Steel Mill at Night

Sometimes inspiration can find us when we least expect it. A few days ago I was at LaSalle Park photographing some birds when I happened to look across Hamilton harbour at the local steel mill. It occurred to me that for more than three decades I’d driven past this facility countless times at night. Throughout all of those years I had never once stopped to create an image of the steel mill after dark. I decided then and there that I’d return before sunrise to photograph that steel mill at night.

The perspective of the steel mill from LaSalle Park is far from ideal as it is a side view, with the mill quite distant. I knew that the best vantage point would be from Eastport Drive. This would allow me to capture a frontal view of the steel mill with its smoke stacks spread out across my composition.

I was unsure of the best focal length to use to photograph the steel mill at night, so I packed my three M.Zuiko PRO zooms (7-14 mm, 12-40 mm and 40-150 mm). All of my tripods remained in my gear closet as I was confident in the IBIS performance of my E-M1X.

It was still “dark o’clock” when I arrived on Eastport DriveĀ  in the early morning hours. As I looked across the bay at the steel mill I decided that I wanted my photograph to have a dark, somewhat ominous feel to it. I imagined some mad scientist working in the facility. I set my E-M1X to Manual with an ISO of 200. To getĀ  the desired framing for my composition I decided to use my M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom.

After doing a couple of quick trial compositions, I decided on a focal length of 115 mm (efov 230 mm). The light at the steel mill was extremely bright and intense. It gave the sky an eerie look with a tungsten colour cast. It also made it far too bright for the image I had in my mind. I purposely underexposed my photograph by almost two stops to help create the desired dark and ominous feeling. I used an aperture of f/2.8 and gave myself a bit of a hand-holding challenge by choosing a 1 second exposure with my M.Zuiko 40-150 mm. The result was the following out-of-camera jpeg.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 115 mm, efov 230 mm, f/2.8, 1 second, ISO-200, out-of-camera jpeg

I make it a habit to shoot in RAW + jpeg fine. I like to have a look at my out-of-camera (OOC) jpeg files so I can develop a game plan for post processing. After examining the OOC jpeg above on my computer monitor, I decided that I would need to lift some of the foreground shadows to reveal a few more details. The bottom 2/5th of the photograph needed to be more than just a black blob… but not a whole lot more. I saw some hints of orange in the smokestack emissions. I knew these could be significantly enhanced to bring some dramatic colour to the image. This would also add a surreal quality. Overall, the sky was a tad too bright for the mood that I wanted to create. So I needed to darken it. I also wanted to reveal more of the details in the highlight areas such as the blue flame on the left hand side of the photograph. So, there was a lot to accomplish to get the photograph to where it was in my mind.

As regular readers will know, when working with photographs captured with small sensor cameras, my first step is often to ‘thicken’ them up in post. Then I bring the images back to where I want them with other adjustments. Using this approach often allows me to squeeze a bit more dynamic range out of my RAW files. As a result the software settings that I use in post can sometimes look unusual.

After running my RAW file through one of my presets in DxO PhotoLab 2, I made some simple adjustments in CS6. These included reducing the overall exposure by -0.40, highlights -100, shadows +100, white +30, and black -20. I then made a small adjustment to clarity taking it to +15. After opening the RAW file up in CS6 I adjusted Levels slightly, and spent some time doing some custom curve adjustments. I then finished the file with some minor Pro Contrast tweaks in Color Efex Pro 4, and did some minor adjustments using the Polarization tool. You can see the completed file below.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 115 mm, efov 230 mm, f/2.8, 1 second, ISO-200

We all make decisions in post to create a specific look with our photographs. The creative interpretation that each of us brings to our work is part of what makes photography so unique, rewarding and personal.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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2 thoughts on “Steel Mill at Night”

  1. Tom,

    I recognize the Hamilton steel mill from your post some days back and truly, some images inspire different treatments and interpretations. Apart from filter experiments, you saw in your mind’s eye the night-time possibilities, the blue and orange flames giving it an industrial tempest look and feel. Knowing your post-processing options also made it very thematic, of knowing what message you want to convey from what you’re seeing. And tripod-less to boot! I must say, wow that Olympus IBIS is really s-w-e-e-t!


    1. Thanks for sharing your perspectives Oggie! Seeing the steel mill and imagining an ‘evil scientist’ helped define the look I had in my mind for the image. The IBIS performance of my E-M1X is simply superb! It takes some time to get used to this incredible capability. It really does redefine how a photographer approaches many image opportunities.


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