What comes to mind when you think of the automobile industry? For me, it’s Nascar races and the “Zoom Zoom” kid from old Mazda commercials. For photographers specializing in all things automotive, it’s much, much more.
Wonderful Machine defines this specialty as photography primarily about cars, yet it also includes vehicles like motorcycles, boats, trains, etc. Auto/vehicle photography usually falls under the “product photography” umbrella, but in some instances, it can also focus on the culture surrounding the vehicle. In these cases, automotive photography bleeds into the lifestyle and even brand narrative specialties.
Both commercial and editorial clients regularly seek auto/vehicle photography. The industry is massive, from racing and branding to manufacturing and insuring, which means there’s no shortage of avenues (ahem) for a blossoming auto photographer to take. The chassis on which it’s built, however, typically consists of product photography.
Cars and trucks are big, fun, sexy products, so it was the natural next step.
Lighting, of course, is a key factor for any photographer. In Automotive photography, there is a particular emphasis on it that even the common person will notice. San Francisco-based shooter MJ Sugrue says that auto photography is the perfect combination of “real-life beauty and computer magic.” Typically, gorgeous retouching makes the lighting of these shoots stand out for the viewer from brand to brand and car to car.
There is also a very specific story-telling aspect to the specialty. Any car, train, or plane represents the ability to move freely. Freedom, adventure, family road trips, and singing along to the radio are all classic auto tropes, and successful ones at that.
Auto photographer Peter Dawson, who is based in Los Angeles, views this side of car photography as his way in. The story behind the car, why you want the car, what you’ll be able to do with the car, these are what’s important. Well, that and the beauty of a carefully crafted vehicle in tune with its surroundings.
Cars to me are about exploration, and that is a good match for my photography. Car Photography often involves beautiful landscapes and aspects of modern architecture and design. I got into car photography through my landscapes and conceptual work.
He began by presenting his landscape photography to a few ad agencies as the perfect environment for cars instead of beginning with the vehicle itself. This brings us to where you should be taking your car photography.
There are countless publications consistently featuring auto/vehicle-based stories and imagery. There’s Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics — plenty of great automotive hubs. However, finding your niche will most likely be the best way to start. You should be able to shoot the entire story of a car, including both detail and hero shots, to make your portfolio adaptable to both a publication like Car and Driver to an all-inclusive car brochure.
We, of course, have our classic car manufacturers — Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, all big fish in a decent-sized pond. Because of their size, though, catching those fish might be tricky. Don’t discount other companies and brands like Nascar or Speedway. Sure, manufacturers need imagery, but so do Midas International and Carstar.
As stated above, Auto Photographer Peter Dawson began his journey in landscape photography, utilizing the skills and experience from that specialty to start exploring automotive photography. This is possible because auto photography is inherently pretty broad. If you have a solid foundation in lifestyle, adventure, architecture, or landscape, you should first begin your education by incorporating vehicles into your photography.
The more integration you do, the more you can begin familiarizing yourself with the technical side of car photography. Peter says,
Car photography is inevitable highly technical. The more you learn about car retouching, compositing, and CGI processes so that it is second nature, it will become liberating rather than constraining. There’s a lot of technical know-how needed, but don’t get caught up in it.
One nugget of advice all our photographers agreed with was that experience was vital. Doing these shoots again and again will be the best way to build your skillset (sadly, not by reading this article). Another Los Angeles based auto photographer, Kelly Serfoss says,
Just do the reps and let your craft build daily. Experience is key. Before that? Small failures, and a bit of luck to avoid the big failures.
Clients looking for an automotive photographer should have a few essential requirements. The first is style. Within the automotive industry, style not only distinguishes between cars and brands but stories. When you’re selling a car, you’re selling an experience. You want to ensure that your photographer understands that experience and can represent it well.
The second is flexibility. Not only should you be able to roll with the punches, but you need to make sure your photographer can as well. During a big shoot, there can be an overwhelming amount of things a photographer needs to think about — the talent, location, weather, lighting, and deliverables, so being able to adapt and think on your feet if something isn’t going as planned is crucial.
The photographer will also ideally have access to a flexible and efficient crew that prioritizes doing things well rather than quickly. The process from mood board to finished product might seem hectic, so you’ll need people who can keep their heads and stay organized on a shoot with so many moving pieces.
And that brings us to pre-shoot, shoot, and post-shoot etiquette! Before the shoot, make sure to deliver a well-thought-out mood board and take the time to have a creative call with your photographer. This is an excellent opportunity for both you and the photographer to collaborate and gain insight. Then the photographer should meet with the producer to create an estimate, outline, shot list, and even scout or secure the location(s).
During the shoot, as stated above, try and stay flexible and trust your photographer. Give them clear and consolidated feedback so that you can both move forward quickly. Kelly Serfoss says
90% of my images are made in 10% of the time I’m on location. Going from brief to delivery is about listening and understanding the client’s needs and whether the job is about their taste, your taste, or a partnership.
After the shoot, post-production begins. This feedback and level of responsiveness will be invaluable to the photographer and the retoucher to refine the color, reflections, and other details.