Photographing the architecture of a commercial business while they are operating can be a difficult thing to do.  A long time client of mine likes his buildings represented with no people and no cars evident in the final image – what you might call a new born building photograph. I have photographed assisted living facilities, restaurants and bars, healthcare establishments and retail stores. Recently, my assignment was a brand new, operating service station in Green Bay.

Patience (and more patience).

I scouted the location prior to the photoshoot, keeping in mind the requirements:  no people or no vehicles in view.  This was a very busy gas station/convenience store.  There was a Baskin Robbin’s ice cream area above the store, adding more activity to the scene.

I decided to shoot at dusk. It might be less active, and with the large illuminated exterior signs, the lights inside the store, and the perfect evening sky, this could be very dramatic!  I have done many dusk shots of businesses over the years.  I have added light to the scene with my battery powered speed lights.  I have tripped the shutter, capturing the natural cobalt blue of the night sky as a backdrop to the bright commercial signs of the business in front of me.  For this project, the building lights were plentiful and adorned the architectural details on the exterior of the store.

When I arrived to set up at 8:45 on a Tuesday evening, I immediately knew my challenge.  This will require patience.  The parking lot was crowded with vehicles.

Set up and wait

I unpacked my camera, set up the tripod, wired up a fill in light and waited.  Cars came and went. Vans backed in and backed out. People talked outside the main entrance.  This was a happening place. I realized that in order to pull off an “empty” lot, the majority of the work would need to be done in post production.  Once I set down my tripod with camera firmly mounted on top, I did not touch it for the next hour and a half.  I tripped the shutter with a remote control.  Whenever I saw the scene in front of me change (a car leaves, a customer disappears into the store, etc) –  I shot a new frame. I ended up with 16 different images from the exact same vantage point. The most important thing to remember in this process is: Once the tripod is set in place, I cannot touch it.  Using a remote trigger is a must.  (below is what I use)   remote shutter release

Raw material

When I feel I have captured enough images, meaning- in the span of an hour and a half, when combined, there would be no cars or people.  If someone is parked for the night, that is a problem.  I did not encounter that. I end up with all my raw file variations as separate images.series of raw images to use in post production

Below is a time lapse video of the parking lot traffic pattern within that hour and a half of shooting.

Up on the screen for post production

With all the raw images I want to use downloaded and layered on top of each other, I am ready to digitally paint away, section by section the cars, revealing the empty “car-less” spaces underneath.  To layer the 16 files on top of each other, I simply begin with my base image and drag each image on top of the last (drag with move tool while holding down the shift key- the dragged image will snap into place over the previous image.)  After I drag & drop each layer, I go up to     Edit    then scroll down to     Auto-Align Layers.  This will micro align my 2 images. This is why it is imperative to shoot on a tripod when out in the field for this type of work – to facilitate exact alignment in post production.

After all images are layered on top of each other, I apply a layer mask to each one.  Below is what my Photoshop screen looks like when I am ready to begin erasing.

Begin to erase on top layer

In the screen shot above, I have begun the “painting away” of cars, revealing the empty space on the previous layer (the previous image layer was shot probably 10 minutes prior, when no car was in that space).  I use a soft brush on the layer mask, making sure my foreground layer is black.

painting away details

I paint away on each layer mask until there are no cars or people in the scene.  In this case, there were 15 layers and a background layer.  I have seen images of the Los Angeles freeway with no cars or trucks.  The process is the same: shoot on a tripod.  Shoot many images. Layer them in post production and paint away on layer masks to reveal the empty space in the previous layer.


Finishing touches

The final clean image was further retouched with an added cloud textured night sky, brightening the inside store window lights and cleaning up the skid marks on the parking lot.

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