Before Photoshop: Making Tracks


Years ago when I was doing commercial photography, over half the work I did was produced in the studio as opposed to location work. Product photography and catalog shots were routinely done in a studio setting, of course, but one would be surprised at how many shots that looked like location shots were also created in a studio setting.

The reason for this can be summed up in one word: control. The photographic studio was like a miniature special effects stage, where an artificial environment could be constructed and the lighting controlled to achieve the desired effect.

Promotional poster for Jeep giveaway

Here’s a good example of this concept. The idea was to create a poster promoting a Jeep giveaway incentive program for salespeople. Jeep had supplied a location shot of their product, and the art director wanted to put the image into a rugged-looking “tire track” setting.

It seems natural to assume that the easiest strategy would be to find some muddy outdoor location, make some tire tracks, and photograph them. Location work, however, is never that easy. You’d have to find just the right texture of earth, make a perfect tire track (with a full-sized vehicle), and have the light coming at just the right angle to make it all fit with the proposed layout. On top of that, I’m sure you’d be fighting the weather, insects, and curious onlookers. To have real control, this needed to be done in the studio.

The first thing I did was to borrow a truck tire from a local retailer. By being able to manipulate the tire manually, I felt I could control the creation of the tire track far better than from the driver’s seat of a vehicle. Next, I needed to create a small patch of earth to “drive” upon.

I had some coarse gravel on hand from another shoot, but found that I couldn’t create a nice, clean impression of the tire in it. I needed something finer, and a friend of mine who is an accomplished potter supplied the perfect substance: powdered clay. It comes in large bags; potters mix this with water to make the raw material for their pots.

After spreading out a sizeable “bed” of the dry clay (and creating lots of dust in the process), I carefully rolled my tire over the powdery substance, creating a track. If the result was unsatisfactory, I could simply take a large paintbrush and “erase” my work and try again. After a couple of tries, I had a perfectly formed tire track.

With the tire track in place, it was time to “dress” the setting. Using a spray bottle, I slowly wet the clay while using the paintbrush to build texture into the setting. The clay would get sticky when wet, so it would “snowball” when brushed, creating effects that resembled small rocks, pebbles, and the look of a gravel road.

When I was happy with the setting, I placed a blank piece of stiff paper on the track and lit the scene for maximum texture and mood. Finally, I composed and recorded the image, paying attention to the art director’s layout to make sure there was room for the headline and other text elements.

At the printer, the Jeep photograph supplied by the manufacturer was stripped into the image to complete the illusion. The entire thing is an illusion of course; a nice small example of studio photography artifice. The drudgery of cleaning up all that messy wet clay afterwards, however, was all too real.


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