Getting the Shot: “SL600 in Flight”

SL600 in Flight

"SL600 in Flight" Shot in 1/20 sec at f /20, ISO 400


This past week I was at my parents’ place in Illinois for my 20-year High School reunion.  I know, there’s no way I look that old, right?  Anyway, my dad had purchased a 1996 Mercedes Benz SL600 (with a massive V12 engine).  This is a real “Top Gear” -style car, so I decided that while I was visiting, I’d try to recreate the classic car-magazine shot of the car thundering down the road.  Fortunately, my parents live out on the outskirts of town, so finding a relatively isolated stretch of road was not a problem.  In fact, I photographed the car right in front of their house!  But that’s where the easy part of the planning ended and the hard part began.  In this post, I’ll describe the planning process, the setup that I used, areas where the plan failed, and what I learned from this project.

Budget: What budget?!?  I spent approximately $150 shipping my lighting gear to and from the location.

Equipment: Nikon D300s, Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, Nikon SB-600 speedlight, Blackbelt 560 speedlight, Calumet shoot-through umbrella, Westcott Apollo 28″ Softbox, 2 light stands, Blackbelt Ninja flash triggers, Blackbelt 5 in 1 reflector.

In order to capture the motion-blur of the road and background, while freezing the car by maintaining the desired angle off the driver-side bumper, I knew that I would have to be moving at the same speed as the car.  At first I toyed with the idea of riding on the back of a quad, but had to reject that idea to ensure my own safety.  I enlisted my brother to drive my parents’ VW Routan minivan.  The storage compartment at the back of the Routan extends lower than the back bumper in order to accommodate folding down the back seats.  By opening the back hatch and lying down in the seat-storage compartment, I was able to obtain the desired camera height and rest the camera on the back bumper itself, increasing stability during the exposure.  Dad took up his starting position, approximately 200 yards away from the target location for the shot, and my brother lined up just ahead and to the left of the Mercedes.  At my mark both cars accelerated to 20mph.

On the sidewalk at the “finish line”, I set up two light stands (one with the SB-600 and a shoot-through umbrella, and the other with the BB560 in the softbox).  I set both flashed on full power and triggered them from my camera using the BlackBelt Ninja triggers.  I also enlisted my wife to point the reflector at the Mercedes and track it the entire way, painting it with reflected sunlight.  I timed the shoot so that the sun was above and behind the trees shown in the background.  This placed the road itself in shadow, enabling a longer shutter speed, while allowing the sunlight to be directed by the reflector.

The lighting turned out to be one of the major problems.  I can guarantee that the finished shot was taken before the car was in range of the speedlights.  Whether the reflector had any effect is open for debate, though any benefit was likely negligible.  Fortunately, enough sunlight bounced off the lawn and sidewalk to illuminate the car decently.  But I had overlooked a major problem:  When I was hunkered down in the back of the minivan, concentrating on keeping the car in the frame, I had no way of seeing where we were in relation to the stationary speedlights.  In retrospect, I should have had my driver signal me when we were in position.

Another issue that I had underestimated was the vibration present in the minivan.  For our first few attempts, I hand-held the camera without bracing it against anything.  At 1/4, 1/8, and 1/10 of a second, I could not hold the camera still enough.  Holding the camera firm against the back bumper and reducing the shutter speed to 1/20 of a second helped significantly, but the finished product still shows evidence of vibration (and possibly a slight variation in speed between the two vehicles).  It’s not as tack-sharp as I’d like it to be, especially in the all-important Mercedes Benz logo on the grill.

But in light of all the things that could have gone wrong (exhaust inhalation, falling out of the minivan, a collision, the neighbors calling the cops, etc.), I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out.  This could have been a colossal failure.  You may not see this photo on the cover of Road & Track any time soon, but I know one happy SL600 owner who will be displaying it on his office wall.

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