I think whoever invented the idea for HDR software must have been a car guy who wanted to make it simpler to show off his beautiful cars. Cars are such ideal subjects for HDR techniques because they always have bright highlights and sheen as well as sculpted forms revealed only with shadow. Last week I was excited to master Photomatix, which led to an automotive adventure in HDR.

I could easily have used my own car to practice with, but I figured finding someone else’s beautiful car would be a good opportunity to try meet new people and find resources for future car shoots (plus, I would have had to clean my car, and that’s a waste of shooting time). So I put a note on the Facebook page of my local photo club asking if anyone knew of a good car subject for me, and started thinking about the kinds of images I’d like to make. In my mind, I was imaging an old classic car because I know that those always have great details.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @34mm, f/11, 1/50-1/13s, ISO 100, Finished in Photomatix Pro

I like to sketch some ideas for shots the way that cinematographers make story boards, and I do it for two reasons. First, it gets my mind thinking about the shoot and gives me a few basic ideas to springboard from. Second, I can show my client the sketches and it shows them that I’m invested in the project and helps them to get excited and allows them to make critical suggestions before we even setup a light stand. (This isn’t just for commercial clients, either: try it with seniors and see how excited they become) I’m in love with Adobe Ideas app for sketching on my iPad, and I also like SketchBook Express. One of the pictures I imagined making was a wide-angle shot of the dashboard from the passenger side, probably from outside the door. Here’s the sketch I came up with.


Within a couple hours of my post on Facebook, a fellow club member, Fred, posted an image of his immaculately restored 1936 Packard, and invited me to come shoot it. Well, that was perfect. We set a time for the next day at noon, and my mind buzzed all night with ideas.

Shooting the Packard was a blast, and not least of all because I made new friends in the process. I even made the image I had sketched above. Using Nikon’s fabulous 14-24mm, I gently placed two of my tripod legs on the running boards and position the camera close to the dashboard. I shot a nine frame bracket, each frame one stop apart, in order to expose for everything from the brake pedal to the blue sky outside. In Photomatix, I used the Exposure Fusion process and chose the Photographic preset for starters, then made adjustments to fit my own vision for the image. Since I knew I’d be finishing a series of these images, I saved my settings as a preset so they all looked the same with a single click. Saving presets is one of my favorite features in Photomatix.
Packard HDR2
As we talked and shot, my new friend, Fred, kept mentioning his other friend’s collection of cars. Finally, Fred called his pal and asked if we could come over and make a few frames of his collection of Packards (I’m told that Packards were the cream of the crop at the time, and their styling really defined the whole era). His friend agreed, so we packed up the Packard and drove across town to an unassuming little house that held the biggest surprise I could ever imagine.

Surrounded by trees full of pears and a bounteous garden, there were also several sheds, barns, and outbuildings all over the place. I was introduced to Fred’s friend, an eccentric mathematics professor wearing overalls and a flannel shirt–the quintessential retiree from the Greatest Generation, enjoying retirement by working harder than ever. He’s so eccentric, in fact, that he insists that I can’t tell anyone about his cars or where they are. He says no one knows about them, and he’d like to keep it that way. Lets call him Mr. X.

The cars you are about to see are real, only their license plates have been changed to protect their identity…

I’ve been in out buildings like I saw there before. They usually house lawn mowers, yard tools, old water heaters, aluminum cans waiting to be redeemed, and boxes of stuff that gets moved from shed to shed every few decades. Imagine my surprise when the doors were rolled open to reveal dozens of classic cars in each building. They are all either in excellent condition (if a little dusty) or they are being completely repaired and restored. All of them. The more I saw, the more amazed and excited I became.

My excitement turn to frustration, however. Sure, these cars sitting in dark sheds with bright daylight on one side and bare light bulbs or nothing on the other were ideal subjects for HDR finishing; but where to begin? How to choose which cars to spend time on? Which composition to try? Imagine you’re famished and all the best foods you’ve ever eaten are on one menu and you just want to eat them all but you only have so much time…that’s how I felt right then. Then I remembered the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Fortunately, my sketches helped guide me. I had this plan for a shot into a garage with all sorts of stuff behind and the car looming into the foreground, again using the 14-24mm. I felt this Chrysler fit the mould, and that allowed me to get started.

