Revisited: Koreshan State Historical Site – Estero, Florida

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything just worked the first time? I suppose that would be too easy. One thing that you can count on with photography is that the hobby is riddled with problems and one has to figure out a way to solve these issues as they arise. Sometimes this means having the proper gear on hand, others a smashed penny (more on this later). No matter what aspect of photography that one might be interested in, it all has it challenges. However, at the end of the day, whether for pay or satisfaction, it’s supposed to fun! I try not to take my photography or myself too serious. Of course, I want to create photographs that folks enjoy looking at, if it becomes a chore, it’s time to hang up the lenses.

A couple of years ago, I taught my HDR (High Dynamic Range) class in Punta Gorda, Florida. It was decided that for one of the field trips that we wanted to go to Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. This place has quite a bit of history and is quite challenging to photograph. If you missed my last post on this venue, you can read it here: Koreshan Historic Site – Estero, Florida. In this post, you will see that these were in fact done with the HDR technique. However, I really wasn’t happy with certain ones after it was all done. Some folks might throw up their hands and say that is the best they can do and move on. Then there are others like me who are like a bulldog on a pork chop. At first if solution number one doesn’t work, no worries, that means it’s time to turn up the heat light. I just smiled and said, “I’ll get you next time.”

Fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago, I was teaching the same HDR class in Punta Gorda. Once again it came time for our final field trip. I’ll admit this now I had a hidden agenda. I threw this venue out as one of the possible places we could go. I wanted to go back and kick the crap out of this place with some different tools. I asked, “So what did we decide?” A few more questions ensued about Koreshan so I pulled up the website and showed them what was available to shoot. This sealed the deal. I had all I could to do a cart wheel down the gallery. (I don’t think my insurance covers 600lb people wrecking all of the artwork on the walls as they are trying gymnastics in a gallery).

I had a week to review what I had done before and come up with a Plan B. One thing that I was sure of was that I wanted to go with a dramatic black and white look this time. Koreshan has lots of browns and shades of gray so this will lend it self to the B&W conversion process. Some folks talk about all of the different photographers that they follow, that’s great, personally I don’t have that kind of time. I try to keep tabs on one, Joe McNally. In a nutshell, this guy is a flash genius and isn’t wrapped too tight so we get along like peanut butter and jelly. I have all his books, videos and took some of his classes. There was one thing that he told me in class that really stuck with me. Simply he said, “If you want something to look more interesting, don’t light all of it.” This was a revelation to me. But, when needed don’t be afraid to pull out the big horsepower to craft the light the way you want it for the scene.

The big day had arrived. This time I wasn’t going into this as the underdog. I took every piece of lighting gear that I had. The poor car looked like one of those that you see heading for the Florida border as folks are making their way back to the northern territories. As I was heading down, I was going over in my mind how I wanted to set up certain areas to get the maximum return on the time. When I arrived, I pulled the camera out, flashes, light stands, umbrellas, radio triggers and one of my secret weapons, my Nikon 24mm f/2.8 lens. This is my wide-angle prime lens that is razor sharp like my 50mm, 85mm and 105mm. The last thing to come out of the car was the tripod. By the time I was all suited up I looked like a walking B&H store! I answered some questions and we were off. Some went in different directions to do their own thing and others stuck with me. Of course, I was asked what was with all of the stuff in my pockets and pouches. I simply said, “I have some unfinished business here.”

The first subject that I came to was an old cracker house. This consisted of a kitchen area and a place to sleep, simple and functional. It was then I was presented with another challenge that I had forgot about, glass. All of these buildings either had plexi or glass to allow you to see inside, but you couldn’t actually go inside. I just laughed and thought to myself that Koreshan isn’t going to give up the goods that easy. While inspecting the interior of the house, I noticed that there wasn’t any interior lighting, it was dark to say the least. All that I had available was the ambient light coming through the windows. Taking one of the design notes from my photography classes, side lighting always looks nice. That was going to be the plan today. Here is the first photo that I took for the day.

