Shooting an Epic Time Travel Composite Photo on the Cheap

The story behind a 'fun project' that turned into a 500px top 100 image


A while ago, we read an article about how gear doesn’t matter on PetaPixel, while at the same time planning a shoot that would involve a Hot Rod. Inspired by the post, we said, “Let’s do it with a Canon 550D and a cheap lens instead of the Nikon D800,” because we really believe that all the latest cameras are quite good, and gear doesn’t always matter anyway.

Basically, we wanted to shoot something good enough to prove the point that you don’t need the latest gear to do something special. What turned out is the photo above (higher resolution here), which wound up making it into 500px top 100 most popular shots a few days ago.

So — doing something special — what does it mean to us? It’s actually quite simple: We try to get one good image out of a normal day of shooting. We don’t need two, or five, or even six hundred images. We only need one good image, and so we typically set up our tripod in one spot, taking as much time as we need to get the best composition.

A benefit of this approach is that if you have always the same camera angle, you can use elements from different shots. A big advantage, especially if you’re doing something a bit more complicated.

That being said, it’s important that you be certain about the camera angle you choose. If the camera is ready, we don’t touch it anymore. From that point on, settings and such are modified using DSLR-Assistant or a CamRanger. This makes the post production very easy.

But before we set up to take a picture, we need a story to tell. And so, for the Hot Rod shoot, we dreamt up some amazing ingredients and developed a storyline.


First, our model Christina. She is a time traveler with a matching outfit. We knew that a little bit of steam/dieselpunk would help illustrate that she was coming from the past, and so we got to designing the costume.

The mechanical arm attached to her left forearm was build a few days before the shot using mainly parts found on eBay. The wooden stuff was simply made of Fimo Clay and a pasta machine, and then we used superglue to attach the components to a leather arm guard. Some chains and rings were fixed on the fingers to help flesh out the details. She also had some glasses with gear wheels.



Of course, you can’t see all the stuff on the image unless you look really closely, and in some cases not at all (the screws on the arm are only 1mm in diameter) but, as they say, the devil is in the details: the mechanical arm we build had to be perfect. Plus, the detail and love we obviously put into building the arm helped Christina understand how much the shoot meant to us, so that she could better sell the story of the time traveller.

Next came the car, or rather the “time machine,” which was played by an old Morris 8 — a car from 1946 lent to us by our friend Charly.

The car roof was chopped in the 60s, and the 46HP engine was replaced by a 385HP V8 from a Mustang 302 Boss. It was used for high-speed races in the 60s, and Charly did an amazing job converting it into a “Rat Rod” over the past few years. To give you an idea of the kind of work that went into it, about 20 layers of paint were applied by hand with a brush to get that amazing look…

As you can imagine: this is another level of detail that no one will see in the image, but we those details, and so this was exactly what we were looking for. If we ever find a way to build a real time machine, we would definitely model it on this car. It’s unreal… it’s sexy… it’s just plain awesome.


The last detail was the fire. By our logic, if there is a “time machine,” there should be fire — we had to at least do the tracks of the wheels. And so we called our friend and professional fire artist Christian. Because he is a professional at doing what he does, we could simply say “more fire” and he would oblige — he gave us exactly what we needed while sparing us the need to worry about safety or keeping an eye on what exactly was burning where.

It’s important to call people who understand what you want from them, and (for us) it’s important to work with people who understand what’s possible. Christian definitely knows both.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have a battery-powered fog machine, and we couldn’t get smoke bombs for the shot, but we managed to luck out there as well. Because we had a 4.6 liter V8 running in temperatures of about 8°C the car provided real smoke! Better than everything else, because it made the shot more authentic. Lovely, isn’t it?

When we arrived at the location, we found a small wet spot on the ground. We discussed it and decided to push the idea for the shot further. And so, instead of “placing” the car, we decided to power slide it into place. I mean, the floor is on fire, our girl breaks all the rules of physics, but the car is clean and just placed there? No. It doesn’t happen like this.

