Friday, June 12, 2015

The art of automotive photography

I believe there is a bit of a perception about automotive photographers; some think this subject is too superficial, it may seem it is a pursuit of materialism. I have been creating images of automobiles for over fifteen years now and will be the first to say an automobile is far more than a material object; An automobile is a persona or alter ego.

There is a story to tell behind the love affair of man and machine. I once stated in my 2003 documentary “Apotheosis” "The human and the machine each are a reflection of the other". Behind the metal and glass there is a world of dreams, hope, artistry, imagination and people.

When I look through my eyepiece I see a persona, much in the same way a portrait photographer sees the potential of an expressive face. The great difference between snapping a picture of a car and capturing its essence is in the presentation, both setting and light.

I often start a photo session by asking the owner or caretaker a little about the car's history and its importance to the owner. Some automobiles have an aristocratic past of prestige and pedigree but others are stories of owners who created a bond with the machine.

How do you capture this essence, this persona? You have to create visually what you feel when you see this automobile or what you feel after you know its past. Yes, it is certainly an impressionistic view but in the end it will be the difference between a snapshot and an image that will make its viewers want to grab a set of keys and head out on the road.

Like any specialized photography, shooting automobiles requires some unique skills sets. Like portrait photography a big aspect is embracing the lines and curves of the subject. Personally I prefer to do this with light painting at night or in a dark environment as to really bring out the curves as the automotive designers intended.

Light painting is very simple. mount your camera on a tripod and set it in the manual position then open the shutter for 15-30 seconds at a low F stop and low ISO like ISO 100-400. On the lighting side of things simply mount an LED video light to amonopod and walk around the car. Do not worry about getting in the shot as long as you keep moving your motion will be too fast for the camera to see, it will only really capture the light that you're dropping down on the car

Like the light master Eric Curry I often take several individual shots of light painting passes and blend them together to get one dramatic image. Light painting offers you greater dramatic control with notably less equipment.

During the daylight hours I personally prefer to shoot in an open space with high powered strobes to easily separate the automobile from the background. Inclement weather is often preferred as storm clouds add drama to low angel shots, overcast skies help with vivid colors and wet streets allow for beautiful reflections.

When working with strobes outside it is highly advisable to use a light meter to balance your strobe light to just 1 f stop over whatever the ambient light is in the area, this way you are creating somewhat of a natural vignette to allow the vehicle to be the focus of the shot visually. If you power up the strobes over 1 f-stop and balance the camera to the strobes power this effect becomes even more intense.

In either scenario as a photographer you are dealing with much larger objects than a typical portrait sessions so a little ingenuity is required. First thing is first, I personally gave up on standard tripods long ago; they are simply too limited in range for all the wonderful angels desired for automobiles. My base platform has been speaker stands. These lightweight stands can be rigged with clamps and bracing arms from inches off the ground to 8ft or more in height. It is also possible to attach strobes or lights alongside the camera.

As for as camera position get low! Most automotive designs were intended to be seen from the driver seat of another vehicle.

Another idea is to use a rolling cart as a light stand; this allows you as a photographer to quickly try out different angels or capture light from different perspectives very quickly. If using a wifi enabled camera, such as my favorite Canon 6D, you can lock the focus and position and use your cell phone to remotely fire the camera as you tweak the light.

Environments can be a big part of the emotion of a shot, whether it is a car show with fans adoring the vehicle or an industrial boneyard that stands in stark contrast to the bright colors and smooth lines do the car, the setting is the stage and the automobile the actor.

The personality of the owners or caretakers of an automobile should not be dismissed; a shot of them in a race suit, a mechanic with a wrench or a business man looking like James Bond next to their high powered beauty can add personality to the shoot. I have also had a lot of fun shooting grass roots owners who tune Japanese cars with all their colorful mods and urban styles.

For those wanting to explore automotive photography I have some suggestions to get started: local car shows and meets are a great way to meet owners and see a variety of exclusive automobiles. Take the time to introduce yourself to the owner, as questions about their history with the car and have them show you everything, then ask to shoot it. Try a web search for Cars & Coffee in your city.

When shooting at events it's easy to get frustrated with the crowds getting in the shot. There are three ways to overcome this:

1: Be patient, set up and wait for the crowd to clear (I have waited up to a half hour in some cases)

2: Find a high angle to capture the adoring crowd and the vehicle to tell a story (mono-pods will get you height).

3: Politely requests the crowd to give you space for the photo (though will often result in a unhappy faces in the background).

Some other options, if possible, are to show up early as the show is being set up or at close. If at night or in a dark environment slow shutter speeds can blur the crowd creating focus on your prize car.

When I shoot an exclusive I try to Pre-scout a location to find a great environment for the automobile. If you are short on time try using googles street view to help out with areas you haven't been to before.

For equipment plan on limited or no access to ac power, if using strobes it's advisable to rent a generator or use a battery pack. I recommend a power pack, a couple of small studio strobes, a tripod and your camera.

Be highly respectful of the car, owners have often spent a lot of money building or buying their dream machine. Avoid placing equipment too close as to risk something falling and damaging the vehicle. If it is necessary to touch the vehicle ask the owner to make the modification or at least ask permission before you do anything with the car. If you need to enter the vehicle be sure there is nothing metal or sharp on your clothing such as buckles or zippers that may scratch or damage the paint or interior. If you need to get in the car I would even recommend removing your shoes.

I would advise against driving the vehicle at all, liability is quite high in these scenarios.

