Coffee Brake: Photonalysis Of A 1973 Volvo 1800ES

EIC Vince: The following post by CFlo started out as a simple feature for a Volvo 1800 but grew like rust in a 240Z hatch into an entire novel about photography and is now this week’s Coffee Brake feature.  In addition to having automotive ADD, a racing addiction, and an affliction for finding and writing about all sorts of cheap and cool cars for sale, we here at DT like to occasionally analyze the cheap car market itself and some of the techniques used by the more savvy sellers. When selling a car online to prospective remote buyers, several ingredients are needed to seal the deal: a wealth of information, honesty, candor, a sense of customer service, and great pictures of the car. Today we’ll talk about that last one for a bit. Find this 1973 Volvo 1800ES for sale in Portland, OR with bidding near $9k on ebay with reserve not met and 4 days to go.

Just look at that gorgeous shooting brake up there. It looks so jaunty and poised for action, cocked at a sporty angle on a rocky surface with the gorgeous city of Portland, Oregon as its backdrop. But take a deeper more critical look at the photo, and you’ll notice the low light doesn’t really show the car’s color very well, but all the details like the wheels, lights, and brightwork are crisp and easy to see. The seller used the correct exposure to make the bright stuff “pop” and a shallow depth of field puts the car in sharp focus but de-emphasizes the background by blurring it out. The photo was taken during the “magic hour” just before sunset which warms up the colors, makes shadows less harsh, and provides more diffuse light.

Once again the car is the star of the show in this shot, with the pretty forest background blurred out. Now the lighting is still low but more direct and we can see that this is a ’70s bronze hue on a ’70s car – not bad, mind you, but less is left to the imagination. The shot above almost looks like a marketing scene for the “active sportsman who needs a stylish car to compliment his rugged good looks” type of ad, etc. etc.

I happen to like the proportions and design of the 1800ES as seen from any angle, really, but the rear 3/4 view is one of the best. Maybe that’s why this seller (Speed Sports Inc.) includes so many photos from that vantage point.

Notice how even though all of these shots seem to have been taken in the same general area, both the car and photographer keep moving around to set up a wide variety of poses. Like telling a fashion model to “work it,” the photographer keeps this ES interesting by being dynamic. Note also that all of the pictures above were taken from probably at least 20 feet away with a moderate telephoto zoom to make the car fill the frame.

So often we see photos in for sale ads that distort the car’s true shape – by standing 3 feet away and zooming the camera out, the result is a bulbous and misproportioned look that doesn’t really flatter any vehicle unless the goal is some kind of artistic effect. Straight lines become curved in the middle of the frame and fall away dramatically to either side. By standing back and zooming in, you get a better representation of the true shape of the car, like this seller has done. Just look at all those straight horizontal lines on the rear view of the ES. Well…almost straight anyways since it becomes apparent that the bumper has been tweaked and isn’t quite sitting parallel to the ground.

Now the light’s getting lower in the foreground but the photographer changed up the composition to put the focal point (the car’s face) in the bottom third of the frame. The viewer’s eye starts there and is drawn upwards and leftwards by the highlighted sweeping arc of the character line running from the fender through the door, sharply curving upwards to point out the big rear greenhouse and vestigial tail fins. Again, shallow depth of field emphasizes the subject without distracting the mind with too much detail in the background. The car has a setting…a place, but we don’t need to know too much about it.

Once the myriad overall shots from a millionty different angles are done, we start to get some closeups showing individual highlights of the car. The fluted glass headlight lens looks beautiful in this shot, because it is (although we aren’t told any details about the headlights and they certainly don’t look like $10 halogen sealed beams) but also because of the composition, focus, and lighting. Everything else falls away and the bright orb near (but not perfectly at) the center of the shot gets all the attention. The human mind likes asymmetry, so biasing the camera towards one side or the other a bit makes what would otherwise be a boring photo pretty dynamic. It’s extremely hard to see in the low lighting, but this 1800ES isn’t a solid color; it has a custom two-tone paint job with a lighter shade up top and darker below. The headlight shot reveals this best because the sharp border between the two colors is obvious in that little saddle between the headlight and grille surround.

Low lighting does wonders for making an interior look sexy and sophisticated; the shot above might imply that Roger Moore is smoking a cigar nearby or Jacqueline Bisset is looking quite fetching just out of frame and we’re somehow peering through a time portal back to ’73 when earth tones were in.  Sure, I can see that the dash is capped with an imperfect black plastic cover and the vinyl on the seats and door cards has some wrinkles, but this looks like a fabulous place to spend time behind the wheel…from this photo. Keys in the ignition is a great touch.

For some reason the seller also includes studio shots under harsh lighting with a black background and because of this change of setting we can see the stark reality. The seats are pretty hideous, naugahyde was never classy, and the carpet is some sickly shade of guacamole puke that doesn’t match anything at all. Granted this car looks like a nice driver condition ES that should bring lots of smiles to the enthusiast on a $10k budget, but the full interior spec was best left to the imagination.

The high contrast studio lighting does make the mechanical parts look fantastic; this B20 engine almost seems like a hyperdetailed scale model of itself. The other nice thing about high contrast is that condition is clear – this is a clean powerplant and it has either been well maintained or recently spiffed up for the shoot. Regardless it’s a huge improvement over the underexposed, in the shade with vaseline on the lens engine shots that a craigslist seller typically includes, if you’re lucky.

Ok, the undercarriage of a 40 year old car (like an 80 year old human) isn’t sexy or glamorous at all, but kudos to this seller for putting the car up on a lift and hiking up its skirt so we can conduct a thorough exam. I’m personally about 100x more likely to buy a car sight unseen if I can verify through photos like this that the oily bits aren’t too oily and the floors haven’t completely turned into iron oxide powder. Sometimes photos don’t have to make the car look better than it is – the important part of making a buyer feel comfortable is showing the true condition so they can make their own assessment rather than taking the seller’s word for it.

Ah, back to magic hour in the Pacific Northwest. Do you want this car yet or not? Think you’d want it as much if the photos were taken in the dusty garage where the seller probably found it?

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