It wasn’t possible to use the hand brake to get the car in the final position, but with that huge amount of power we could do just the opposite and drift it in place. After a few attempts, the car was in place and some nice mud did a great job of decorating the car and tires. Again, you might not immediately notice it in the image, but it adds authenticity… by now you get the idea.


Finally, the puddle was a little bonus — it wasn’t planned at all — and so we changed the plans because of the nice reflection we were getting. This is another great point: we always try to strike a balance between “staying focused” and “being open-minded.” Not an easy task, especially when you try to arrive on scene well-prepared, only to get thrown a curve ball… but sometimes that curve ball is an opportunity, or in our case a surprise puddle.

Technical Difficulties

Our lighting setup was quite simple: a beauty dish as the main light and a single strobe behind the model. We filtered the main light with 1.5 CTO to match the fire and the other one with 1 CTO to get some colder light from behind. In the final image, it was nicely mixed with the light from the fire.

Our first plan was to use only the Yongnuo 560 flashes, but unfortunately one died after a few shots. So our main light was replaced by the Elinchrom Ranger Q (too bad really, it’s the only very expensive piece of gear used to capture this image). But flash is flash — never mind the brand. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Ranger and the Yongnuo anyhow.


Our white balance was set to tungsten, and the rest was done in post. The camera was a Canon 550D and the lens was a Tamron 17-50mm — the cheapest stuff we have. Actually, the lens isn’t even ours, we asked our video guy Simon if he have some kind of Kit lens (“is it sharp?”… “I think so”… “ok, we’ll use it”).

The camera-settings we started with were f/8, ISO 100 and 1/500s, problem is, the fire was correctly exposed but everything else was dark. So we started to play around with the exposure times. In the end, the fire was a little bit overexposed… At this point it was clear that we would need different exposures for the different elements of the photograph.

There was a very cool long exposure for the smoke coming out of the car and a great short exposed image of the headlights with a little bit of super sharp smoke and lens flares. It gives some nice depth to the image — at least in our opinion.


Post Production

The Post Production was very straight forward: choose the images we like, do some basic RAW conversion, convert them to smart objects in Photoshop and paint some masks on them. The main advantage of the smart objects for us was the possibility to change the white balance afterwards, and because of all that light temperature mix we mentioned, this was very helpful.


What you have read here was our way of creating an awesome shot. Whether or not we’re using expensive gear, the process remains the same: we try to develop a story behind every part of the image. If we can’t answer the question “Why is this part of the photo here,” we further develop the storyline. Every single thing in an image has to follow the story.

Th same goes for the model: every model should get some background information about his or her role — ideally, the model can then live that role.

Of course, we didn’t invent that kind of workflow. J.R.R. Tolkien did it with Middle Earth. He imagined a world and characters, and he spend his whole life on that task. That’s why he could probably answer every single question: Lord of the Rings was just one story that might happened there.

Lord of the Rings is an example of the kind of depth of detail we strive for, and if you haven’t gotten it already, we are really in love with detail. We learned that with our Where’s Waldo project when we worked with Benjamin Von Wong on an image that took weeks of shooting and post-production. After that experience, and now this one, we’re no longer afraid to put a little bit more effort in our projects… or even a lot bit more.

About the author: Kamerakind is a collaboration between three people passionate about creating great photography: Sabine (make-up, styling, etc.), Ingo (film and photo) and Stefan (lighting and post-production). They are friends first, who made sure that they are always having fun even as they seek out the “perfect” shot. You can find more of their work on their website or 500px profile.

Image credits: Final image by Kamerakind, BTS images by Axel Effner and mechanical arm images by Stefan. All used with permission.

