How I got the photo: Abandoned car overlooking city lights

How I got the photo: Abandoned car overlooking city lights

How did I create a night photo of a mysterious abandoned car overlooking Los Angeles? I’ll tell about the adventure and the techniques.

Finding the car

Many times, I’ve mentioned how I use various sleuthing methods, extensive reading, and Google Earth to find strange abandoned objects. Here, though, I stumbled across this by mistake! 

I was photographing the alleged Zodiac Car near Spahn Ranch, a Corvair rumored to be the infamous car driven by Bruce Davis. He was the “right-hand man” of Charles Manson during that infamous time.

The alleged Zodiac Car near Spahn Ranch, a Corvair rumored to be the infamous car driven by Bruce Davis for the Manson family.

On the way back, I zigged when I should have zagged. This was a happy accident, as I stumbled across this car. It was immediately obvious that people had set up a dirt bike ramp so they could launch themselves onto and over the vehicle.

I also loved the way it looked forlornly over the city lights of Los Angeles. I knew I would return to photograph this soon.

Returning to the car

Some months later, I hiked the half-mile trail just after sunset, going up and down the mountain trail to the car. I had brought my camera, lots of drinks, and a few snacks. I had taken GPS coordinates the last time I was here. However, I didn’t seem to need it since I figured it out quickly based on the shape of the mountains.

Abandoned car overlooking the city lights of Los Angeles. 69 seconds f/9 ISO 200.
Abandoned car overlooking the city lights of Los Angeles. 69 seconds f/9 ISO 200.

The challenge of the lighting angle

When I light paint, I prefer to have the angle of the light be consistent with the brightest light source. In this case, that was the moon and the city spread out below. And I loved the way the moonlight looked on the car. I wanted to replicate the same angle so that it would look natural, only brighter and more pronounced.

The difficulty in doing that was that there was a dirt bike ramp in front of the car. In order to really get the angle correctly, I would have to get up high enough to shine the light over the bike ramp. This would be difficult to do because I would have to not only get in the frame, but also extend my flashlight high up, almost pointing back at the camera, but somehow not shine it into the lens.

If I had been smart, I would have brought a piece of cardboard like Mike Cooper does, using it as a light modifier to block the light from going into the lens. However, it was a little late for that. I improvised and held my camera bag in front of the flashlight instead. It was far more clumsy and difficult, but I eventually got it to work.

Lighting the interior

My original plan was to light the interior with a warm white light. However, it looked indistinguishable from the rest of the car. I decided on a whim to use teal instead, which I had previously done with the Zodiac Car. This would thematically tie them together as well.

I ducked behind the car and shined the teal light inside briefly to light it up. I lit the dashboard from an angle to create some interesting shadows and maximize the details.

Lighting the ground

I stood up on the trail above the car and gently lit the surrounding hill behind it with warm white light. If I hadn’t done this, it would have been extremely dark, and I wanted some context and detail.

About this unusual scene

We often see panoramas of city lights, but rarely with an abandoned vehicle, particularly with no road in sight. It creates a jarring juxtaposition. There used to be crude dirt roads higher up in the mountains. During the day, if you look closely, you can discover some of the roads because the dirt is packed down more in certain areas. People used to ditch stolen vehicles here, sometimes rolling them off the hillside. This is most likely why this car is here.

After taking the photo, I hiked the half-mile trail back to the car in the moonlight. It’s surprising how bright moonlight can be, and even though the trail went up and down through the rocky mountain, I was able to hike almost the entire trail without using my headlamp.

Camera settings

The exposure was 69 seconds at f/9 ISO 200. I used a slightly smaller aperture than usual to create more of a flare from the moon and city lights below, but also so I could have more time to run around and light paint the scene. I used a Pentax K-1 and a 15-30mm f/2.8 lens on a Feisol CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod and Accratech GP-s for the photo.