The Thayer Barn

Posted on April 10, 2015

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How I Really Got Sucked into Digital HDR

There is was this old barn on the outskirts of town that was fast-forwarding through it’s decay. At some point a group of people banded together to try to save the barn, move it and make it into some sort of arts/civic center. Then another splinter group of (I heard) Hollywood transplants got involved. Then it got political, secretive, and ultimately became one of those small town pot boilers. It seemed like a lot of foofarah for a barn you wouldn’t look at twice back East. I’ve had relatives older than this building. I asked many people many times what the story was but never really got it.

The "stairs"

The “stairs”

At one point the decay accelerated to the point were collapse seemed imminent. We had a pool on it. The front was sliding off like a bad facelift and dropping more every day. At that time it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps the barn had photogenic potential. By then it had a construction fence around it and was scheduled for disassembly, preferably by man before nature finished her course.

I asked around and not only got permission to shoot it, but was given a complete tour by the project manager, Lin. It turns out this was an old Sears kit barn and as such had some historic status. She put me to shame scrambling up into the loft. The first trip carrying my tripod, 40-lb medium format kit, and separate SLR bag up the nailed in boards that constituted the ladder was nerve-wracking enough that on subsequent trips I used a ladder I scavenged up from the site and a rope to haul my gear up. It was eerie being in there. Everything is tilted 15 degrees to the west, and the floor boards on the second story were so rotted I had to build a floor to go to the far end and shoot back.

View of rotted floor from below

View of rotted floor from below

Originally, I thought the caving face would be the interesting one, but it turned out that it was the complete one that made the better shot.  When I shared the images with Lin she was shocked that I had gone to the other end of the barn to take them. I will admit, it did take a while for the pulse to settle down enough to steady the camera.

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My kit

I have learned, often painfully, that anything worth shooting is worth shooting twice. Especially with film. Because the interior had both deep shadows and gaping holes streaming sunlight, I knew there was going to be extreme contrast differences which would require long (10+  min) exposure times and special development processes which I had never done. And that meant the first rolls would be entirely experimental and the second, if I got the chance, would be the “money shoot.” This is precisely the conditions that film excels in and honestly I was more interested in the technical challenge than in the aesthetic reward. Once inside the barn, I didn’t really see anything that I thought would make a great print. However, because I was the only photographer who had taken an interest in the project I did now have a de facto responsibility to record the building for posterity, and perhaps even for the reconstruction. So it became part art project, part technical challenge, and part documentation. I even got a badge. To explain how small of a town this is, the first time I was there shooting I had 3 IMs when I got back by people who had seen me driving by and who wanted to know if I had permission to be there. Three.

To keep the busybody vampires away

To keep the busybody vampires away

Here are some from the original B&W rolls.

What is it they say about plans, that they never survive first contact with the enemy? Well, so it was. With my RB67 medium format camera (6×7 cm negatives), shooting is a very mechanical process.  First I use an external spot meter to meter the shadows and the highlights. This let’s me know how many zones the scene will encompass and what I will have to do in development to make sure I get it all on the negative. In this case I knew that the highlights (windows and holes in the roof) would have no information, so I could let them go off the charts, so to speak. I chose an overcast morning to make the light as even as possible inside the barn. The challenge was to get an image where the details in the shadows would be clear and visible, while the lit areas were not blown out. To do this, I meter on the darkest part of the image. This would be the lowest zone. (See my post on the Zone System.) The way the eye balances this out it might see this shadow as “black” so Zone 0. But I want this to be completely detailed so I want to move this to the middle of the range, Zone IV. That means calculating the exposure as metered and then multiplying it by 4 to move it from Zone 0 to Zone IV. To that, you must add reciprocity failure, because the longer you expose film the less sensitive it gets. Because I often shoot in exactly this mode, I carry Barnbaum’s reciprocity chart in my kit. What all of this maths means is that the average exposure in the barn would be 10 min. So a 10-frame roll of film would take me about two hours to compose and expose. These exposures were so long I was actually able to walk around the barn in front of the camera and not even show up in the images! I thought about painting with light, but I don’t have a flashlight that big, and that is definitely something you need to experiment with on exposures.

