Photography is such a ubiquitous medium that it plays a role in pretty much every aspect of work and life. Those passionate enough about the artform to choose it as a career often look for ways to combine it with their other favorite activities, like cooking food, playing sports, or, in the case of Mike D’Ambrosio, driving cars.
The automobile aficionado recently spent the better part of a week creating invigorating imagery of BMWs at the company’s Performance Driving Center in South Carolina. Mike, who has worked with BMW for more than six years, has been around cars since young adulthood — and has driven this specific kind of car for a decade.
I’ve been around cars since I was 13, in jobs ranging from mechanic to driving instructor (yes, I get my own brake pedal). My affinity for the brand began when I purchased a BMW M3 about ten years ago. It’s so easy to feel the passion that goes into one of these machines when you drive one. I quickly fell in love and sought ways to tie my passion for cars with my passion for art and photography.
That passion doesn’t just manifest itself in the hours Mike has spent around cars while working in the field. In fact, what makes his love of vehicles most evident is that he spends a lot of his down time consuming media related to the industry. It’s this desire to immerse himself in this world on and off the clock that makes him an ideal fit for a shoot of this nature.
Being around cars certainly helps my vision, but it’s also years of watching things like Top Gear and reading Car and Driver that have helped train my eyes. You’ll usually see me laying on the ground, aiming my camera up for more aggressive angles, and turning the outside wheel in for a more “dynamic” look.
I also try to keep the details in mind. Grills usually require more attention to make them pop — I’ve even dumped soapy water on the ground to get a better reflection. I’ve never come back from a shoot clean!
Most of Mike’s work with BMW has been as an art director, where he’s created physical brochures for the company and helped improve its online look. For this assignment, the freelancer felt his still imagery was strong enough for him to wear two hats.
As an art director, I usually have control over typography and page layout, and often go on location to direct shoots — something I did for a previous version of the Performance Center site that launched four years ago. This time around, I felt my photography skills had progressed enough to offer my own portfolio for submission to shoot the still portion while also art directing the videography. Since my photos involve many fast BMWs, it was a match!
Across four long days — we’re talkin’ 13 hours a pop, minimum — Mike and friends shot on location at the PDC’s racetrack and on mountain roads abutting the BMW property.
I’ve been to the PDC multiple times, and the clients here are the best. They fully trust my creative vision and give me the run of the place — and the keys to a 600HP M5 — without hesitation.
The PDC is in Greenville, South Carolina and features a closed track, where pro driving instructors let you drive new BMWs through different challenges to enhance your driving skills. It’s as fun as it sounds.
The most challenging (but rewarding) part of the shoot for Mike happened at night. It involved going back to the track well past sunset after a full day of shooting. And when you end up with the kind of intoxicating photos that stick in the mind of potential customers, how could you not want to take a few extra hours to make them?
By far the most challenging aspect — and most fun — is light-painting the cars. Separate layers are shot using a handheld Ice Light to light up sections of the car, which are then combined in post for a seamless look.
The result is a car that literally pops out of the background and looks dripping wet.
Per Mike, that background is nearly as important as the car itself because it shows that he’s literally looking at the big picture. This is another instance of Mike’s substantial work history in the automotive world coming into play. As someone who’s been on both sides of the buy/sell dynamic, he’s fully aware of what all goes into making the kind of marketing materials a big-name client like BMW needs.
For me, a car looks best when in an environment that you can understand and relate to, so I tend to shoot wider angles. I also try to bring objects into the foreground, like a traffic cone, that can add some depth.
The most important thing to keep in mind for me when shooting any car is that it’s considered a lifestyle choice and a fashion statement. The environment is always paramount to help sell that lifestyle.
As much as Mike is proud of his ability to drive cars, he knows he’s got to leave most of it to the professionals. Part of the reason Mike was brought on for this work is because the PDC was celebrating its 20th anniversary. In commemoration of the milestone, BMW wanted shots of its newest vintage next to a model from two decades back. Simple enough, right? Well, not exactly…
For this shoot, I was given a special request: the school was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and we needed both a new M5 and one from 1999. That meant going to BMW’s private collection and pulling out a flawless E39 M5.
Historic BMWs are temperamental things, and this one was no exception, with original 20-year-old tires and a battery that wouldn’t get the car started. Matt Mullins, the chief driving instructor, was the one driving the car as I took my shots, so I asked him if he’d be able to drift the car given the state of the tires.
‘I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,’ he responded. Bummer.
So that’s that, yeah? Nope. Not even close.
Once set up, we communicated via walkie-talkie. Matt said he’d do a few practice runs to make sure he was comfortable and I was getting the looks I wanted. At which point he says…
‘Say Mike…you wanted a drift with this thing?’
Matt then proceeded to get the E39 sideways for more than a few takes, which, on 20-year-old tires, is not an easy thing to do. I could see his smile from the bottom of the hill.
BMW Driving Instructors are exactly like what you’d imagine: confident, funny, and cool as a cucumber. They have a way of putting everyone around them at ease, which is especially difficult because, if you stop to think about it, they are asking you to drive 5,000 pounds of steel at high speeds continuously for two days. It’s fun but exhausting, as any racer will tell you.
“Fun but exhausting” succinctly sums up the kind of assignment that requires nearly 60 hours of work in just four days. You really have to love everything about what you do to get up before the sun rises and go to bed well after it’s turned in for the night. As we’ve learned, though, those kind of days are Mike’s bread and butter.
Five a.m. is not a fun time to be out the door in the cold of morning, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a huge grin on my face the entire time.
Videographer: Stephen Gregory