Revealing the magic behind the best photos

| 27 Apr 2012

It’s almost seven years since I last used a roll of film for Classic & Sports Car. In that time I’ve had to learn my way around the possibilities (and pitfalls) of digital imaging, but I still hate the phrase "we’ll sort it out later in Photoshop."

Back when I was learning my craft at art college, one of my lecturers had an oft-repeated mantra:  "Photography is just a 1/60th of a second," his point being that you had to put the work in to your picture before you pressed the shutter. All too often an intention to "sort it out later in Photoshop" betrays a lack of effort at the front end of the photography process. 

Having worked with film for most of my career, I still try and get the picture right "in camera" whenever I can. Regular readers will – I hope – recognise that on C&SC we don’t go in for excessive digital manipulation and what you see on the pages of the magazine is, pretty much, what was in front of us at the time.

The trouble is that, when you are working with old and sometimes very valuable cars, circumstances all too often limit what can be achieved and there are occasions when Adobe’s magic box of tricks can get you out of a hole. 

Back in February, Editor in Chief Mick Walsh and I headed off to deepest Oxfordshire to shoot a Bugatti Type 50/59B at the workshops of restorer Tom Dark. The car was under wraps in a busy workshop and, although Tom was more than happy to take the car outside for our shoot, or even to trailer it to a nearby location, the British winter had other ideas.

Snow had fallen a few days previously and what remained was patchy and frozen hard, with the temperature still firmly the wrong side of freezing. The car would have looked horribly out-of-place in bleak, snow-strewn Oxfordshire farmland, all the more so because the feature was pencilled in to the contents of the June issue. With the car soon to be whisked off to the home of its foreign owner, postponement for better weather wasn’t an option.

As workshops go, Tom Dark’s is clean, tidy and well-ordered, but few make inspiring photo locations, especially when you’re shooting a car as special as this.

This was what I had to work with:

Realising that a ‘straight’ shot wouldn’t work, I set about shooting a series of pictures, to be combined later on into a digital montage. One advantage of working with flash is that, with careful control of the camera settings, the light can be limited to a small area, leaving the rest of the image dark. With the camera clamped firmly to a robust tripod, I worked my way around the car with a single flash head, lighting one section each time, carefully checking the images on the camera’s preview screen. Here are a few examples:

The images were all captured as RAW files, to give maximum image quality, and back at home later I loaded all of the individual images into Photoshop on separate ‘layers’. After some careful editing, this is the end result:

For those interested, the finished image involved nine separate layers, each with its own layer mask, using a variety of ‘blend modes’. And if that last sentence is a foreign language to you, well, it would have been to me, too, not so long ago.

We then moved the car around and used the same technique to capture a rear view...

Was this cheating? I don’t think so. As you can see by comparing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos, there’s nothing in the finished picture that wasn’t there on the day. Technically I could have achieved a similar picture on film, but I’d have needed another half-dozen or more flash heads, a lot more time and several packs of Polaroid instant film.

And I don’t think Tom Dark or his staff of skilled restorers would have appreciated the disruption to their busy work schedule.

I suspect my art college mentor is probably well into retirement by now, but if not he’s probably had to adapt his mantra for the digital age: photography is still just a 1/60th of a second, but it’s amazing what a difference an hour or two on the computer can make.

You can read the full story of this car in the June 2012 issue of Classic & Sports Car