Sweet Times at the Sugar Mill

The Old Sugar Mill was in operation between 1935 and 1993.

07-11-2011

I recently attended a group photoshoot sponsored by Click Monkeys, a Meetup group formed by Sacramento photographer Tim Engle. Tim arranged access for a group of 84 photographers to use the Old Sugar Mill facility in Clarksburg.

The sugar mill opened in 1935 and processed sugar beets into sugar until 1993, when it closed. For many of these years it was operated by the American Crystal Sugar Company. Coincidentally, my father worked at this factory as a mechanic in the mid-1960’s.

Parts of the Sugar Mill have been restored and it is now home to several local winery tasting rooms, a wedding and reception venue and an outdoor entertainment area.

A panoramic view of the Old Sugar Mill property.

The photo group had access to the unimproved areas of the facility. Spanning several levels, the building shows signs of abandonment and decay. Much of the processing equipment has been removed, leaving large openings in the floors. Most(!) of these openings were roped off to keep us from falling through. Debris, dust and broken windows added to the ambience of the old facility.

An old coffee/paint can – wonder how long it has been there.

It was eerily poignant to walk around the building and wonder what it was like for my dad to work there almost 50 years ago. I imagined the sights, sounds and smells of the factory equipment when it was in full operation during the “campaigns”, the busy harvest times of sugar processing.

Tim does a great job of arranging these meetups, providing numerous talented models, hair and make-up artists.

Photographers of all skill levels can practice their technical skills and learn about interacting with and directing models. Sometimes the models are surrounded by enthusiastic shooters, somewhat paparazzi-like. The advantages are the close proximity of many people who can answer questions and share creative ideas. The disadvantages are the way it can be a little chaotic at times, and often leads to several people taking away very similar shots.

I was mainly interested in learning more about high dynamic range (HDR) photography and I knew that a couple of the people co-hosting the event have lots of experience with HDR. I appreciated the quick-start tips I received and had some fun trying out the HDR techniques. This type of environment lends itself to HDR, with a wide range of light levels (sunlit windows and dark shadows in the same scene.)

HDR photography combines a wide range of exposure levels in one image.
This is HDR with some extreme processing, makes for a surreal look.

The digital camera cannot capture the full range of light levels in one image, so HDR involves taking several different exposures of the same scene and blending them into one image. Some HDR can be overprocessed and look pretty dreamlike, but it also has some pretty useful application in areas such as indoor architectural photography.

One of my favorite portraits is this one, taken of fellow photographer, Carl. I asked him to step in for a simple lighting experiment. I put a small strobe on a light stand and placed a gridspot over the flash and set it to fire at about 1/64 power. This gave me a very low-level, concentrated spot of light that I placed on Carl’s eyes – just enough to punch up the light a little and add some drama to the portrait.


If you want to get out with other photographers and practice, check out Meetup.com and search for a photography group in your area. These groups are a great way to learn new techniques, practice, and check out interesting settings.

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