Nikon D800, 14-24mm f/2.8 VR lens @ 18mm, f/8, 1/60-1/2s
Nikon D800, 14-24mm f/2.8 VR lens @ 18mm, f/8, 1/60-1/2s, finished in Photomatix Pro

Using my preset in Photomatix I made quick work of the finishing for these images, requiring only slight additional adjustments on some of the images. The more familiar I became with the software, the more excited I became to finish my images of the best cars in the collection.

We headed back to the house and wound through a labyrinthine basement until we arrived in a dimly lit room where the carpeting had been removed, and a large garage door had been installed. As the lights came up I found myself standing next to a couple of pristine Model A Fords, and the rest of the room held 12 more incredible Packards. Fortunately, I still had a sketch in my pocket to get me going. I had envisioned another shot from the driver’s side window, including the dash again. As I framed it, I saw that I could get Fred and Mike the mechanic in the frame, too, so I asked them to stand still. Since it’s daylight outside, and the dash of the car is merely lit by one or two bulbs on the ceiling of the room, my bracket needed to include at least one very long exposure to get enough light on the dash. The longest here was 15 seconds, and while Fred and Mike did a good job of holding still, Photomatix’s automatic ghost reduction did better. It made sure that the final image doesn’t have any movement showing. I finished this one off using Lightroom’s adjustment brush to warm the color of the dash a little bit. This was my only good capture in this room, because pretty soon Fred was pointing me back into the basement for the collection’s ‘pice de rsistance.’Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @28mm, f/8, 1/15s to 8s

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @28mm, f/8, 1/15s to 8s

Fred lead me through the hallway into a mix of my grandmother’s living room and my grandfather’s shop: there were couches, a stunning hundred year old square grand piano, an old refrigerator, motor partsoh, and there was an enormous car under a tarp in the middle of the room; the chandelier was touching the roof. There was no garage door on this room; the car had been moved in, and the wall and windows built in afterward.

Mike and Fred gingerly rolled back the tarp, revealing the unmistakable crest of the Cadillac car company, and a figurehead like a goddess with dress billowing behind. Also on the hood was an emblem naming it a V-16. Under the hood was a sixteen cylinder engine–this is roughly the same as the P-51 Mustang fighter-plane from WWII. The car is a limousine, and unlike many of the other cars on the property, this one has not been restored; it’s all original and in excellent shape.

I didn’t have a sketch for this situation; I didn’t anticipate a car in a living room. However, the fact of the car in the living room was so much fun, that the picture made itself. Once again, I used nine bracketed exposures. As I finished the image in Photomatix, I had the option to have detail in the trees outside, but I chose to keep it bright to frame the car and help distinguish its edges.
I feel that Photomatix handled these pictures really well, allowing me to make use of the full dynamic range of each scene, without making the pictures look too fantastic or cartoonish. White balance was a real challenge, but between color and saturation adjustments in Photomatix, and the tools in Lightroom, I was able to get colors looking the way I liked.

These aren’t the greatest car pictures ever, but with practice I expect I’ll get better at making them. However, I did have a real adventure, and it started with sharing an idea and asking for help getting it done. The adventure is the best thing about photography; sometimes you even get a good image. The sketches were so helpful, I’ll be making sketches, however rough, for all my shoots from now on. It just saves so much time and helps get the ball rolling.

On my way out, Mr. X was on the porch enjoying a cool afternoon, having just picked some lettuce to share with Fred and me. I thanked him for letting me come, and expressed how glad I am to have made a new friend. I asked, “Why are you so passionate about these cars? What compels you spend so much time, effort, and money on them?” The 84 year old man replied simply, “Because I’m crazy!” I looked down at the camera in my hands and said, “I know what you mean.”