How Photographer Rick Sammon Captured the Blue Swallow Motel in HDR
Photographer Rick Sammon used HDR photography to capture the historic Blue Swallow Motel in New Mexico along legendary US Route 66. His goal was to achieve the foreground tones and mood in the retro scene- enlightened.
Built in 1939, the Blue Swallow is one of the longest continuously operating motels on the stretch of Route 66 in New Mexico. The small, 12-unit L-shaped property is a famous site on the freeway and is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Places
Sammon’s image of the landmark was created as a 7-stop exposure sequence to record the rising sun at 8:30 a.m. in March 2013. Sammon wanted the viewer of his photo to be able to see into the building, but he also wanted preserve details around the Sun.
This photo was taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 17-40mm lens set to 24mm and f/22.
The resulting images were compiled in Photomatix, a tone mapping program for HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, after which Sammon played around with Photoshop and with Nik Color Efex.
Set a photography goal
“I planned to take this image when I was in New York,” says New York-based Sammon, who is also a photography and guitar teacher. “I checked the sunrise time to see where the sun would rise on the day I was there…I had seen many pictures of the motel so I had a good idea of what I wanted.
“I wanted to make a dramatic image of perhaps Route 66’s most famous landmark for the cover of my book, co-authored with my wife Susan, The Route 66 road trip: Eat, stay, play and shoot like a pro.”
The secret to getting good HDR
“To capture the full dynamic range of the scene, keep shooting underexposed images [with bracketing] until you no longer have “flickers” on your camera’s LCD screen, and continue taking overexposed images until you can see in the shadows of the image while looking at the image. ‘LCD screen’, writes Rick Sammon on his blog. “The larger the contrast range, the more photos you need to take.”
There wasn’t a lot of thought applied to selecting the focal length of the lens as it was all about the color and the mood it created. Sammon noticed small details like the blue flowerpot that stood in front of the office building. The night before, the photographer asked the motel owner to turn his car around to face him when he took the picture with the sun rising behind him.
Using a small aperture for solar stars
To get good sun shots, Sammon closed his zoom lens down to its minimum aperture of f/22 and partially blocked the Sun with the motel sign for better sun star effect and to avoid getting excessive lens flare in the objective.
Although this is a backlit shot, the ground provides enough fill light for the front of the car and the HDR brings out the shadow detail on the white car. Also, when shooting at f/22 at this distance, there is no possibility of illuminating shadows with a hot shoe.
Having the neon lights on for this shot may have been weakly recorded, but Sammon wanted this morning shot to be completely different from another night, which had the neon lights on in all their glory.
“I waited until there were no more cars on the road,” Sammon recalls. “But only three cars passed during my shoot.”
Contrasting tones for visual excitement
The juxtaposition of the cool blue tones of the signage and sky above the center contrasting with the warm pink tones below the motel desk provides the contrast of contrasting colors. This lends visual excitement to the image. Route 66 is all about color, and that same image, if done in black and white, wouldn’t have worked as well, Sammon says.
The photographer only spent half an hour on this shot – once he decided on the composition he wanted, he set up a tripod and took the bracketed footage.
Sunrise or sunset?
If the motel had commissioned the photographer, he might have added a model wearing “1960s clothing,” he says, and he would undoubtedly have photographed the sunrise and sunset. He photographed this property twice, three years apart, but only at sunrise and sunset each time.
At sunset, the photographer had his rental car headlights illuminating the front of the parked car, but Sammon says he prefers the sunrise one.
Despite all the effort, it was definitely worth it, as Sammon tells us that his photo of the Blue Swallow Motel based in Tucumcari, New Mexico is definitely among his top 10 pictures.
“It’s not about HDR or depth of field or sharpness etc,” Sammon said. PetaPixel. “Mood matters most.”
About the photographer: Rick Sammon, a Canon Explorer of Light, has been a professional travel, landscape, wildlife and cultural photographer since the age of 40 (now 71). He wrote, photographed and published 43 books (not a misprint) on photography. Sammon seems to be one of the busiest photographers on the planet – dividing his time between creating images, leading photo workshops and making personal appearances. Sammon, who has photographed in over 100 countries, began his professional photography career as an underwater photographer, producing six underwater books and leading scuba diving expeditions to all seven seas.
About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.
how i got hit is a weekly PetaPixel feature that is released every Sunday. If you want to share the story of how one of your best or favorite photos was made, we’d love to hear from you!
Image credit: Sammon Thinning Concrete and Sammon with Red-Eyed Frog by Susan Sammon. All other Blue Swallow Motel photos by Rick Sammon.