The Story Behind "Too Old to Drive"

"Too old too drive" may be my most successful picture so far. This is how it was created.

The Story Behind "Too Old to Drive"

This is a tutorial that I wrote for an upcoming tutorials book by 1x.com.


The Picture

Too old to driveThis old chevrolet is slowly rusting in the ghost town Bodie in California.
Canon EOS 550D with Magic Lantern firmware, Sigma 8-16 mm @ 8 mm, 4 Exposures (1/125s, 1/800s, 1/50s, 1/3200s), f/7.1, ISO 100

Bodie is a ghost town north of Mono Lake in California and unlike many other artificial and touristic ghost towns Bodie remains unchanged in its current state and is allowed to decay through natural forces over time. For sure that is one of the reasons for Bodie’s popularity and a must see, when you tour through California like we did in May 2013.

I am pretty sure that most of you have already seen the one or other picture from body, maybe even of this 1937 Chevrolet coupe. Despite the sheer amount of subjects in Bodie this is one of the most interesting for sure.

In general the area of Mono County is a rather dry area. However we were lucky to arrive there in the noon under very alternating whether condition. The day before we experienced thunder storms in Yosemite and on the day this image was taken we had snowfall in the Sierra mountains. Nevertheless the sun broke occasionally broke through between the heavy rain clouds with a cloud coverage of about 95 percent, which resulted in a very dramatic sky. So it was no question that I wanted to catch as much of this sky as possible. Under such conditions using an extreme ultra-wide lense can improve the impression of the sky through the distortions which end up in leading lines towards the horizon. The Sigma 8-16mm does a great job on a crop sensor body here.

When I approached this car I made several shots from various angles around the car before I’ve opted for the shot from the front. At a focal length of 8mm I was able to move pretty close to the front of the car. This perspective emphasized the huge radiator grill and made the car wings look even bigger. Also the front screen appears to be more in the distant and thus creates the illusion of a longer engine hood.

After I’ve found the desired perspective, I placed my camera on my tripod with remote trigger to avoid shakes.

Usually when I am shooting my pictures I concentrate more on the composition and decide later during post-processing how the final image will look like. This however implies that I need to create as much data of the scene as I can. Therefore I am always shooting multiple brackets when using a tripod. For this picture I let the HDR picture mode of the alternative firmware Magic Lantern decide, which and how many exposures are required for covering the whole dynamic range. In this mode Magic Lantern takes the first picture at the measured normal exposure value, analyses that picture, which other exposures are required to cover the dynamic light range of the scene, and finally shots these other exposures. In the end I’ve received the following raw exposures at 1/125s, 1/800s, 1/50s and 1/3200s.

Exposure at 1/125 Overexposed sky with no details. Well exposed car.
Exposure at 1/800Some details in the sky and on the lighter areas in the sand.
Exposure at 1/50Details in the shadows like the walls of the houses.
Exposure at 1/3200Dramatic sky. Lost all details in the darker areas.

Post-Processing

  1.  All four exposures were fed into Photomatix Essentials 3.2. I found that Photomatix Essentials is more than enough for me. You can fine-tune more settings in Photomatix Pro, but I need these advanced settings very rarely. The only feature I am missing from the Pro edition is the Lightroom plugin. There are trial versions available for both editions that you can try out. And just in case you want to start with Photomatix Essentials and upgrade to Photomatix Pro later you will have to pay just the price difference. I also tried the HDR functionality of Photoshop CS6, but most of the time Photomatix produced better results and is also much faster. 
  2.  In the main window of Photomatix Essentials I’ve tried various presets that are available at a single click on the right hand side. This allows you to quickly try different settings that you can use as starting point for further fine-tuning. 
  3.  For this picture I’ve opted for the Monochrome 2 preset, where I raised the Strength and the Detail Contrast slightly to get even more contrast. 
  4.  Once I was pleased with the result I’ve clicked on Process & Save and saved the resulting image as 32 Bit Tiff file in order to have enough room for further adjustments. As you can see from the preview in the Screenshot of Photomatix there is still some contrast missing from the final image. 
  5.  That resulting file was imported into Lightroom 5, were I’ve applied the final settings: To add more drama to black and white pictures I usually lower the highlights, raise the shadows and whites and lower the blacks. Finally I added a bit more clarity to emphasize the fine details. 
  6.  As I wanted to emphasize the direction of the clouds even more I added a dark vignetting using Lightroom’s Effect > Post Crop Vignetting slider. The resulting image was the first version that I had posted to 1x.com and I had asked critique for. 
  7. Quickly I’ve received great constructive feedback (click on Critique on the lower right): Many spotted the white truck before the house on the left, which I hadn’t dared to clone out before. What I completely missed was the house in the background right to the car roof with similar tonal ranges in its wills. 
  8.  These great feedbacks encouraged me to put more effort into the picture, so I’ve opened the picture in Photoshop CS6, where I’ve used the Clone Stamp tool with a soft brush to clone out the white truck, some more cars in the background as well as the house next to the car roof. 
Processing in Photomatix Essentials

And now that’s the final picture you can see here. Many thanks to all the contributors of thoughtful and helpful critiques on 1x.com.

One point that could be improved and was mentioned in the critiques is the compositional balance of the image, which can be seen as being disturbed by the truck bed on the left of the car, while on the right you can see an open field before the house. But besides that I do not have enough confidence in my Photoshop skills to remove this in post, I believe that this imbalance causes a tension that adds to the overall drama.

Postprocessing in Adobe Lightroom 5

Hints

  1. Once you’ve found a subject, take some time and try different perspectives. Very often the perspective you get when standing upright straight from your eye-level is the most boring one. Try to get low or higher to achieve more interesting perspectives.If you have the time take some shots from different angles and view them in your cameras display until you found the viewpoint you like most before fine tuning the image parameters. If possible you can also take various images and try more processing in the computer and come back the next day to take the final shot - but most often that's not possible and the weather conditions are most likely different, which leads me to my next tip... 
  2. You do not always need a tripod to achieve great shots. But if you use a tripod always shot multiple brackets. Even in case you do not plan to create an HDR, However brackets allow to keep additional options for post-processing open. I am not just talking about HDR. Having multiple exposures allows you to pick a different exposure as starting point or allow you to blend different parts of the picture from different exposures into one picture. In the end you can delete obsolete exposures, but you will never be able to get exposures you would have needed later. 
  3. There are motives everywhere – not just in well-known spots like Bodie. So keep your eyes open. And remember: The best camera is the camera that you have with you. And as an advanced photographer you know that this is not your tiny little camera in your cellphone. So choose one or multiple bags that allow you to carry your camera always with you, even if it’s a full-sized DSLR. 

Watch out for the release of the book on 1x.com that will feature more stories from many more photographers.