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Behind the shoot – 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6

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In the last few minutes of direct sunlight, this photo was taken. Notice the intense directional light and how the grille and front suspension details pop. The exposure info is F8 aperture with a 1/80-sec shutter speed and ISO 100. (None of these three photos have been Photoshopped. This way you can see just what I saw—for better or for worse.) Photos by author.

Having traveled about four-hours from home to photograph multiple feature cars, I was in search of strong backgrounds. On the advice of Troy and Lisa Thornton of Thornton Muscle Cars I scoped out a lake near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, for possibilities. The challenges were that it was mid-November, the trees were bare and night encroaches early at this time of year.

Finally I spotted a raised stretch of pavement that reached out into the lake. It was somewhat clear of fishermen and dog walkers and had water on three sides, so I could chase the setting sun by moving the subject car and still have water in the background. Ultimately, I shot a few features there over a two-day period, but the timing for the shoot of this Cortez Silver 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6 offered the opportunity to take photos in three distinctly different types of light—direct sun just before sunset, no sun just after sunset and darkness.

This rare, powerful and valuable muscle car is owned by Melanie Cunningham and was purchased new by her father Melvin Faul in 1970. Its family history and its concours restoration by Thornton Muscle Cars are explored in a Restoration Profile in the April 2017 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines. Conversely, this article will be limited to the photography aspect of the feature.

After shooting another car before it, this one began at the end of the day in the final moments of direct sunlight. It was so late in fact, that after getting the SS 454 set up, I was only able to fire off a few quick shots before the sun dipped below the ridge behind us.

As you can see in the accompanying photo, the light was already taking on a slight goldish tone. Then as the setting sun turned the sky pink, the paint reflected it in the next photo.

1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454

Note how soft and non-directional the pink ambient light just after sunset is. The SS is lit evenly all around and the mood of the photo is more subdued. Exposure info is F8 at 1/8-sec at ISO 100.

It was getting dark quickly and we had to move even faster if we were going to get the shots we needed. Once I took more front and rear ¾ photos and some body details in the soft pink ambient light, I turned the car in the opposite direction to shoot toward the bright orange sky where the sun had set and I attached four remote flashes to their stands.

The vehicle’s new position and shooting direction could work because I no longer had to rely on the ambient light, as my remote flashes would now be the primary light source for the car. In so doing, I could also capture a bit of the orange sky (to add color and interest at the top of the photo) before it disappeared, which it was doing rapidly. Since the ridge behind the SS wasn’t lit, it appeared black, providing a dark even background to contrast with the flash-lit car.

1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454

This photo was taken with the four off-camera flashes. Three were placed along the passenger-side of the body and the forth up high on the drivers-side aiming across the hood. High contrast between the SS and its background, intense color and directional light add some drama to this photo. The exposure info is F10 at 1/13-sec at ISO 200.

Considerable time and effort can be expended on adjusting the positions of the four individual flashes to get the light on the subject vehicle just right, and the best set-up varies with each car and color…and opinion. With that said, the light along the side of the SS is as even as it will ever be with my setup, the driver side headlamp area up top may be just a touch hotter than optimal, but the hot spot on the rearview mirror and upper windshield trim bothered me. I wanted to at least move the mirror around during the shoot in an effort to make it go away, but after taking the time to get the rest of the body light evened out, the last vestiges of the orange sky were disappearing fast, so I chose to keep shooting instead. I did, however, ask for them to be Photoshopped out during post processing of the actual cover photo.

As you can see by comparing all three images, though the car is the same, their mood changes due to the color of the light used and its intensity and/or direction or lack thereof.

One of the remote flash shots was used on the HMM cover and the natural light photos were used in the story.  Which type of light do you think looks best with this legendary muscle car and why?