Cabin Fever

Man, I sure do love photographing old houses and cabins under the night sky. The only thing I like better is shooting waterfalls at night. But just any old structure won’t work. Strange as it may sound, there are very specific requirements for what makes a good cabin shot.

These are the features I look for, in no particular order:

  1. The cabin must be out in the open, with no trees blocking it that would create clutter for the light painting. It can have trees on the sides and rear, but in the direction of the camera’s view, it must be open.
  2. There must not be any trees behind you that will intrude into the sky when you use a wide-angle lens.
  3. You must be able to back up far enough from the cabin so you don’t have to tilt a wide-angle lens too far upward to get it all in and still include some sky. (The vertical perspective correction in Photoshop can do only so much.)
  4. It must look good, without any clutter around it, or anything modern. (You definitely do not want an ADT sticker in the window!) I will occasionally shoot modern houses, but the look is just not the same.
  5. It needs to be at a reasonably dark site, without a lot of light pollution to interfere.
  6. It should be at a remote location, away from busy highways and the prying eyes of passersby and police officers.
  7. It needs to a publicly accessible site or at least one where you’re not likely to get caught. (I didn’t say that last part, by the way.)
  8. In a perfect world, the angle of view would be such that you can capture the Milky Way, Orion, Big Dipper, or some other prominent celestial object in the sky. This isn’t a deal breaker, especially when you shoot star trails, but it adds an extra wow factor.
  9. Finally, and most important for me, is that the interior must be accessible, so I can “throw” some light painting out of the windows and doors. This is huge; it can make the difference between an ordinary shot and one that stands out from the rest.
Light Painted House-Milky Way-Smokies

The Milky Way shines above an old house in the Smokies. I used a flash with a yellow gel and an LED flashlight with a light cyan gel for the light painting.

Not surprisingly, very few of the cabins I explore meet all these criteria. When I do find one, I start foaming at the mouth and painting the black canvas in my mind. The accompanying structure is one of the few I know of that does meet all of these conditions. It’s located in a remote section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It’s not exactly what I’d call a cabin, but it’s certainly historical and there are no ADT stickers on the window. And it has one quality that most real log cabins don’t have. It has light-colored wood siding, which reflects the light from my light-painting flashlight beautifully.

To create this image, I shot three separate exposures—one for sky, one for the interior lighting, and one for the exterior lighting. I then blended these exposures as layers in Photoshop and changed the Blend Mode to Lighten so that all of the lightest parts (the stars and light painting) would show up from each layer. For the light painting layers, I first painted the sky out black so the stars in those frames wouldn’t show up.

For the sky shot, the settings were f/2.8, 30 seconds, and ISO 1600. For the interior light painting, I set the shutter on bulb and fired a flash with a yellow gel filter attached out of each window and door. Settings for that were f/5.6 and ISO 400, and it took a total of 217 seconds to complete. For the exterior painting, I shined an LED flashlight with a cyan gel filter onto the house. Settings for the exterior were f/8, 30 seconds, and ISO 400. Actually, I shot several frames for the exterior lighting and blended those together. This makes it a lot easier to get the lighting even, without all those splotches that can show up in a single shot.

Focus was a piece of cake. I simply shined the flashlight on the house and autofocused on it. At that distance, and with a wide-angle lens, there was more than enough depth of field to get the house and the stars sharp.

Man, I love this stuff. You might even say I’ve got the fever!

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