 This is an old kitchen that was used in the early 1900's. This photo was taken at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen.1900’s Kitchen – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

OK, so how was this accomplished? I knew that the light coming in from the window wasn’t going to be enough to actually do anything inside. I walked around the side of the house where the window was and set up a flash on a light stand with an umbrella and fitted it with a radio trigger. Since I didn’t have line of sight to use the camera flash as the trigger, this is one of the benefits of radio, as it will go through walls and windows. It was like Dark Vader’s bathroom coming to life as I was powering everything up. It’s always fun to look at all the dials, lights and knobs. To ensure that a reflection wasn’t going to show up in the glass, I put the lens right against the glass and cupped it with my hands. I pressed the shutter button and what you see above is what I was presented with. I smiled like I had just finished a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, I was onto something. I took a few in portrait and landscape orientation since I had everything set up, all that was needed now was to work on composition. I broke everything down and moved on to the next location.

 This is the bakery at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photo by Spencer Pullen.Bakery – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

I felt right at home with this building. It was set up just as they had used it in the past. This was going to be a different challenge. The angle that I wanted was through a window. Where was I going to put the light? Ugh, in the entryway where the guests were supposed to view the bakery. Me being me, made sure no one was coming and set up the lighting apparatus in the doorway which was covered in glass. I ran around to the other side of the building and ripped off a few frames. Since flash only cares about the aperture and ISO, I was in effect able to change how the flash was working at the camera position without leaving, thus maximizing my time. There was also a tour heading our way that was being lead by the park ranger. I kept one eye out on him, as I didn’t want to get into any trouble “flashing” my subjects.

I just had everything pulled out of the way and one of my students came up to me. They asked why their tripod head was coming loose. I said, “Did you tighten the set screws?” They opened their hands and produced one of the three set screws. I said, “Yuppers, there’s the problem.” Now came the fun part, all we needed to fix this simple issue was a small screwdriver. We are standing in the middle of the hot sun and I can’t think of where to get a screwdriver. I went through my bag and came up with nothing. They went through their stuff and came up empty handed. I worked on getting the screws back in at least while we were coming up with Plan C, D, E and so on. In a few moments at the bottom of their bag they produced a flattened penny. These are souvenir pennies that you get at amusement parks where the machine flattens the penny and stamps something from the park on it. I tried it and I couldn’t believe it, it worked. I gave it what my father calls “The Death Lock” or at least what I could do with a penny! Ten minutes, it was good as new and they went off to finish the class. I was explaining to them during this procedure that I write about this stuff on the blog and people think I make this crap up. They said they would attest that it really happened! I figured the next thing that I was going to have to try and do would be start a car with a breadstick….don’t ask.

Once the tripod was fixed, it was time to get one of the photos that I came for, the violin. I have had other friends come down and get this shot with natural light. Being a guy I was going to light this sucker up like the Fourth of July. I was a little short, so one of the students found a cinder block for us to stand on.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this violin and music stand at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida..Awaiting A Violinist – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

We rattled off a few shots and I noticed that the tour was coming our way. We had someone acting as the lookout. When it was my turn to be the lookout, I told the photographer it was time to get off the block as the ranger was coming. They gently “nudged” the block back from which it came. We must have all looked like a bunch of cats that just ate canaries. I was happy as I got one of the images that I came for. I would have liked the shadow and little more soft, but for where the flash was, I was happy to get this.


A lone chair and table at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen. Chair And Table – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

I ran around to the back of the building and I was able to get this photo. All I did was move the umbrella set up outside of the window that’s in the photo and angled it so that the camera couldn’t see it. Pressed the shutter and it was in the can. Finally we are running on all cylinders.

 Wood working shop at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen.Wood Shop – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Now that I had a formula that was working, I duplicated the set up. The wood shop building had glass at some weird angles so this was a bigger challenge not to get a reflection. Again, cupping of hand around the lens really helps. For lighting here, I liked how the machine in the back was next to window, natural light was going to do the heavy lifting in that area. For the workbench that was in the middle of room was going to need something a little more industrial. That is where I placed the flash set up so it would light the center of this dark room. I used a slow shutter speed to allow the ambient light to register on the sensor since half of the exposure was natural light.