If attempting a moving shot be careful shooting from a car, always have a trusted friend drive the camera car and the owner drive the subject car. If shooting from within the car it is strongly advised you take the greatest care in securing the camera and equipment for motion.

To create the illusion of speed you rarely need to travel above 20 miles per hour (many great shots are done under 5 MPH), all you need is a solid support system, normally a $30 super clamp or suction cup mounts and a magic arm brace. Drop your shutter speeds to less than 1/40th of a second and travel slowly, if you dial in the exposure right you will easily capture what looks like a high speed shot with little or no risk to the subject vehicle.

These of course are just some of the basics of the wonderful world of automobile photography. It is an endless exploration of shapes, angles, lighting and character. To me automobiles are art in motion, but they are a little bit more than that aren't they? Each automobile has a wonderful story just like the people that drive them.

Thanks for reading,

- Jesse James Allen

If you liked my photos here is my gallery of cars on flickr and also on instagram

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Body-painted version of Thor

I did a photoshoot with Body-paint artist Kyle Vest. We decided to try a Thor project in tribute to the upcoming "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Bodypaint by Kyle Vest
Photo & Edit by Jesse James Allen
Cloud design by

Thor Character by Marvel Comics

Throwback to Need for Speed 2

Back in 1997 Electronic Arts made a little video game called "Need for Speed 2" inside that video game discs were a bunch of small video featurettes of popular super cars of the era.

If you never saw any of them here let me enlighten you:

I always loved this concept and decided to use that idea as I covered the "Celebration Exotic Car Festival" near Disneyworld here in Florida.

For each of these I composed a little piece of music and just did some fun editing. Everything was shot with a GoPro on a Steadicam. I thought it was a creative way to showcase some of the main attractions at the car show.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Orlando Cars & Coffee - April Event

A little something for everybody this month, everything from a vintage Bugatti to a Lamborghini Superleggera. Plenty of American Muscle, JDM and European sports cars as well.

Music and Pictures by Jesse James Allen © 2015 Savage Land Pictures
Special musical thanks to Flonut7

Also in 3D!

3 Million!

As of today it's official, more people have stopped by to see my photographs on Flickr than live in the city of Chicago; I'm totally blown away. Thank you so much for the support everyone!

To see my latest pics check out:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cars & Coffee - Orlando Style

When it comes to the automotive scene I know a lot of people think of the West Coast but you would be quite surprised to see what rolls into a casual Cars and Coffee event on a Saturday morning near Kissimmee Florida.

This weekend not only did I head out to the event to see the cars and chat with a the great people but I also brought along the video rig so the world can get a glimpse of our fantastic car culture here in Orlando Florida.

But it gets better...there is also a HD-3D version of the video here:

If you love cars and would like to experience this for real come join us:

Orlando Cars and Coffee - Second Saturday each month from 8-10am.

1530 Celebration Blvd. Orlando Florida

More info at or on Instagram @OrlandoCarsandCoffee

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunshine and Classic Cars

Over this past weekend I participated in the Apopka Fair car show here in Central Florida. Typically I'm just an event photographer for this type of thing but as of late I have been tinkering around with a Corvette C5 that I've been working on for a little over a year; this was its first show.

Overall this event was mostly geared toward classic American cars making it somewhat unique for the type of venue that I'm usually apart of; however, what I found in talking with many of the owners was that the stories that they told me were really not all that radically different than those of fans of any style of car.

As I was talking with an owner of a beautiful Oldsmobile Cutlass that was parked next to my Vette he had mentioned the thing that he loved most about these types of shows was just watching people walking up and smiling at the car. We pondered on that thought for a minute: I guess people smile because they see a classic car and they think about a time in their past, perhaps fond memories or perhaps it’s a car that represented a freedom or feeling they always wanted.

For me when I see a wonderful automobile I can imagine driving it down some beautiful twisty road out in the middle of nowhere, perhaps with a best friend or perhaps across the country to slay that nagging wanderlust in the most triumphant way.

These shows are really just about people who love cars, they love what they stand for, they love the memories that come along with them and the friendships gained over local food and automotive conversations.

I'm really fond of community events like this and even though my background comes from the whole Japanese tuner scene (that seems very foreign to a lot of these collectors) the feeling is still the same, when you get down to it nothing beats a beautiful day in the sunshine, a gathering of cars and a cool breeze cutting through the air.

Photos and Story by Jesse James Allen (AKA Savage Land Pictures)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Just a thought about photography

"New photographers buy an expensive camera and hope that eventually something amazing will happen in front of it.

Veteran photographers orchestrate amazing perspectives of time and adjust the lighting accordingly."

In the above statement above I am really talking about the evolution of a photographer. When photographers first start out they always have a lot of insecurities about the quality of the gear they have. New photographers assume that if they could just save up and get a really expensive camera with a really nice lens that all their pictures are going to flawlessly come out.

As one matures into a veteran photographer eventually you understand that it's not what you take a picture with but rather what you take a picture of. You also realize that the importance of getting the lighting correct because the camera is not an image creation device, it is a light capturing device; the better the light to capture, the better the image will come out.

Notice in the second part of the statement I say nothing about the quality of the veteran’s camera, that is because as you mature as a photographer you understand that you can do amazing things with minimal equipment if you have the right mentality. There have been plenty of amazing photographs created with equipment that is extremely primitive by today's standards; classic photographs withstand the test of time because of the patience, creativity and knowledge the photographer had before even hitting the shutter.

Lil Tykes - Cozy Coupe 03