This Is How You Shoot The Dakar Rally In Miniature
Though you may not know it, chances are you’re already familiar with the work of Marian Chytka, aka MCH Photo. He’s been a regular on the Dakar Rally stages since 2013 (three more as a fan), and started shooting intermittent rounds of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies shortly thereafter. His work has taken him across most of Europe and at least half a dozen countries in South America, as well as most of the Middle East.
During his nine years as a professional motorsport photographer, he’s shot for teams as illustrious as X-Raid (five wins), Team Peugeot Total (three of Peugeot’s seven event wins), Toyota Gazoo Racing (added Dakar victory to its World Rally Championship and World Endurance Championship tally in 2019), and Kamaz (pretty much dominated the Trucks category since 2000) among many others. Seen a shot of Stéphane Peterhansel bashing through the dunes in either a Peugeot 3008 DKR or MINI ALL 4 Racing en-route to victory? Marian probably took it.
Small wonder then that his latest project, born during the global pandemic that expanded motorsport’s international off-season to almost half a year, has also been heavily influenced by the most daunting endurance rally on the planet. Albeit with a twist. Compared with the 1,000-plus horsepower behemoths he’s used to shooting on the dunes, the subject of Marian’s latest series are barely five inches tall.
“I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for quite a while,” Marian explains to Petrolicious. “I remember seeing a car commercial about two years ago” – we believe this was Felix Hernandez’s 1/43-scale advert for the Audi Q2 – “which used small scale models, and I thought it would be cool to do a Dakar shoot like that. Problem was, there was never time to do it properly. But with everything that’s been going on over the last few months, now seemed perfect.
“I didn’t want to just re-do photos I’d taken before. And since the Dakar Rally is normally connected with deserts and dunes, I knew that was the first shot I wanted to do in miniature. To be honest, I thought it would be quite easy. It really wasn’t!”
No kidding. The subject of said ‘dune shot’ is a 1/43-scale diecast replica of the 340hp, 3-litre bi-turbo diesel-powered Peugeot 3008 DKR nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb drove to four stage wins and 3rd overall on the Dakar Rally in 2019. Though not a ‘race-weathered’ reproduction – Marian has added the grungier details himself – the Peugeot nevertheless dons Loeb’s ‘306’ race number from 2019 as well as Bardahl sponsorship decals across the fenders and bonnet. Admittedly, as the [cough] 3.5-ton 3008 DKR smashes over the crest, only the rear end of an all-too familiar red bull can be seen peeking through the ensuing dust cloud.
As you’d expect then of a professional photographer, and like many of his contemporaries taking on passion projects during lockdown, Marian has put a huge amount of detail in these miniature shots, including creating the dune-scape in its entirety from scratch…
“When I was a kid, I had a pet chinchilla,” Marian continues, “and he used really, really soft sand for bathing. So I ordered… maybe 20kg of this ‘bath sand’ to create the dunes. The grains were still too big next to the Peugeot, but it was a good foundation for the bigger dunes in the foreground. Once that was done, I mixed in some flour to give it the right texture and then added some synthetic grass to give the scene some contrast. Get the lighting right, and it looked pretty good.”
That really was just the beginning. To create the ‘dust cloud’, Marian had to experiment with the amount of sand he could throw at the model whilst out of frame (“that took hours to get that right!”). To make sure each element of the finished image was sharp, Marian also created a composite shot of nearly a dozen individual frames, including some from his previous work. That ominous looking sky and the dune off in the distance? That’s actually been borrowed from a photograph Marian took on the Dakar two years ago. But again, the finished look required a lot of work.
“Honestly, creating the scenes wasn’t nearly as hard as the work I had to do in post production. This could theoretically just be one shot, but when you’re dealing with something this size, even if you go really high with the aperture, the details just aren’t sharp enough. So I set the camera on a tripod and decided to combine different frames. I think was nine or 10…maybe 12, I can’t quite remember.
