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Automotive photography tips from the professionals

It’s probably true to say that the greater majority of regular visitors to own a camera of some sort and are quite happy and comfortable snapping away behind the viewfinder. However, on the basis that you are never too old to learn, it seems quite reasonable to assume that many budding photographers would welcome some tips from the pros on how to achieve better results.


Well, I’m pleased to tell you that we’ve been in touch with three very well known photographers in the automotive world, who have been extremely helpful in sharing some of their “tricks of the trade”.  This resulted from posing a set of questions to all three.  “But who are these three lensmen?” you may well ask.


Michael Bailie is one of the UK’s best-known automotive photographers, his work having graced the pages of top automotive publications, including Evo, Octane and Top Gear.  He’s produced some wonderful images of cars, many for motor manufacturers, and says he was immensely privileged to have been invited by Aston Martin to take the official shots of the latest DBS V12 for the recent James Bond movie launch. 


Michael - This was shot for FHM magazine in a specialist car studio. Tungsten lights are reflected off the walls to create the effect. 


US-based David Perry has made a name for himself in several spheres of photography, notably with his love of black and white imagery, hot rods, wide-open spaces and girls.  The creativity of David’s work is captured in books, such as Hot Rod Pin Ups, with its decidedly ‘50s burlesque feel, and published by Motorbooks. David has also contributed to other titles, such as Hot Rod Kings, and has an online shop of prints available to purchase.


David '40 Coupe at Take off.  Probably my best known shot. This was the moment before the car's record return run at Bonneville, and right before a giant storm that hit 15 minutes later.


Finally, Florida-based Peter Hardholt has made a living from shooting large-format photography capturing images of antiquities for museum books and catalogues for clients that include The Smithsonian, The White House, and the Louvre.  Peter will probably be better known to automotive enthusiasts for those amazing images in the recently published book, Art of the Hot Rod, by Motorbooks.  Peter freely admits he is relatively new to automotive publishing, but he is not, however, new to cars, having  built, raced, and taught as a track driving instructor. The new venture in car books is an effort to combine the two interests. Behind the lens, Peter’s obvious eye for detail and experience of shooting subject matter in controlled surroundings has resulted in some truly remarkable results. 


Peter - Zane Cullen roadster.  I like the contrast between the bright work and the black background. There is some masterful work in this car, particularly around the cockpit.


All three photographers treat the viewfinder as a canvas on which to paint their own unique pictures.  There’s no point-and-click photography here, and all three produce wildly varying compositions of equal merit.  Through the information provided, it’s been possible to gain a brief insight into their individual photographic worlds, which has been a fascinating experience. I hope our “tips from the pros” benefits your photography as a result.  Here’s what they had to say.



Q: What in your opinion makes a great composition?

Composition is a very subjective thing. You can often recognise photographers’ styles by their different compositions. Personally I don't like to see the main subject (the car in this case) in the middle of the frame. Think about not just the car, but also what's in the background too. Imagine the composition like a set of scales and try to make it look balanced.  Although there are always exceptions, there are no rules! Try and be quirky, not boring – I know this is easier said than done!


Michael - This shot was taken in Wales. A camera was clamped to bonnet. The car was then rolled down the hill backwards to achieve the background blur!!


For me it's one that puts the viewer in the scene. Attention to detail, no undesirable tangencies, and a surprise! Sometimes the best compositions are the accidents.

David - Brew 102. Great light early morning at El Mirage. It was just sittin' there.

I consider a successful photograph one that establishes the most direct connection between the subject and the viewer. I try to make the composing, the lighting, and all the techniques invisible. If it makes you feel like touching the printed page - that is a success.


Peter - Dave Crouse '32.  I think this low point of view is very evocative.


Q: How important is subject matter to the overall outcome - can you make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?

Subject matter obviously does influence the observer. Quite often people will say to me "what a wonderful photograph of a Ferrari", but if it had been of a Morris Marina in the same situation they wouldn't look twice. You can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear but whether the observer will agree with you is another thing. It's difficult to change human nature. He or she will normally go for the more sexy car and that goes for people shots too!!


