  Last year for Christmas, his wife got him a Protomachines flashlight and it has been a fantastic upgrade:  "I used to carry multiple flashlights, gels and as well as numerous miscellaneous handmade attachments for the flashlights to hold the gels or focus the beams.  Inevitably I would drop a flashlight and have to spend 30 minutes or more searching in the dark for it. [That's] no longer a problem now that I keep a Protomachines hung around my neck."

"District 88" - one room schoolhouse in Osage County, Kansas ~ © Mike Cooper
150 seconds exposure with Nikon D800. Light painting with Protomachines set to gold & soft white.
Mike uses the timer on his iPhone to keep track of how long the shutter is open. "My daughter found gloves that can work the touchscreen on my iPhone timer, so that is a big help in the Kansas weather."

He doesn't use the high-end Photoshop —just the very basic $100 Photoshop Elements on his MacBook for editing, and that is usually just to adjust white balance, adjust the fill light, level, and crop or remove an occasional power line from the image.

Mike Cooper on location
Mike Cooper currently lives in the northeast corner of Kansas with his wife, daughter, two dogs and two cats. He started doing night photography in January 2010, and has had no formal training in photography or post-processing.  None of his current pictures use any layers or blends of multiple images.  Mike enjoys making calendars of his pictures for friends and family, but as a general rule, he doesn’t sell his work because he would rather take pictures of things that interest him, instead of worrying about what other people would find interesting or attractive. More of Mike's work can be found on his 'Nocturnal Kansas' Flickr photostream.

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