  • Scott

    I’d bug you about using all that cheap gear and then expensive software but I guess this whole cloud version of PhotoShop kinda kills that argument for me. :D

    Still I’d love to see something similar all out of the camera. Yes I’m “that” guy. LOL

    Great image, inspiring story. :)

  • taylor


  • Bill Austin Kearns

    okay, how about doing a shot without a professional model, make-up, hair, wardrobe, special car, fire technician, Photoshop, etc…..Like for under $500 total outlay for Everything ??? That would be quite an impressive down-to-earth accomplishment. Not that I dislike the finished product you show here…but

  • Patrick Downs

    Nice job. It’s clear that the creative prep, props, staging, makeup and visualization are the keys to this image. BUT — if you’re going to all that trouble, especially for a commercial or portfolio shoot, why wouldn’t you use the camera that will give your the best file you can afford? Of course you can do this with a prosumer camera/lens (i’d go with a lesser body and better glass if forced) and speedlights. You did have one speedlight die, remember. Pro gear is less likely to do so, arguably. Use the best kit you can afford, but concentrate on ideas and learning to execute them first. Gear is just the tool to achieve it. (I’m glad I am a photojournalist … this is a lot of work! ;) )

  • WKYA_Radio

    This is not on the cheap, as all of the necessary props were combined plus production assistants plus set plus props provided from friends….okay. Just because they used a 550d- love mine by the way, great sensor- doesn’t make this cheaper to accomplish.

    Maybe an addendum to the title can be..’when you have everything you need’.

  • Brian Reese

    The whole point was to show a good shot can be attained on cheap gear. It says so at the beginning of it.

  • Patrick Downs

    Duh. I am literate. The alternate headline could have been “Creativity and Preparation is the Key; Gear is secondary.” So I agree with the premise, but maintain my point that if you’re going to put this much effort into creating the tableau, make the highest quality image you can, given your gear budget. That doesn’t always mean the most expensive stuff, but good glass makes a difference and it’s rarely cheap. (One can also rent/borrow what you don’t own.)

  • Jesse Cablek

    I don’t get it.. the camera they used is newer/better then either of my DSLR’s.. on the cheap I would have expected a sub-$100 P&S, not a 3-yr old DSLR. Both my DSLR’s are now over 8 years old and I cannot afford anything newer.. I guess all of my shooting is on the cheap.. It’s a great final image, don’t get me wrong, but the premise of this article is skewed.

  • ietion

    great work and very inspiring!
    I am guessing you could also not sync the strobe at 1/500?

  • Radu Erdei

    So you basically want an extraordinary photo out of ordinary elements. Not going to happen. That’s why almost none of our ordinary “vacation panorama snaps” go to National Geographic. The camera might not count that much (but keep in mind we’re talking about a DSLR nonetheless, so try a smartphone instead and see if “camera doesn’t matter” still aplies), but the subject (plus composition, background, guides, exposure, lighting, dynamic range, etc) must be great to be able to get a great picture. Of course, few of us have access to a requisite like that. That’s why photo studios were invented.
    Just because that shot was taken with a beginner DSLR doesn’t mean any beginner photographer with that kind of camera, without talent or without other resources can get that kind of results. It just means a great photographer will still be great shooting not so expensive gear. Maybe the article wasn’t so clear on this one…

  • Stefan

    We did some tests to sync the Ranger with 1/2000 and 1/4000s. It was working with some drawbacks. In this case we also did some pictures with 1/500 and 1/1000 without any flash. So the fire is looking brilliant but not helpful for the story. So we didn’t used them.

  • Stefan

    we use what we have. so if we had some horses, in the image might be some horses (well… maybe not).
    Our total cost for that image was really low – definitely under 500$.
    We know the model very well, one of us is professional Hair/Makeup artist, friends of us are costume designers, the fire tec is a friend and Photoshop… well … of course we already own it.
    The people who worked on that image are excited to do something funny, something extraordinary, so money was at no point an issue to motivate people…
    It’s all about motivation and networking.

  • Stefan

    What we hear a lot is: “If had a pro camera, my images would instantly turn into something really great” some people say “i NEED that superexpansive lens, because all i have is not sharp/fast/impressive enough”. We had the concept for the shot, we motivated some people to help us to archive it – the next question was: What is the usage for the image and what camera/lens should we use. At that point we decided to use a cheap combination and spread that idea to the light setup.
    There is no customer – we just wanted to go out and shoot something nice. The difference between cheap stuff and Pro-Gear is not a mythos, sure. We know the difference and we really like pro gear. But we don’t need it and we wanted to get rid of that phrases ;-)

  • Stefan

    Sorry, the arm is completely broken.

