Retouching house Saddington & Baynes faced a tall order when they had to transform uncharacteristically sunny Scottish landscapes into stormy weather for a Volvo.

Volvo’s latest poster and print ad campaign shows a series of special-edition cars being lashed by a storm on the Scottish coast.

The images tapped the skills of top photographer Darran Rees, but even the most remote parts of Isle of Skye couldn’t be relied on to produce the hyper-real storm ad agency Nitro wanted, so long-established retouching house Saddington & Baynes was commissioned to give the images a dramatic edge.

The concept behind the campaign is based on the Volvo Ocean Race (previously known as the Whitbread Round the World Race), which is currently in progress.

The campaign advertises four ‘Ocean Race’ special edition models – based on the XC90, the XC70, the V70, and the R-Design XC90 – and is being used worldwde, including in Sunday newspaper supplements in the UK.

The brief was set by Nitro. Saddington & Baynes hadn’t worked for Nitro before, but had been working with Rees for years, and had worked on previous campaigns for Volvo.

“When we got the brief and knew that we’d be working with Darran again, we were very excited,” says James Digby-Jones, creative director of Saddington & Baynes.

“He’s got such a great understanding of the retouching process and we, in turn, of his style of imagery. We knew that we’d get the right elements to allow us to create these shots and enough flexibility to allow for the natural development of a creative brief.”

Rees realized that although the shoot was to take place in northern Scotland, he wouldn’t be able to rely on nature to create all the elements he wanted to capture in a single shot.

He wanted to capture real-world images of breaking waves and other weather elements to be composited and enhanced by the retouchers, so he arranged for rain and wind machines and water tankers to be on-hand during the shoot.

This turned out to be a smart decision, as the weather was a lot better than expected. Almost all of the nine-day shoot took place in glorious sunshine, which meant that the cars had to be photographed in hard sunlight – very different to the murky storm lighting the image needed.

“Thankfully Darran’s experience allowed him to adapt to the unexpected hard sunlight,” says Digby-Jones. “In some cases he shot dark reflectors on sunlit car edges and used additional lights with underexposed backgrounds, so that the light on the cars would make sense against the dark skies that would be added during retouching.”

Luckily, towards the end of the shoot, the weather turned and Rees was able to shoot dark, stormy skies with a visible sun in a position to match the lighting rigs that had been used previously when the cars were shot. He then set about capturing the backgrounds and seas.

“I had each original shot and perspective in my head, as we went along hunting for the elements to match correctly with what I had just shot,” says Rees.

“With the waves, I made sure that I found waves hitting rocks that had the same shape as the jetty, to create the right kind of ‘impact shape’ in the final image.”

Let it rain down

The unhelpfully clement weather also made Saddington & Baynes’ job more difficult. Not only did the scenes require more colour and lighting correction to fit with the stormy skies, but more individually-photographed elements also needed to be combined.

A larger number of elements meant more work for the retouchers, and made the job more difficult as they all needed the same lighting, colour temperature, contrast and grain structure, to avoid looking mismatched.

Digby-Jones says that the greatest challenge was “building a believable sense of space” in each image. It was relatively simple to position each element in the foreground, sea and skies as they’d been shot with the correct perspective – but they had very different tonal ranges and colour balances.

The retouch artists had to identify where each light source was in the background plate and work out how that would affect the lighting of each composited object.

They then adjusted the colour balance and tone to accurately match their position in the scene and “introduce a sense of aerial perspective that creates depth and unifies the picture,” says Digby-Jones.

Digby-Jones is most proud of the XC90 images, where the car is shown from behind on a jetty and from the front along a dramatic coastline. For an in-depth look at how the shot was achieved, see the box (right)

“The jetty image is a great composition and allowed us to have a lot of fun with the textures in the rocks and splash,” says Digby-Jones.

He continues: “The image of the XC90 from the front probably came the furthest from its original state, and really shows the creative power of an intensely collaborative partnership between photographer and retoucher to create a new reality.”

Whipping up a storm – step by step

Step 1:
This is the background plate as shot by Darran Rees on a bright, sunny day on the Isle of Skye – which is about as far from how the final image needed to look as possible.

However, Rees had positioned lights to the right of the car to add lighting that seemed to be appearing between broken clouds. When the shoot was finished, the team at Saddington & Baynes set about compositing all of the elements.

Here creative director James Digby-Jones takes us through how the elements were altered and combined to fit the overall tone the client wanted, and reveals the tricks that helped them create these stunning posters.

Step 2:
Once the main elements had been selected, they were layered into place, making sure to match perspectives and scales. Precise masks were cut to lift them from their original backgrounds and to prepare them for compositing.

Special care was required for work around the mask edge, to make sure all the fine detail was preserved. Darran had captured the foreground in multiple stages, dressing it with a rain machine to wet down the rocks, create puddles and create detailed sections of rain bounce.

These were all composited to make the impression that it was raining hard and to create a balanced interest of textures along the road with detail throughout all the shadow areas.

Step 3:
The car was built up from separate shots that had been carefully lit by Darran to enhance the body shapes and capture the lights and wipers in action.

An appropriately stormy sky was selected and positioned to tie in with the existing lighting on the car, and sections of sea were combined to create drama, picking out all the details in the white crests.

To create the open sea behind the car, Saddington & Baynes needed to construct a new geography to the road and headland. Darran had carefully photographed crashing waves that matched the position and perspective of the original sea wall, so the team were able to use this to create a new end to the road as it bent around and along sections of the distant cliff.

This created the appearance of a distant coastline. A lighthouse and a yacht completed the sequence of key elements and gave the retouchers their first base to build upon.

Step 4:
The next stage was to balance all the contrast ranges and colour temperatures. Black points were matched to give a consistent colour base, and then the correct tonal relationships were applied to convey a meaningful sense of space from foreground though midground and background.

The horizon was lightened, and the sea and road were desaturated. The lighthouse rock and car needed enhancing to bring them off the sky: a little contrast work sorted this out.

Reflections were built into the car to match the cloud details and the various wet and dry windscreens that Darran had shot were combined to build a wipe pattern. The car body shape was enhanced to give the car presence.

Step 5:
With a more balanced image base, Saddington & Baynes was then able to explore the drama and add the finer details. The car was treated with a spray of rain bouncing off the roof and bonnet, and the lights were flared to add a layer of atmospherics.

Once everything was moulded together and looking believable, the retouchers were able to place the rain and push the image further to create a more dramatic scene. Colour tones were simplified and pushed towards a cool blue colour palette to emphasize a stormier environment. Clouds were made heavier and their shape more defined.

Step 6:
The final task was to add tracking to the image and create shape dynamics within the image. Wheels were spun and water interaction (spray off tyres, water tracks) illustrated to further convey a sense of movement. The foreground rocks were added to help frame the image, and the overall image was contrasted and the illumination of the clouds developed.

Photographer Darran Rees was careful to photograph everything in such a way that it would be easy to composite, for example selecting waves crashing around rocks that matched the shape of the jetty for this image.

Conjuring up dramatic inky skies was one of the simpler compositing jobs of the project – getting the lighting to look convincing was much harder.


Project: Volvo Ocean Race ad campaign
Client: Nitro/Volvo
Studio: Saddington & Baynes,