“That was a lot of work, because you have to go sharp on the foreground. One shot. Then go sharp on the Peugeot. Another shot. Then the grass. Shot. The first dune, the second dune, etc. These then need to be stitched together in post-production, and if you want to do this properly, that’s what really burns up the time. Much more than the gravel shot, which was really more about touching up the details.”
The ‘gravel scene’, shot second in this series, this time features a miniature Renault Trucks Sherpa CBH 385 – 1/50 scale this time – as driven by Martin Van Den Brink on the 2018 event (unfortunately the Dutchman didn’t make it past the fourth stage). Like the Peugeot, the Sherpa bears Van Der Brink’s ‘506’ race number and the myriad sponsorship decals of its 8.5-ton alter-ego. Unlike the Peugeot though, the sands in Peru have been swapped out for a gravel stage in Bolivia, every aspect of which, once again, Marian has built from scratch.
“The Renault truck picture actually wasn’t as complicated as it looks. There’s a lot more detail but I was able to create these by collecting stones, grass and little pieces of wood from my garden. I wanted this to look very ‘earthy’ and realistic, and that’s how I made the trees. The road is small stones, clay and dirt stuck down with spray-on glue, and I also picked up a couple of diorama sets for the rock faces.
“So it actually wasn’t that difficult. Obviously it wasn’t perfect, and a professional could probably have done a much better job, but I’m quite happy with the final look.”
Again, there is some impressive detail within the scene. The Sherpa already bears the brunt of its Dakar odyssey across its front grille and windshield, which is actually a well-placed teaspoon of cocoa powder. The grass and foliage in the bottom left corner is a purchase from Marian’s local model shop, held in ruffled place by a static grass applicator that effectively shocks the strands into place. The background? Borrowed from an old, real-world photograph. Look closely through the windshield, and you’ll even see Van Den Brink himself alongside co-driver Wouter de Graaff and mechanic Mitchell Van Den Brink, a composite taken from one of Marian’s old images that, by happy coincidence, happened to be shot at the same angle in 2018.
Unlike the Peugeot shot however, this is one of the very few composites Marian used for the ‘gravel scene’….
“This was actually just one shot. Well, three if you count the driver and the sky. At first I tried combining frames, like I did with the dunes, but I ended up with 15 different frames, all with completely different depths. The lighting was off. The masking wasn’t working. It would have taken me days to mask it all together properly, so I abandoned that quickly, reset the frame at a different angle, and went with that instead.
“There wasn’t that much do to in post-production as there was in the dune picture. I added a little more dust behind the truck, put a little more light in, spun the wheels, and…actually, yeah, that was pretty much it.
“But shooting miniature is definitely more difficult than real life. You have a lot more control” – Marian’s ‘studio’ has been set up, at home, on his dining room table – “but it takes a lot more editing to create the realism. That was actually one of the reasons I did this series. I’ve been looking to work on my photoshop skills for a while now, and the goal was to make these images look as real as possible. That’s why these took so long to create: between other projects, I probably spent three or four days on each image.”
“It’s fun though. It’s not an easy thing to do, but you learnt a lot. I’m glad I did it.
You may well be wondering, given the Dakar’s storied history that will be celebrated with The Dakar Classic next year, why Marian has gone relatively contemporary with his two subjects. Well, for starters, it was logistically convenient: two of his regular clients were so keen to see their Dakar weapons in miniature action, they gladly provided the models themselves.
Secondly, and in a running theme we’ve seen with many of these lockdown miniature recreations, both the Peugeot and the Renault reflect Marian’s first-hand experience on the Dakar. In the past three or four years alone, he’s shot both of them literally hundreds of times from almost every conceivable angle. Why wouldn’t he want to bring that experience to a new series promoting his creativity?
Having said that, Marian does have a third installment of this Miniature Dakar series in-mind…
“I’d like to do more. In fact, there’s a classic scale model I bought recently which I’m definitely going to shoot something with when I have the time.”
Any hints as to which car this will be?
“Let’s just say it features two legends from 1990!”
*Images courtesy of MCH Photo / Marian Chytka