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Automotive Photography 3: Concepts


John Jovic

A good automotive image starts well before any cameras or lenses see the light of day. If the aim is to create an engaging image, one that attracts the viewers attention for more than a fraction of a second, or just one that is aesthetically pleasing, then it's probably more important to have a suitable idea or concept than it is to simply get all the technical photographic details right. A good idea executed poorly could potentially make for a more interesting or memorable image than a bad idea executed meticulously.

Most styles or types of photography are all about the subject matter itself, portraits, landscapes, still lifes etc. The subject itself, and it's nuances, is often enough because it is the entire content of the image. Expressions and poses in portraits, lighting in still lifes or landscapes, context or juxtaposition can all be used in a myriad of ways to highlight the subject or to express meaning. But with automotive photography the subject is largely the same, it's just another car, but a different style, shape, colour. However, car's certainly do have their own character or style, even personality, and they certainly do vary a lot. Vintage, Hot Rods, Customs, Exotics, Muscle Cars, Collectibles and race cars are just a few examples of types or cars with distinct characters. Each of these has it's own style or feel that needs to be addressed in any image otherwise the image may not work or even clash with the viewers perception of the cars personality. If you can portray the car faithfully, bring an idea to life or maybe tell a story then you will have done well. If you come up with a truly original idea then you have done something special.

Clichés and crowd pleasers

The thing about clichés is that they are understood by the vast majority and in many ways are just plain old 'crowd pleasers'. Rig shots, panning and tracking shots come to mind as they really can be a bit boring, mainly due to compositional limitations, but people like to see them. Being too different or experimental might be very satisfying to yourself but will it please the client? Some times the simple clichéd image, like a sunset shot in the country, is the one that the client wants or that suits the look of the car.
This image is arguably quite plain, having a simple country feel, but it is definitely very effective at making the car the star of the show thanks to contrasting colours and very simple and clean fore ground and background.  

Here's a simple and clichéd sunset shot in the country. It's a simple image that suits the style of the car and works well.

Another cliché, the retro ute at an old servo or petrol station.  

Rig shots, panning and tracking shots are commonly used to portray speed, action, performance and are great at giving the viewer a sense of being there behind the wheel.

Another common theme is the 'country-drive', particularly in 'new car' magazines. It's simple and everyone can relate to it. Here the age or style of the car doesn't clash with the location itself which doesn't really imply very much of a meaning of it's own.  

The location itself doesn't always impress any particular meaning to the image. As an example, this is almost the same image as the one on the left. Although the 2 cars are very different, in age and function, both styles of car work well quite well in this setting. The same would apply to many other locations where the viewer can apply their own understanding of the context, rather than the location apply any particular meaning to the image. That's the advantage of simple locations such as this.

All of the above images are fairly simple images that work quite well and suite the style and feel of the car. One of the most important aspects of finding an idea that works is to find one that the viewer or client will actually 'get'. This is where we can often go wrong as photographers because we often shoot to please ourselves, which is fine if that's the goal, but some times it's at the expense of an image that really works.

Always have a plan

Having a great idea is one thing but making it a reality is another. For example, shooting a Hot Rod in front of a 50's Diner is a common and popular theme but finding such a Diner is simply impossible in many parts of the world. In fact, even if you do have access to one you will need to negotiate it's use with the owners and possibly have to pay for it's use (consider also that it would need to be free of other cars that would potentially ruin the shoot). This is fine if the image is being shot for a commercial use, where it's normal to have to pay for the use of a location, but it's not always possible in normal circumstances. Many times a good idea just costs too much. The moral is not to 'aim low' but to be realistic and, more importantly, to be flexible and always looking for options. Always have a plan, but try to have a 'plan B' as well. If you go into a shoot with an idea in mind then you're way ahead already.

This image is an example of an image post processing style to give the image an aged feel. The location suits the age of the car. Post processing alone is not enough and would not have worked if the style of the location didn't suit the rest of the image. The store in the background is in fact only 1 year younger than the car itself.  

Here a similar style vehicle was shot sympathetically to it's age and style, albeit in a completely different way.

This image is another example of an image post processing style to give the car an aged feel. Again the location suits the age of the car. Post processing alone is not enough.  

Modern locations like this rooftop car park usually suit similarly modern cars. These types of locations are commonly used in advertising campaigns, usually with city skylines in the background, to show off the latest model.

This cars quarter mile time was 'light painted' into the image using a simple hand held torch during a long exposure. It reveals the otherwise hidden character of the car. The next best way to have shot this car would be at a drag strip, in action.  

Shooting a modern car in a grungy location certainly says something about the car. The occupants are clearly not on their way to a black tie ball. Customised modern sports cars are given a nasty edge when shot in such locations.

Some times a car is quite unique and may call for an unusual concept or theme. The result won't always work but it can be these odd cases that give you the most interesting images as long as you are willing to get out there, experiment and try new things, locations, lighting compositions etc.

A cemetery is generally the wrong place to shoot any car, due to the association with cars and death, but the 'otherworldly' graphics and theme of this car lent itself to being shot in one.  

The image of the owners was double exposed over the image of their cars to give them a ghost like appearance and match their personalised plates.

Oranges where purchased for this shoot to suit the personalised plate of the car.  

This was not a pre-planned image, there is no concept or theme. The containers where simply available so were used. The resulting images are truly unique and worth trying.

It's true that you don't always need a concept or great idea but the viewer shouldn't be left confused either, wondering what just happened. Mismatched styles of car and location lead to confusion. For example, what is being suggested when an exotic car like a Lamborghini or Ferrari is photographed in an old rail yard? Is there a corpse in the boot about to be dumped, was the car stolen and dumped there, why would it be there at all? The same kind of mismatch can also work the opposite way where an old car is photographed in a modern location. The images might still be aesthetically appealing but the clash might also be too much of a distraction in itself.

This modern location clashes with this car from the '80's. The car is fine. The location is fine. They just don't look good together. However a modern car would look great here.  

This is another example of an interesting location but one which doesn't connect in any way with the style or character of the car. The image is difficult to relate to and understand. There is no underlying concept or idea behind the shoot, just an interesting location.


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