Michael - This is a copy of the official moon buggy. Not shot on the moon, but in a lime quarry in Suffolk! Flashes used were powered by a generator.


It's of the utmost importance. Photography can gloss over a mediocre subject, but it cannot elevate it beyond that unless the subject is compelling.


David - Merc Bones. Gray light, very dead. We assembled pieces and then snapped a picture.


Having a great subject definitely makes the exercise easier but it is almost always possible to isolate a beautiful detail. A sow's ear can be more complex and interesting than a silk purse.


Peter - Posies red '41 Willys coupe.  I like the abstract quality, particularly the line formed by the meeting of the red and black.


Q: What equipment do you use and why?    

I used to use Hasselblads, Mamiya RZ 6x7s, Sinar 5x4 and Leicas, but always Nikon along side these, which I am still still using today in it's latest digital form. The new Nikon D3 has a superb sensor which is quite amazing in low light situations. I recently did a portrait shoot for Octane Magazine of Formula 1 legend Damon Hill. It was shot in a dark atmospheric pub in Surrey.  Normally you would need artificial light for this shooting situation, but because of the brilliant low light qualities of the camera's sensor, the results were a credit to the camera's capabilities. Nikon does make a semi-professional less expensive model with the same sensor ( D300) which is great too! Their lenses are in my opinion better than their rivals in terms of build quality and sharpness.

In the early days it was Nikon 35mm, Hasselblad, Pentax 6x7 and an enlarger. Now it's Canon digital and Photoshop.

Most of the time I use a current model Hasselblad with a Hasselblad/Imacon digital back linked to a laptop or desktop Mac. If there is a technical failure, I revert to a 4X5 view camera.


My Iighting is typical for studio car photography - a 10ft X 20ft overhead light bank along with various scrims, grid spots, and reflectors. My set up is unusual in that it is all based around a 30ft trailer and is entirely mobile. This enables me to go to the builder's or collector's site rather than getting involved in transporting cars to a studio.


 Q: Do you think digital photography has made your job any easier?

Digital photography has taken some of the stress out of photo shoots. The best things about it are being able to see the result immediately, plus there are no film costs. However contrary to popular belief, it does not help you (a) make a shoot happen (b) light the photograph (c) help you with panning car shots, (d) relax your sitter while photographing them (e) compose the picture etc etc. Many inexperienced people will try and tell you photography is easy now it's mostly digital. I say there's average photographers and good photographers and that hasn't changed whether you are talking digital or film.


Definitely. I can see instant results and can correct before the shoot is over and I shoot all day long for no expenditure and no stinky darkroom.


Digital has definitely made life easier - as long as everything is working.


Q: Do you have any tips about lighting a subject - is there a certain time of the day for achieving the best results? 

Regarding lighting cars, this is an interesting question. Cars - and I know it sounds obvious -are three dimensional objects, so try and make them look that way in the photograph. This can be achieved in natural ambient light, most dramatically at dawn or dusk. Dusk is more relaxed because you have longer to work in the decreasing light. When the sun goes down behind the horizon the sun is not directly on the car but is reflected off the 'canopy' of the sky. This gives a very dramatic effect, hopefully enhancing the lines of the car. Because the side of the car may be lit well, the front may be in shadow with little shadow detail, and so will need some artificial light via a flash gun (separate from the camera) to balance the overall effect. I have actually used cheap builders' lights for this purpose, which work very well on location, with a generator if necessary.


Michael - This shot illustrates what you can do with a good location and a couple of 500w builders' lights which cost £12 each, powered from a standard generator.


Strong sunlight can work on brightly coloured cars, but not always on black or white cars. Black and white cars tend to look far too contrasty in these situations.

I also photograph cars in specialist cars studios, but these are very expensive to hire, need a lot of experience to get the best out of them, and the shoots can be very time consuming.  It can a take a day to do one shot, though I don't often have that luxury!


It depends on the subjects. Dawn and dusk are the best times outdoors, though night photography is fun too.


David 69 dawn. After driving 3 hours I made it before sun up to get this. Never saw the car again.