  • Patrick Downs

    I agree. It’s all about the idea. If the “client” is paying and wants 36-80mp files for billboards, ads, whatever, then you need to pro gear. I have a 12mp D700, less MPs than a D5000, and know the shot would be fine with that. It’s always a balance, and if you need that D800, rent it if you don’t own one!

  • Stefan

    The one who pays the piper calls the tune. ;-)

  • Patrick Downs

    “Show me the money!” :)

  • Stefan

    If the idea is good and if the concept is interesting, you can get a lot of help from friends/family/random people.
    You only need to activate them.
    At the end of the day, everyone will be proud to be a part of the project. “when you have everything you need” – we had to do a lot of calls and a lot of preparation for the shot – it was not “just there”.

  • Mike

    “on the cheap” – all you need is a professional model, a makeup-artist, a car, someone to build some props, flashes, a pyro expert, photoshop … but hey, you can save a few bucks on a cheaper camera…

    BTW: in back to the future the flames appear in the timezone the car leaves, in the time the car reappears the car gets cooled down but maybe the 10 bucks for the DVD didn’t fir the budget ;-)

  • Carerra


  • Aaro Keipi

    What Stefan said. Don’t think about what you don’t have when you’re planning a shoot; think about what you can do with what you got. Most people have friends (or friends of friends) with awesome cars like this, and if you get another friend to model and pick up some clothes from a secondhand store you’ll be good to go. You may not end up with something this amazing, but it is bound to be at least borderline epic and you’ll have fun doing it.

  • WKYA_Radio

    I do get what your trying to say, but I’m pointing out that if not for all those resources, then even with a cheapo camera, it would not be easy nor cheap still. I think the issue is with the title- cheap means spent little money, time or resources. This project is basically a perfect storm of resources that made it happen. I’m all for that, that’s awesome, if we all could, we would. The concept / story will determine how much you will need- totally agree. But I bet a LOT of people read this post and said to themselves, wow, they had everything they needed, so what’s there no problem to solve. I was one of those. Before I sound like a Debbie downer- congrats to you guys, it’s always good to see fellow creatives make some waves. Show me how to put this together in crazy, all for self new york city, and I’ll buy what this post is selling, hehe. Cheers

  • Stefan

    Thanks for translating to “understandable” :-)

  • Stefan

    We did some stuff out of camera, for example the martini glas shot on our 500px-site.
    What people say: “Why are you doing it in an 5 hours session in camera, if you can do it in 3 minutes with a little help of Photoshop”.
    So, it does not matter how you do it – someone will prefer the other way :-)

    But i have to say: if we are in the studio with unlimited amount of time and under “controlled conditions”, i prefer “out of cam” too.

  • Dumb

    That’s pretty funny… everyone knows someone with a hand painted rat rod. They’re a dime a dozen. I know at least 20 people with one! I see them all the time, there’s three parked around the corner from my place.

    Models? Hah, I sleep with supermodels every night!

  • Dumb

    Surely everyone knows someone with the DVD?!

  • Stefan

    We didn’t thought about how time traveling was showed in “back to the future”.
    In our imagination was fire, so we did it with fire.
    But if you take a second look, you may find more differences:
    The car is older than the DeLorean, Christina is better looking than Michael J. Fox (at least in my opinion) and we didn’t steal any plutonium.

  • Stefan

    As Aaro said: “Don’t think about what you don’t have when you’re planning a shoot; think about what you can do with what you got”.

  • Gonzo

    What if you don’t have any friends or family? Great photo, btw.

  • Stefan

    Well – you could probably do some great stuff in still life photography than…
    Two thing are kinda helpful if you’re starting to shoot:
    – an idea
    – a camera

  • Stefan

    It’s not a 5DII/III with a fancy L-Lens, it’s just a 550D with some kind of standard zoom kit lens. It’s a camera which is usually used by “semi-professionals with small hands” or amateurs who just like DSLRs. This camera is definitely not a standard in the “pro”-segment, neither is the lens or the flashes (except for that ranger q as mentioned in the article).

