Belle Tire is an American tire, wheel, and automotive service retailer, headquartered in Allen Park, Michigan. It was founded in Detroit in 1922 by Sam Waze, who named the company after his wife, Belle. The family-owned business currently operates 140 retail locations across Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois — and helps keep the Midwest rolling! Chicago-based brand narrative photographer Nathanael Filbert has been working with Belle Tire for the last six years, a collaboration that notably began with a call from a film producer, rather than an agency. In fall 2021, the client reached out to Nathanael once more for stills for a new campaign, anticipating their 100th year in business.
The goal of the campaign was recruitment. From the start, Belle Tire’s vision for the project included both stills and video, with separate teams that could work alongside each other on a two-day shoot. From their years of collaboration, the client knew Nathanael was the versatile stills shooter that Belle Tire needed.
I had to work quickly and be highly mobile, remaining flexible to the needs of the moment and ultimately get the shot without much fuss. A shoot like this doesn’t afford much time for creating your own lighting. While on set, I was constantly searching for little pools of natural light and orienting the shot so the action we needed to photograph was featured in the best way possible. In this case, we really wanted to highlight the grit and texture of the working environment while focusing on real mechanics working on real projects.
The preplanning for the project took place remotely, over 2-3 weeks leading up to the shoot.
Initially, there were a series of creative and logistical calls to get the entire team on the same page in regards to the shotlist, creative scope, and goals of the project. Beyond that, we also worked out a game plan to ensure that the stills and video teams worked alongside each other to create a seamless experience for everyone involved.
The autumn photoshoot took place at a new Belle Tire location in Detroit, which featured the client’s latest design updates.
The talent consisted of Belle Tire employees working on projects in their dedicated bay as they normally would on any given work day. Everything was live and in real time to create the most authentic visual assets for the client, but with the occasional repeat of a task to make sure we got the shot.
There was a full production team on set that included the client, producers, film crew, stills crew, and the Belle Tire employees.
The energy of the shoot was fast-paced and collaborative. A precise and well-planned schedule was essential as it helped direct and shape the day, keeping us on track while simultaneously creating space for creativity and fun within each shot. Many of the Belle Tire employees had not seen a production of this scale before, so we all had a lot of fun joking about being “the talent” and movie stars! Overall, it was a really great set environment.
Real employees afforded the authenticity Belle Tire was hoping to convey. It was a potential, however, Nathanael had to actively engage. Any photographer knows that subjects who do not typically find themselves in front of a camera can be a challenge, especially under time constraints. And so, Nathanael had to be ready with clear and concise directions to keep things moving, without compromising the quality of the shots.
We used real employees of Belle Tire and asked them to perform their usual tasks. While this provides an initial level of comfort, I also consistently work to produce a layer of distraction so the subjects don’t begin to overthink their involvement throughout the shoot. By engaging in conversation, as well as providing ample direction often with specific instructions, I find I’m able to keep people engaged but relaxed. Additionally, by encouraging each individual to drop into their daily routine or method of work, I found that they quickly relaxed into a level of natural familiarity with the task at hand and became quite comfortable in front of the camera. All of these techniques helped us create that level of authentic imagery which was one of the key directives from the client for this project.
Ultimately, a full production team and a fully functional tire shop meant a bustling set that was, at times, filled to the max. But, in his resourcefulness, Nathanael found a way to use the project’s constraints to his advantage.
Working alongside a film crew, especially on a project with a tight schedule, means not having much, if any, time allotted to create stills-specific lighting. Essentially, I had 2-5 minutes to get each shot using the natural light or film lighting before things had to be moved, reset, and adjusted for the next scene.
I found that I was able to add value to the client’s needs by shooting over the shoulder of the Camera Op or finding my own unique angle outside of the periphery of their lens. This allowed me time to be creative, capturing some really interesting vantages and looks which, under other circumstances, likely would not have been found. Oftentimes, I find that if given the space, time, and trust, I will discover a shot or angle that was not previously conceptualized but ultimately becomes a hero image.
When the rubber met the road, Nathanael’s years of industry experience made certain he had all the tools in his wheelhouse to get the job done.
In my opinion, experience is of the utmost value because it is almost always the prerequisite for learning something new. It creates rhythm, familiarity, consistency, and ultimately an ability to develop new styles and levels of creativity. I firmly believe that you will struggle to do something truly new or unique as an artist until you understand and are comfortable with the tools already within you. In mastering a tool, a technique, a look, an approach, you open yourself up to the subtle but significant shifts that lead you down new creative paths.
In this shoot, my previous experience in working alongside film crews, with limited time to get the shot, was a tool I needed in order to be successful. Because I was able to unconsciously drop into that rhythm of work, I was able to focus my attention on trying new angles and perspectives, knowing and leaning on the awareness that I would get the shot. In the end, this led to some images that I’m really proud of, which now feature in my portfolio and have even won some awards!
See more of Nathanael’s work on his website.
Read more articles about Brand Narrative photography.