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

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