 These are the wood working tools at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen.Wood Shop Tools – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Since the lights were all in place, I turned 90° and I was able to get the tools sitting on the other side of the shop. No work required.

 Spencer Pullen photographed is steam engine at Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida.Steam Engine – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Then it was time to deal with my nemesis, the generator room. This is one of the photos that I had taken before that I really wasn’t happy with. The HDR process really struggled with “window bloom” this is where you have light going over the window frame and it just looks plain bad. This is a huge tin shed. At first I didn’t have high hopes for this as I was going to have to light such a large space. Looking at this really dark space, I knew I wanted to rim light the steam engine if possible. I put a flash in the corner of the building on camera right, bare bulb. I wanted the light coming out of this flash to be harsh. Then to fill in the shadows, I placed an additional flash set up with an umbrella to camera left. Umbrellas usually eat two stops of light so I cranked this one up quite a bit. I fiddled with the settings for about two minutes and once I had the lighting where I wanted it, I worked on my composition and took some landscape and portrait orientation, maximizing my efforts. I was amazed at how well the flash units were able to light this space.

 This is the generator that produced power for the people at the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen.Generator – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

This was the other shot that I came to get. In this case, I had natural light coming from camera left and I added a flash to camera right to help fill in the shadows just a bit. Again, I’m going for dramatic look here. To complete the story of the photo, I managed to get one of the old light bulbs in the frame with the haphazard wiring.

At the end of the day, Plan B worked. I was elated. I knew on the way home I actually had some photos sitting in the camera card that I would be pleased with. Also, when shooting this way, you are virtually doing the Photoshop in the camera. No having to merge photos together, realigning frames or ghost removal. Yes, I had to cart a bunch of equipment around with me for the day. Was it worth it, yes! One last note, just remember that if you travel and you are a photographer, be sure to put a smashed penny in your camera bag for those hard to fix issues!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Great photos. Are you sure you don’t make these crazy stories up?! 😉

  2. Absolutely stunning!! B/W…perfect way to capture the essence of the subject. Well done, yet again.

  3. Wonderful photos!! Reading your posts is like reading a detective story, with a sense of humor thrown in!!! You keep us on the edge of our chair (with our fingering poised over the shutter button?) wondering how you are going to figure out this photography challenge, let alone broken tripods! And the reward is those photos, and what we learn!

  4. Terrific detail! As you know I was right with you on most of those shots. I attempted to duplicate your pics but hand held with only the ambient lighting (so open aperture with long shutter speed) and using my black “Harley” shirt over my head to prevent glass glare. I prevented the glare and there my success stopped. I actually liked my shots until I saw yours. LOL! I just loved how you used your lighting to: bring out detail (& contrast); sharp focus(allowed by faster shutter speeds); and also how you used the flash to concentrate where the eye goes in the pics. ie.. directly to the fiddle, tools. I also got a kick out of how you caught the old light fixture with the built-in height adjuster. Awesome as always!

  5. Very nice and sharp photos. I like the black and white. You did a great job with lighting for these.

  6. Always good to see the images and to read exactly what you went through to obtain them. Great read and even greater images.
    Especially like the wood shop.
    You’re skilled at problem solving.

  7. As one who is loathe to drag a lot of equipment around, I have to admit your results for that kind of effort are stunning. Am particularly amused by the little robot guy on the left in the final photo – your humor is shining through, Spencer! Thanks for another fascinating lesson.

  8. Great photos. Very excited for you having your first gallery show. You are very talented so it’s about time you get the recognition you have earned!

  9. Awesome photography . Love the black and white.

  10. I had no idea that B & W photography could be so stunning. But it is your ‘journaling’ that brings it all to life. Thank you, Spencer!

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