I use my elaborate studio set up in order to simplify the results and make the process less dependent on external conditions. Using ambient light can be much more complicated.  As a general rule, subjects with large glossy surfaces are best photographed in diffused light like a cloudy day. Complex details can look better with a specular low-angle light source like late afternoon sun.


 Peter - Posies Aeroliner.  It is an amazing car. Its length (the wheelbase of a Chevy Suburban) pushes the limits of the mobile studio.


Q: Do you have any action photography tips?

This is the tricky bit. It takes months of practice, and even then you may get good days and bad days! Panning shots can be compared to a golf swing or clay pigeon shoot where you are following a moving object.


Most photographic magazines bang on about fast shutter speeds for action photography, but this is a myth! The most I would use is 500th sec and this is rare. Most of the time I'd be shooting panning shots at say between 15th sec- 125th sec depending on how much blur I want in the background behind the car, to give the effect of speed. The problem is, the faster the shutter speed, the more static a car looks. I work a lot for motoring magazines and the art directors quite rightly want shots that show the car really moving, not sitting static on a track!


Michael -
 This car was shot at a track. The camera was panned with a wide angle lens, which is  difficult as you are very close to the subject. Also the shutter was set at 15th sec to give the motion blur.  The hit rate is not good with this type of risky shot, but when you get it right, it can be very effective.

Michael - This is a type of rig shot. The camera was attached to the bonnet of the car using suckers, clamps and a tripod. The car was then rolled down a hill (chosen for that reason). The picture is taken using a 4 second exposure, result - the car is sharp and the background goes whoosh! Colours were enhanced in Photoshop.


Another way of making the car look as though it's going really fast is " rig photography". In it's most basic form ,this is where the camera is clamped to a car with a tripod and suckers and using a very long exposure, say four seconds, the car is pushed by a helper (without the engine running to avoid vibration and camera shake). The result is the car is pin sharp and the background goes whoosh, giving the impression the car is doing 100 mph, whereas in reality it's doing 2mph!! If the rig is in shot it is retouched using Photoshop.


Anticipate where the shot is going to be, and be ready. Shutter, focus, lighting, etc. that's the essence of action photography, that and high speed film and lenses.


David - Coupe Heaven. After the big storm of 92 at Bonneville, all cars were in 1 inch of water

My last project was for an article for a hotel magazine about the Daytona 24 Hour Race. I am more interested in the cars as objects and am usually otherwise occupied when at the track. I am interested in trying some action shots with studio lighting - like a good tire smoking burn out.


Peter - Superbird.  This is such an unlikely shape for a car. The high point of view and the mild wide angle lens empasize this.


Q: What would you say to anyone who is interested in starting out on a career in photography?

If you want to start a career in photography you can study it at college, which I did many years ago. This is fine, but bears no resemblance to the real world. If I knew what I know now, I could have gained far more experience sooner by assisting good photographers earlier in my career. You could offer to work as an assistant or "tea maker" for nothing for a year, just to get your foot in the door. Even after all that, you have to be very determined to succeed and try and be different from everyone else, which is the difficult bit!


Most people can manage the technical stuff with lots of practice but having "The Eye" is what sets you apart from everyone else, provided it's executed well. It is also very important to have good people skills. You'd be amazed how many prospective assistants I have taken on and they stand around with their hands in their pockets waiting to be asked to do the most obvious things - for example, picking up a leather to help wash a car!


You can be the best photographer in the world, but if clients don't like working with you then you won't get commissioned. Put yourself in their position, would you employ someone like that? 


Look at the masters work, polish your lighting and darkroom/Photoshop techniques and be original in your style and content. Only photograph what you’re obsessed with.


Photography is only a medium. The subject matter has to be the driving force. Along the way, find the best information universities, working pros, etc, and buy the best equipment you can afford.


Michael - This photo was shot at a launch in the South of France using independent battery powered flash guns fired by a radio slave


A special thank you goes to Michael, David and Peter for sparing the time to answer our questions over the course of compiling this story. 


Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: kindly provided by the photographers involved

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