Unfortunately the shutter on the RB’s wide angle lens started to stick. Or should I say finally stick badly enough to be noticeable. I’d been having some spotty results in the past (including two completely blank rolls in Germany) but it happened so inconsistently (the next 8 in Germany were perfect), I had thought it was operator error. Face it, I have to make a lot of decisions for every shot and I do often make one bad decision and blow the shot, or roll. That’s one of the things I like about this camera. You have to be present or it doesn’t work.  You don’t take a bunch of pictures and hope for the best. Second chances are few in a lot of places I shoot, and I don’t bracket many 10 min exposures!

And here are a few which made it clear that something was up with the lens. The variations in exposure and the half images in particular were what gave it away. Even I’m not that bad.

I quite like this shot, although the negative is a little flat I could work with it int he darkroom. It’s nice in that it does have some context in the windows outside the barn.

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Although I vacillate whether this unfortunate failurebelow is art or not. I’m fascinated by the “infectious” nature of the development, how the light “bleeds” into the dark.  It turns out this happens with both film and digital.This is one of the things I wanted to play around with and solve in testing. It looks kind of like some of the stand development errors I’ve seen, but it is not :

img167Fortunately, I had brought my DSLR “just in case.” However, as I mentioned in another post, to capture this dynamic range on a digital camera meant shooting multiple images using exposure bracketing and layering them together using software a process called High Dynamic Range (HDR), something I was familiar with on a theoretical level but had never personally done because, well, it required software. Because the dynamic range was so huge (something like 15 stops overall, about 10 stops of which I was interested in), and my camera will only let me take 3 bracketed exposures automatically, (Later I learned my sister’s camera will not only let you do 5 shots, i.e. -2,-1, 0, 1, 2, it will also shoot to ASA 64,000! Holy cow, me want!), I figure I should set the bracket to be -2, 0, 2. This seems totally logical to me, but later when I researched it in more depth I found that they recommend using brackets separated by only single exposure values (EVs) and so I went back and reshot manually, stacking up to 10 exposures. At that point the ability to  set the camera on the tripod and manually adjust the exposure for 10 shots without moving it becomes the limiting factor.

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HDR shot comprised of 10 stacked images

This is certainly the type of image I was anticipating on film. As I fiddle more with the HDR I think it’s best to think of it as a great previsualizer for film images taken at the same time. I can pop the HDR shot up on the screen and think about making a print from that shot.

At any rate, I shot a bunch of stuff. Ran home, downloaded several HDR trial software packages, played with them, to see if I had any chance of success given my limited skill set, then went back and completed the shoot.  Here is one of my first attempts.
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I didn’t have the time to get the manual camera repaired before the barn came down, so ultimately I ended up making several trips to the barn and doing the whole project digitally, much of it in bright light. Even between the first and second trips (the barn now rebranded as the Big Yellow Barn to separate itself from his political past) had become a much scarier place. It was not just listing to the side, but it was also twisting. It was like being inside a Popsicle stick bomb. The very air seemed to have a tension in it. Where before the north end was was vertical, now it too had a very southern lean. In this image and many others you can see the interesting way “arches” are made up of straight segments joined by a chord.

Capture3

The lines, the rafters, to the left of the text that are curving away? Those should all be perfectly straight.

The twisted rafters

The twisted rafters. In the “straight on” view, the beam under the “g” should be hidden by the beam under the “h”, but it is bowed out about a foot.

North end tilt

North end tilt. That wasn’t there a week ago.

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A new break, found from comparing against earlier images. Wish I’d taken more of these “floor angle” shots.

I spent some time and redid the sample HDR shots:


This one is probably the one I most wish I had on film as I could see what great contrast all of these boards had in this little room:
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I got a few other art shots.

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IMG_7548_7549_7550_easyHDRThis one too I quite liked. The eye of the hydra is upon you.

IMG_7539_7540_7541_easyHDR_BWI finally got smart and started taking shots from the roof of the abandoned property  next door. Here is one after deconstruction had already started.

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In the end, I did not learn what I wanted to learn about film, although I had to learn way more than I ever intended about digital. I ended up shooting the barn several times in all different weather. Ultimately, I think I recorded the barn pretty well for posterity, but I didn’t get any shots that I would want to print or spend any more time on artistically. The funhouse grin just never materialized into anything remotely engaging. Even the multilayered and peeling roof didn’t render as sexy as I’d hoped in B&W. I guess I’m not into bucolic decay any more than I am into urban decay.  Lin’s daughter is a professional photographer, and I’m hoping she can do more with these than I ever could or will, so I will turn a disk over to the project and return to watching it from afar.

Here is a selection of the full “documented” project.

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