Monday, May 7, 2012

Post Haste Productivity: Previsualising your photos


The other week I had a wonderfully challenging assignment: Shooting some Scania V8 trucks for their annual "Legend" lifestyle magazine. I was pretty excited, since in addition to getting some good daylight pictures of the trucks and owner Warren Good, I had to deliver a technically and logistically demanding shot. I love a photography challenge. This one had me sweating bullets though.


The theme for the magazine article was "productivity", and the designer had a fairly specific image in mind - one of Warren's trucks on the highway at night, making easy time on a challenging road. Warren owns trucks that do runs for New Zealand Couriers and Post Haste, that travel between Invercargill, Dunedin and Christchurch every week night. First were the logistical challenges: the when and where.


A Sunday night was the only time one of the trucks wouldn't be on the nightly 1,400 km round trip, and there wasn't really anywhere on the main highway close to town that had both the visual requirements and the ability to easily turn the truck around for several passes. I had a location on Otago Peninsula in mind with a high vantage point and a great coastal backdrop. Better yet it was just below the brow of a hill for open shade. There, I'd have plenty of time and shooting options as dusk fell, but after my initial shoot with Warren in the truck yard, I realised that the trailer was so long there was no way we were going to be able to turn it around for another pass in anything less than half an hour. We're talking about the world's most powerful V8 long haul truck with a motor capable of producing 730 horsepower.

My backup location was the quarry at Blackhead, just out of Dunedin. It had a decent background and section of hill road I could shoot the speeding vehicle on. We were all set, and I figured we'd be able to turn the truck around on a section of gravel road not far away, allowing me several passes during the half hour or so of ideal twilight needed to give me a decently lit background and still show up the truck lights. When we got there though, it was apparent that the truck was too big to negotiate the turn into the side road, and would have to go all the way back to the highway to turn around once it had passed - a 15-minute round trip.


Then came the technical challenge of shooting a moving truck with some motion blur, some sharpness so it's still easily recognisable and enough exposure to retain a bit of colour in the sky. Thank goodness I'd arranged for us all to meet early so I could get a couple of passes in before the light was optimal. One thing I didn't factor in was the power of the truck or the fact that it would be empty. I told the driver to floor it on the way up the hill, expecting it to lumber past like any other big road train labouring up a slope. Nope. On its first pass it shot by at what seemed like close to 90, nearly sucking me and my camera off the road in its wake. Pass two would have to be slower, about 50Kph.


So the shot I'd previsualised was coming together. The ambient light was getting into the zone, I had my frame, my exposure figured for the combo of ambient light and slow shutter for motion blur on the truck, and an additional off-camera flash, just to freeze the shot so recognisable details would be apparent. I had my assistant Mark hop onto the road between passes, to get the flash power right, and guessed rightly that I'd also need him to flag the bottom of the flash off from illuminating the road rather than a bit of subtle light on the truck. I set it on manual on 1/2 power and we waited. Shooting passing cars and checking the shot helped calm my nerves. I was worried that opening up my aperture to keep some colour in the sky would make my depth of field too narrow, but since the truck was to be motion blurred and the background was supposed to be pretty dark anyway, it didn't matter too much.


After a few passes, I wasn't quite getting the shot I'd previsualised. Shooting in the Canon 7D's fast burst mode was a great idea, it let me capture the truck several times as it came into the zone where I wanted it, but the long exposures delayed the time between frames, and the flash couldn't recycle quickly enough to pop on every shot. Looking back I could have ganged my flashes together at lower power to make that work.  The light was going, I had one last pass before everything went too dark. Then we nailed it. We stuck around to get some more shots - full darkness shots, just for variety, but I felt I had what I really wanted already.

FYI: 1/8 sec at f/4.5 on a Canon 7D, 10-22mm wide angle lens at 15mm. Single hand held 580EXII flash at 1/2 power.


Boy was I relieved when I got back and saw it all on the monitor. Just the shot I had in my head, give or take a little digital sweetening. I couldn't have done it without a lengthy planning and previsualisation process, a bit of luck, and of course, my mate Mark.