EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS

How Did They Do That: Neon Waterfalls

Harrison Jacobs


(C) FROM THE LENZ


San Francisco, California-based photography duo From the Lenz is less than a year old but they’re already making waves. The international duo, which consists of American Sean Lenz and Danish Kris Abildgaard, spend half of their time photographing BMX and skateboarding professionals and the other half photographing various fine-art projects. This past April, their project Neon Luminance went viral. After promoting the project on their own site for little under a day, the work got picked up by popular internet outlets including Animal NY and Colossal Art Blog. We spoke with Sean Lenz to figure out how they created the shots.

According to Lenz, the idea for the project came out of a casual conversation between Lenz and Kris Abildgaard. Lenz cut his photography chops by photographing landscapes in Wisconsin, his home-state, and since moving to California, he’s been fascinated by the varied terrain of the state.

“I can completely understand why Hollywood was based out here,” says Lens. “You’ve got the Swiss Alps thirty minutes from the ocean. There’s so much variety to shoot.”

Wanting to capture the beautiful California landscape, Lenz and Abildgaard set out to make images of the many waterfalls that were lurking near their home. They decided to merge two worlds—nature and sci-fi—by using glow-sticks to light up the waterfalls at night. Knowing the glow-sticks float, they figured that that they could float them down the waterfall and use the bright colors to enhance the natural beauty of the waterfall and illuminate the current.

Before explaining how they took the shots, Lenz offers a word of warning, “This project you can’t do alone…there’s so many things that can go wrong so fast.”

Lenz and Abildgaard  hike out to the waterfall in the dead of night, a dangerous enough task in itself. Once there, they set up two cameras at the base of the waterfall at different angles. They set up two cameras because, as Lenz explains, “You only get one chance at this type of stuff.”

Once they have framed the cameras with the composition that they want, they begin to test their settings by taking long exposures with the ambient light. The exposure length ranges anywhere from one to seven minutes, according to Lenz. Once they’ve found an exposure time that they think will work, one of the two will stand at the top of the waterfall and begin to drop the glow-sticks while the other one waits at the bottom and starts the exposure. They’ve tried releasing all the glow-sticks at once and also one at a time, both with equal success. Once the glowsticks have all dropped into the retaining pool, Lenz will get into the freezing cold water and collect them.

Lenz and Abildgaard  have spent countless hours testing different combinations of ISOs and apertures on shoots and on paper (“It’s a lot of math” says Lenz). As such, Lenz was not ready to divulge their trade secrets. If you’re looking to replicate their shots, you are going to have to go out to the waterfalls yourself and do as they did and spend some time doing test shots. Lenz did offer one hint however, “It’s all about the law of reciprocity and pushing your settings to the point where they are still going to capture these glow-stick lights [while also capturing the scene].”

As is to be expected with such a shoot, they encountered many problems that they had to troubleshoot. The first is what to do with an especially large waterfall. On those shoots, they released the sticks at different times over different sections of the waterfall so that the entire span was illuminated. Another issue was the individual brightness of each glow-stick. According to Lenz, the green-colored glow-sticks are far brighter than any other color, often completely overpowering the other colored glow-sticks. To avoid what Lens called “the slime” effect, Lenz and Abilgaard learned to use the green glow-sticks sparingly.

What you see is what you get with the Neon Luminance shots. While Lenz does some local adjustments in Photoshop and Lightroom, the images are, with very few exceptions, “straight out of camera.” It’s a triumph of photographic technique. Lenz and Abildgaard  spend about two hours on each hiking trip to get one shot that they are satisfied with. By now, they’re at a point where they’ve got their foundation of camera settings down and all they have to do is test and tweak, but don't let that fool you. It took a lot of hard work to get there.  

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