Storm approaching

It was definitely not my intention, but a photograph of the Waffle House has turned out to be my winter solstice image. In fact the shot was done on the 21st of December, the day after the solstice because on the actual solstice the weather did not cooperate. I had a location for a landscape shot I thought might work, but got nothing worthwhile. On the 21st, I thought I would try an urban shot, and had another location that might work. This time the sky was brilliant, beautiful in the last moments of the golden hour, but the place was closed. That sucked.

On my way home I pass this Waffle House. This particular location is one where I have a history. I’ve been there many times because it’s handy for a fattening breakfast after a morning shoot in the city. I’ve thought about shooting it a few times, the bright yellow against a night sky makes me think of Edward Hopper’s famous painting, ‘Nighthawks’. That association is more about color than anything else. Maybe the idea of people up in the middle of the night, and wondering why they are there also has something to do with it. But let’s get real, this Waffle House is an example of the worst kind of industrial architecture, perched in front of a strip mall, surrounded by typical suburban desolation. Conventional beauty will be hard to be find here.

However, if there is ever going to be a time to make an interesting image of the Waffle House, this moment is probably as good as it’s ever going to get. The sun was just below the horizon and a weather front was rolling in. It’s the first few minutes of blue hour and all the lights were brilliant. Looking through the viewfinder I see the patterns in the clouds complement the perspective of the building, and the background trees frame the big sign next to the highway. I start to think that maybe there is a shot to be had.

With the light being tricky, I bracket the exposures plus and minus two stops. Set the ISO down to 50 which stretches the shutter speed just enough for light trails on the passing cars. Take the shot and hope for the best.

When it came to processing, I really thought I could pull the right balance from the center exposure. Nine times out of ten that works. The raw file has plenty of range, especially when shooting at ISO 50, so it’s just a matter of teasing it out. After a lot of frustration, getting close but not quite getting the image I had in my head, I broke down and did an exposure blend. That’s even more work because the resulting HDR file is usually very flat looking and has strange color artifacts. Adjustments need to be done a little at a time, in layers, then built up in stages. A contrast curve for the blue color channel was done separately as an example. Other than that, there was no need for masking or compositing elements, it was just a matter of fine tuning. Taking the time to get the final image to reflect what I saw at the scene.

Now the key question; “is the juice worth the squeeze?” For me, the urban landscape is all about looking a little more carefully at the world we live in every day. Finding some interesting geometry in objects and places we see every day and take for granted. So when you see something you normally wouldn’t bother to photograph, and it’s in a very unusual lighting situation, you have to click that shutter.

Sometime you won’t get anything, the again you might get an image that a few people will find interesting. Even if it is a perfectly ordinary Waffle House.


My other urban landscape photos on FlickR