The quest for more pixels

A few weeks ago I was in Brussels for a shoot with one of my clients, Agentschap Wegen & Verkeer; the regulatory agency for roads in Flanders. There they showed me the plans for an exhibition booth replicating a road, including grass and a traffic sign. The background however was to be a picture of a road, and I was the one to create that photo. Alright!

Original concept with the final image composited in.

With the short briefing and a few stipulations, I started to plan and do research. Find a nice road, the right time, and most importantly, have it be of a good enough quality to print.

My idea came not only to show off a road that popped with beautiful weather, but also show the people doing their job. The agency is so diverse in what they do, that I wanted to show people doing their jobs in a cinematic way. More a cover for Vogue than your typical road works picture. So, I created a sketch. Or as one of my clients so nicely put it, a nice children’s drawing. 😂

Concept staging sketch.

A few practical things immediately popped into my head. The print size would be 6 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. The print density would be 125 DPI, which meant I had to create a picture capable of filling 29528 x 12303 pixels, or a 363 megapixel image. A very far cry from the 20.8 megapixel my Nikon D5 holds. Even the brand new D850 (which wasn’t available yet at the time of the shoot) wouldn’t be nearly enough with its 45.7 megapixel, so the choice quickly went to the Hasselblad H6D-100C.

With the highest medium format megapixel sensor on the market at our disposal, we still hadn’t enough resolution to deliver the quality that I wanted it to. Though the Hasselblad files have enough quality to be nearly doubled in size, I knew that I wanted to do this correct, and create something special. Meaning, we were going to do a panorama, giving us enough flexibility in post to create a commercial grade image that can be used for years to come. This would be the best way for the picture to get the native resolution required. I’m a man who likes to do things as practical as possible, so the idea of having to composite every single thing required a lot of extra planning to get all the elements we needed for a final. Since most of my photos never leave Lightroom, I’ve chosen to share my entire process, including the retouching in Photoshop.

A few other factors we had to consider are the complicated Belgian weather, and the fact that we did not hire professional models, but real life agency employees, doing what they do best, which isn’t posing for pictures. So, timing had to be somewhere near the daily operating hours. So a sunset shoot was out of the question.

With most of the week before the deadline of Monday being predicted with nothing but rainstorms, a byproduct of the hurricanes on the other side of the globe, we settled on Friday to create the image. The location was also settled: the E313, one of Belgium’s most important highways, which was partly closed down near Hasselt for extensive refurbishing. An ideal location, especially if you try to imagine the shitstorm we would create if we were to close down an actual highway for a photoshoot.

So, we had our location, people, and after scouring the depot, we whole lot of props, ranging from traffic cones to a full blown signalisation truck. You can be professional all you want, but these kind of assignments take you back to when you were a kid playing with toy trucks of LEGO and Playmobil. These toys are just a bit bigger and more expensive.

After setting up the basecamp, trucks and props, it was time to pose the models to coincide with the sketch. After everything was as we wanted, I created a base panorama. Shooting a series of images with the trucks and props in the exact postion, it would become our base layer of the photo. Everything else became an element that had to be cut out and positioned on the layer, interacting with the props. A positive thing of shooting everyone separately, is that we had a lot more control of the lights, bringing them in closer and getting a better and more consistent quality of light. The main light on each subject was a Profoto B2 in a huge umbrella with diffusion panel, with a CTO gelled B2 shooting through the new Magnum Reflector from the back, giving them a warm edge, to coincide with the sunset feeling I was creating later on.

Individual lit portrait, ready for compositing.

Another reason we had to completely cut them out was the fact that the clouds were starting to get really dramatic. So dramatic we had to halt shooting for fifteen minutes because of falling rain. Those moments you wish you were shooting on a beach in Ibiza or something. Ah well.

Individual lit portrait, ready for compositing.

After an hour of shooting individual shots and elements, we wrapped, and it was time to pack up and return the Hasselblad. But not before I took several panoramas of a gorgeous cloudy sunset for later compositing.

The crew!

First up was merging the base layer of the panorama, so we could have a single layer to work on. Next up was placing all of the individual shot portraits on the base layers and masking out the backgrounds. Normally, it would be quite easy to just feather the backgrounds, since everything was locked off, but since the weather changed dramatically during shots from dramatic clouds, to apocalyptic clouds to slightly blueish sky, not to mention the dry and wet pavement, it was easier to just cut them out, keeping the parts where they interact in the mask.

All the additional elements on the base-layer.

Because of how we lit the scene and elements, all that was left to do was some slight color correction, sky replacement and some detail clean-up. That’s it.

Final Campaign image for Agentschap Wegen & Verkeer

The final file came out at 28836×15072 pixels, which has a roomy 434 megapixel, which is perfectly sized for printing with the additional artwork. So with the right preparation, work we managed to create an image that we can reproduce 1:1, which meant a happy client and a proud photographer.

And here it is on full display!

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