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By Dave Montizambert

During my career as photographer, I’m usually called upon to make things look beautiful, usually more beautiful than they really are. When I received a layout from an ad agency to create a beauty shot of a car wreck for a billboard campaign aimed at young drivers to promote Road Sense, I had to change gears. The concept for this counterattack against the glorification of high-speed/high-performance auto advertising was fired over to me in the form of a hasty sketch, a car wreck against a white backdrop that would be close-cut in Photoshop.

We received the layout at around noon. At 2pm, we were at an auto-wrecking yard with the art director picking out a suitable car where the occupants had survived the wreck. At 4pm, we were back at the studio beginning the setup and painting the cove of the wall. The next day, at 8am, a flatbed truck delivers our wreck, which is dragged off the truck with a winch and then loaded onto four wheel-dollies and then rolled into studio. At 9am, the art director arrives at studio and announces that the angle on the car has changed from side angle to 3/4, rear angle. Why I have never had an ulcer is beyond me! Now comes the fun part. It was decided that the car was not battered up enough, so out come my collection of sledgehammers that we used for several joyous minutes bashing the car further out of shape. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get an ulcer!

To light and photograph the car, my crew of three begin by pushing the car into place on the newly-painted cove. Any tracks or marks on the cove floor are painted over once the car position is finalized. The two assistants did a quick cleanup/detailing of the car to make it nice and shiny while the viewing angle is discussed with the art director. Once angle was determined a view camera was dropped into place and, after 30 minutes of tweaking its various knobs for perspective, plane of sharpness, and aperture for depth of field, we were ready to move onto lighting.

Original sketch.

To light the wreck we had to first determine what size of light source would be required and where it should be placed. The easiest way to figure this out is to look through the camera from the camera position and then direct an assistant with a flashlight to move around the car. In about 20 minutes we were able to map out the size and position by viewing where the flashlight’s reflection fell on the car then marking the flashlight’s current position in space with a light stand. We then measured the virtual rectangle created by four light stands, which marked the height and position of the four corner endpoints of the light source to be.

To light the wreck, we used a 9’ wide x 20’ long Chimera Ultimate Support frame suspended from the ceiling by nylon lines. A 10’ x 21’ piece of bleached white muslin fabric was stretched over the frame and secured with utility clamps. A 650-watt tungsten light was placed on a stand to the right of the car, and high enough so that its beam of light washed over the top center of the panel. More flashlight work revealed the need for a smaller second panel (6’ x 10’) with more white muslin stretched over it and with a second 650 watt tungsten light luminating through it.

Diagram of studio lighting. Camera: Sinar P3 with Sinar 54H digital back Lens: 50mm Sinaron Exposure: f16 for 16 seconds @ 50 ISO

This source was placed at the back of the car to the left of the camera to bring out the wreck’s crumpled rear-end. A third 650-watt tungsten light was aimed at the white cove wall to the right of the car front; this soft-edged puddle of light created soft-edged specular highlights (shine) down the passenger side of the wreck. Light from these three light sources lit the white floor around the wreck thus creating appropriate specular highlights on the lower fenders.

Since the car was to be cut out from its background, we were able to position our top-light panel really close to the car, so much so that it was in camera frame. Being able to bring the top light source in so close made it possible to work with a smaller light panel than if we had to have this light source out of camera frame. Keep in mind that the size relationship between the light source and the subject is relative to how far away you place that light source from the surface of the subject. Imagine, if you will, someone lighting you with a large softbox like a 4’ x 6’ at 12 feet away. At that distance, that light source doesn’t look so big. Now imagine it placed 3 feet away from you, it now looks really huge!

Here’s how the math works: If we wanted to have the effect of the light source the same but needed it out of camera frame, and let’s say that we had to double the distance of the top light panel from the car to do this, then we would need to make the light source panel four times larger than its current size. In other words, to keep the intensity of the specular highlight the same on the car’s surface and to have that specular highlight cover the same area of the car’s surface, our 9’ x 20’ panel would now have to become 18’ x 40’ panel… very, very big!

Meter readings, both incident and reflective, were made to measure the light striking the car and to measure the brightness of the specular highlights. These readings led us to adjust shutter speed relative to the already established aperture, F16. We set the camera to “Time,” shut off the room lights, opened the shutter, and unplugged the second light after 2 seconds , unplugged the third light after 6 seconds, and then closed the shutter at 16 seconds. The tungsten color balance of the lights was adjusted during the processing of the raw file.

The first shot we took revealed wrinkles showing up in the specular highlight reflections on the wreck. They looked really bad. Stretching the muslin over the frame, no matter how hard you try, leaves a lot of wrinkles. These wrinkles in the muslin fabric will show up on the shiny surface of the car if the panel is in close enough to the subject (and it was!) to be included within the depth of field created by the working aperture. We made these wrinkles disappear by wiggling and jiggling the two panels over the long exposure.

The final results show nice, clean looking specular highlights from a relatively cheap light source. Ten foot wide muslin fabric makes an excellent diffusion material for large light sources. It is available from stage supply stores since it is used a lot for creating backdrops, etc. for theater productions. Muslin is just about the cheapest fabric one can buy and is a light, off-white creamy color. In its natural state it is not really suitable as a material for large light sources since it creates a very warm color cast. However, a little trip to the washing machine with a cup of bleach turns the muslin to a very neutral white… perfect for lighting through!

Using tungsten lights instead of strobes made long exposures necessary, which made the use of muslin possible since the long exposures gave lots of time to blur the wrinkles in the image with movement of the fabric. The formula is easy: a cup of bleach, a bit of muslin, and a little wiggly jiggly and you too can make a beauty shot from a wreck. All you have to do is change gears from your regular way of shooting.

Dave Montizambert, of Royston, British Columbia, lectures internationally on lighting, digital photography, and Adobe Photoshop. He is also a published author, having written two books on lighting and digital photography plus numerous magazine articles on these topics in North America, Europe, Russia and Asia. Dave produces “DaveOnDemand” lighting tutorial based photo-training and also creates lighting & Photoshop tutorial DVDs for www.software-cinema.com & www.PhotoshopCAFE.com/video and. Dave is available for lectures and workshops in your area and can be reached through www.montizambert.com.