  • Jesse Cablek

    I’m fully aware of what it’s not. Even on the used market you’re looking at around $500 for that camera with kit lens, + $100 for the Yongnuo flash.. $600 base price is not an everyday affordable cheap camera kit. I wasn’t even expecting to see any DSLR used in this article if it’s “on the cheap” as even a 300D could have produced a similar result.

    Even the lens you used is more expensive than just a 50mm f/1.8 – and the 50mm is likely to be sharper, and cheaper.

    I’m not trying to knock the shoot – obviously a lot of effort and great results were obtained, but just leave out “on the cheap” and you still have a valid article about the work behind it all.. but of course it wouldn’t have as much of a “wow” factor to get the exposure if it were just another shoot I guess.

    I produce great results all the time with a Nikon D200 (bought used) and D2x (given to me), I have a single Nikon SB800 flash (bought used for less than half it’s retail price) but my 2 extra’s are both Yongnuo 560’s that I have for extras.. and nowhere have I ever tried to get exposure for saying I shoot with inexpensive gear, because it sure cost a lot relative to what I currently make which is why I can’t afford a body upgrade.

  • David Vaughn

    Making the extraordinary out of the ordinary is something photographers have been doing for a long time.

  • autumnbringer

    Wow, so many complaints. The objective was: “Let’s do it with a Canon 550D and a cheap lens instead of the Nikon D800,”
    They did so. Mission accomplished.

    I’m sure you’ve heard it many times already Stefan, but great work here. It really is a great demonstration of what you can do with some teamwork even if all the gear isn’t exactly the “perfect” setup :)

  • WKYA_Radio

    If its not common wisdom already, the 550d/T2i has an AWESOME sensor. I shot fashion week street style at basically iso 100 + fill flash for three full days. Im still wowed at the super clean, detailed, low iso imagery this camera produces, and its my go to body because i cant afford a 5M3.

    So for me, if the t2 is the ‘cheap’ part of this project, then it wouldn’t make any sense at all. Its a great (old) cam.

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  • Jon

    Neat stuff. I like looking behind the scenes and seeing how a piece of art is created. The only part of this I (and evidently a few other folks) have a problem with is the inclusion of the words “on the cheap.” I mean, if I wrote an article about “Creating A 15 Meter Tall Fire Breathing Brass Statue On The Cheap” one could reasonably expect a lot of great money saving tips. But then, if the only cost controlling measures I took were
    1. Leaving my extremely expensive welder at home and instead bringing my very expensive welder,
    2. Having my family and friends provide free labor, design, and expertise with pyrotechnics,

    I’d think people would be right to call me out as disingenuous.
    Maybe it’s just because I was raised by ridiculous hillbillies in the middle of nowhere, but when I think “cheap” I think of shopping at thrift stores and stopping by the local charity food pantry before going to an actual store. I certainly don’t think of getting help from friends; That sort of thing is worth more than money.

  • Stefan

    Hi Jon,
    i think you’re right in some points. We had a lot of help from our friends. And yes, they are very talented. And yes – we are very proud of having them in the team to create such things.
    The point was to create something nice with relatively cheap – or consumer level – gear. Usually we hear things a lot like “If i only had this camera, i would do something like that”. I think a lot of people have great friends with some special interests and it might be easier as you think to “activate” them for a shooting.

    We haven’t paid any of these guys – and no one asked for money afterwards. Why? Because we all had an amazing evening, we had a lot of fun (and wet feets), we learned a lot and that’s what it’s all about: Having fun and doing something instead of thinking what you probably could do if only ….

    We are using our resources. We try to extend the circle of inner friends who could help with our projects. We are not asking for eleemosynary. we just want to have some fun and getting better to do more sophisticated stuff.

    Stefan (Kamerakind)

  • Stefan

    At that point in time we simply had no 50mm 1.8
    That’s why we used the cheapest lens we had (or could borrow). Of course – the 50mm would have been cheaper… But that’s not the point. It’s not about “using the cheapest gear you can get”, it’s about “use what you have”.
    And i personally think 600$ for a body/lens/flash-combination is really cheap. in fact – it’s less than our cheapest lens…