How I did it: City Blur

All great commercial jobs start with a meeting. It’s an opportunity to hear the creative brief and brainstorm solutions and methods to execute the project. People I’ve worked with for years are used to me visualizing on the fly. I’ll sometimes toss out ideas left and right as they come to me. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming sessions. 

On this job, the client wanted something in the city that depicted movement. It had to be fast-paced, action-filled motion. It was conceptual, illustrating an idea, not necessarily reality. 

I had an idea. I could anchor a camera on my car, drive around the city and take pictures. The images would have a sense of motion by using a slow shutter speed. All agreed it was worth a try. 

With a green light, I set to work figuring out the technical and logistical aspects of the job. Logistically the project was simple. So as not to create a distraction for other drivers, and to minimize the number of cars on the road, I would shoot when traffic was light. That meant Sunday morning. 

The technical side was reasonably straightforward. I would mount one of my Canon 5D Mark II bodies via ball head, extension arm and super clamp on the roof rack of my SUV. On the camera, I would use a 24mm tilt-shift lens with just enough rise to clear the front of the vehicle. To achieve the right amount of blur, I would have to vary the shutter speed so I would use aperture priority. To obtain the maximum depth of field, and to allow the most range in exposure, I set the lens at f/22. My ISO was 50. 

Because I was going to be driving while shooting, and still needed to see what the camera saw, I tethered the camera to a small portable DVD player. I used that device because all I wanted was a way to view through the lens. Recording of the images would be on a CF card. A remote release cable, along with the tether cable, was dropped through the sunroof. 

Once in place, I secured the camera rig first with a steel cable, wrapping it around the car’s roof rack. Next came gaffer tape. I needed everything to stay in place, so I was very liberal with the tape. I wore a hard hat while driving in case the camera rig did come loose and fall through the sunroof. Luckily, it held in place.

Now came the moment of truth. 

Even though I had been driving around Pittsburgh for 20 years, I had never bothered to look at it this way. I needed a specific composition to make the idea work. Driving up and down the streets in town shooting frame after frame trying to see something I liked proved frustrating at first. It wasn’t coming together as I had in my mind’s eye. The only thing to do was break for coffee and think. Finally, it occurred to me what road I needed. The roadway that had the curve I saw in my mind with skyscrapers behind. And so the chase began in earnest. Around and around and around we went. Frame after frame after frame until I saw the right car in front of me. The elements all fell into place. The picture in its raw form was in the can. 

Back at the office, I downloaded my card, edited my selects and processed the RAW files. On the frame I liked most I decided I would take it to the next level. The client would have been happy with the pictures as shot, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to make sure to show what my vision was for the job. So from a 16-bit processed file, I color graded the image through trial and error, removed two of the vehicles in the frame, added some additional motion blur, adjusted the contrast and dodged and burned the image in multiple areas. The picture I had in my mind while in the first meeting was realized at last.

The client was happy with the results of my labor and used my rendition in the campaign for billboards, bus posters and in print advertising.

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