I’ve long been a fan of night photography, particularly when it includes light painting. I was immediately drawn into the light-painted photographs of Ken Lee when I first saw them in 2017. He photographs many themes I find interesting – old airplanes and cars, dilapidated buildings, and the natural landscape, often in the moonlight. I’ve seen others photograph these subjects at night, but something was different about Ken’s work. Ken uses not just light, but he uses colored lights to illuminate his photos. And he does it well! I knew I had to learn more about Ken and his photographic technique.

So I got in touch with Ken, and I’ve corresponded with him several times in the past couple of years. I always found him to be a helpful and knowledgable guy. So I asked him recently if he could send me some of his work to share with readers of this site. Ken replied immediately to my request, and graciously sent examples of his latest work – some that he hasn’t posted yet! I’m excited we’re getting a scoop there!

If there’s one thing I hope everyone takes away from Ken’s photographs (besides how awesome it is!) is that you can take photos at night even when the Moon is up. One of the issues Milky Way photographers regularly experience is dark foregrounds. When you shoot under the moonlight, that’s not so much an issue. So don’t put your camera way when the Moon rises or only plan to shoot during the new Moon, get out there and use moonlight to your advantage, and be creative with your might photography!

Ken Lee – Self Portrait 2019

A self-portrait of Ken Lee. “This is the one of me sitting in the stairs of an abandoned train near the Mexican border.”
This photo used an exposure of 13 seconds at f/8 and ISO 1000.

Ken Lee – Night Photographer

Ken Lee lives in the Los Angeles area. He has been exploring the Southwest United States as well as parts of the East Coast for over six years. His images have appeared in National Geographic Books, Omni Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Westways Magazine, and many other publications.

Ken is an avid traveler who has been to 23 countries, always brandishing a camera, tripod, and colored flashlight. As a kid traveling with his family, Ken found it piqued his curiosity, and he loved seeing and experiencing new things. Ken never travels now with any particular itinerary. He goes with a few locations in mind, but not much more.

Ken also records what he describes as “strange ambient music, a sort of sonic counterpart to his night photography.”

Ken enjoyed wandering in the woods by himself as a child. Ken feels that the time spent exploring laid the groundwork for his interest in his photography. However, Ken didn’t get into photography until he got his first digital camera. He enjoyed how it allowed him to experiment without spending lots of money on film. Also, the immediacy of it allowed him to see the results when changing settings. And with all the exposure settings recorded into the image file, he was able to use it to refine his photography.

Inspired by an Unkown Photographer

Ken’s interest in taking photos of the night sky and light painting started around 2000 or 2001 when he was visiting Venice Beach, CA. He saw a display of night photos taken in the moonlight. The photographer shined flashlights on the desert rocks, illuminating some parts of the image while keeping other elements in the shadows. He told Ken that he might make exposures as long as 40 minutes. Explaining to Ken that there was much more light than you think at night, Ken thought “I think I want to do this.”

Ken kept that idea in the back of his head for a long time, waiting about 11 years until digital cameras became affordable and capable of making decent nighttime exposures. Ken wishes he remembered who that photographer was so he could thank him, as his words that day inspired Ken.

Owens Valley Radio Observatory
20 exposure stack of 15 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 6400 using a Nikon D750.

Ken’s Techniques for Light Painting

Ken creates his images using long-exposure photography techniques. A user of Nikon cameras, he chooses either a Nikon D610 or Nikon D750. His tripods are either a Feisol CT-3342 or the heavy-duty Feisol CT-3372 tripod.

When creating an image, Ken might leave the shutter open for up to several minutes, often long enough to show the stars streaking across the night sky. These long exposure times allow whatever natural light is available to “soak in” a bit. When Ken wants to capture stars or the Milky Way as pinpoints, he goes as short as 15 seconds with a wide-angle lens.

Ken’s Secret Weapon – the ProtoMachines LED2 Flashlight

While the shutter is open, Ken use’s a handheld flashlight to light-paint the foreground. It’s no ordinary flashlight though. Ken uses a hand-held, pistol-style flashlight – the ProtoMachines LED2 RGB light. The LED2 is a discontinued model, but an upgraded model, the Protomachines LED8 Full Color Photography Light is available. Both the LED2 and LED8 are a 360° hue, fully controllable RGB light. The LED8 adds a white light mode that is color temperature adjustable from 2500K to 9200K and is brightness adjustable over a range of 7 stops.

With the ability to illuminate the scene with any color hue of light, Ken chooses what to highlight and what to leave in shadow. Some of his early photographs were lit using theatrical lighting gels and a Streamlight LED flashlight.

All of Ken’s lighting is done in-camera at the time of exposure. It is not the product of post-processing enhancement techniques. Ken loves the creativity that a handheld flashlight allows. He says, “[…] I can wander through a scene and illuminate the foreground from a variety of angles as if I am a movie producer. I love that flexibility and creativity.”

Another advantage of using hand-held flashlights is that Ken prefers to travel light, especially when exploring abandoned areas or hiking long distances in the dark. All his equipment can fit in a small backpack, leaving him free to explore on foot easily.

Ken typically carries a camera, tripod, flashlight, batteries, snacks, water, bear spray, and not much else. Ken says “This allows me to move easily, create, and photograph these historic treasures before the elements or a bulldozer erase them from existence. For this and other reasons, I prefer not to use a tracker for the Milky Way, although I do use stacking techniques some of the time.”

Aircraft

Abandoned B-52 photographed with a Nikon D610 using an Irix lens. Stacked exposures of 15 seconds at f/2.4 and ISO 5000.
Airplane Cockpit with red light, 2 minute exposure at f/8 and ISO 200.
B-52 photographed with a Nikon D610 and Irix lens at 15 seconds, f/2.4 at ISO 5000.
Lockheed Harpoon “Spirit of the San Joaquin.” Twenty minutes of total exposure with 2-minute exposures at f/8 ISO 200.

Landscapes

Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
This photo had a total exposure time of 30 minutes at f/8, ISO 1000.
Lake George in Mammoth Lakes Basin, CA. Ground exposure 25 seconds at f/8 ISO 200, sky 21 stacked exposures of 15 seconds at f/2.8 at ISO 12800.
Lake George in Mammoth Lakes Basin, CA. 20 exposures of 15 seconds stacked at f/8 at ISO 12800.

Nighttime Interiors

Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary Cellblock 7. Shot with a Nikon D610 with a 124-second exposure at f/8.0 and ISO 200.
A fisheye photo of a theater that is inside an abandoned mental hospital in Pennsylvania.
Shot with a Nikon D750 with a 2-minute exposure at f/8 and ISO 200.

LA Times Interview

The LA Times featured Ken in 2014. He submitted several of his photographs to the paper. They were so taken by Ken’s photography; they chose to feature him first in a series of reader photographers.

https://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-photographer-profile-ken-lee-20141021-story.html

Ken Lee’s Contact Info

You can see more of Ken’s photography at:
http://kenleephotography.com/
instagram.com/kenleephotography
facebook.com/kenleephotography.

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