The most common request I get via email and social media is "How do you shoot exotic cars with glamour models?". I have actually held two classes on this very subject, both in Houston in 2012 and 2013, but have yet to ever discuss it online anywhere. So, in lieu of a full online class on the subject, I've recently documented how I went about my most recent project in Houston with Chicago model Amanda Paris and a trio of European exotics at Potresse Automotive, and I will discuss a few past projects as well.
When working with an automobile outdoors, location is paramount to just about everything else about the project. Just like movie productions, location scouting is vital when working with cars outside so you can ensure the right angle and sun position for your planned shot. Of course, as a photographer, you aren't always given the luxury of extra time to prepare by the client, so improvising on location is common in order to deliver the job on schedule, and so you don't have to reschedule your team and the car owner. This is one reason why I try to work indoors with strobes when I specifically shoot a car with a model. That way I am fairly certain that the light situation will be in my full control, and that weather won't be a factor.
Finding just the right spot for an automotive shoot can be challenging, and finding the ideal portrait location can be as well. Mixing those two scenarios, doubly so. And even when everything is allegedly planned out, you still need to be able to think on your feet when dealing with large sets, expensive vehicles, and a team of set personnel who showed up to work that day. It is much more planning than most photographers realize, and poor planning will always negatively impact your end results - sometimes even nixing the whole project at the last second if you're not careful.
I never underestimate the planning process when I am shooting a car with a model. It is obvious that I am setting out to create fantasy images that showcase two genres of photography that many find appealing to look at, and therefore I plan it out in as much detail as I can. The most important thing I try to convey to photographers wanting to shoot cars is, don't ever underestimate what it is like to set and shoot vehicles. If you've never done it before, try this: Pack up your photo gear in your car, and drive said car around your neighborhood or city, and try to find great places to shoot it. Attempt several locations and shots and angles, then head home. You will have easily lost a couple hours of time, and will be more exhausted than you anticipated. Everything about a set involving a car is, quite simply, very big. If your current photography focus is portraiture, you will discover very quickly just how much walking around and moving occurs when you shoot a car.
You should also consider the car or cars a props on your glamour set. Styling, color coordinating and wardrobe are things I try not to take for granted when I am planning these projects. I've been criticized in the past for "making the car color and model wardrobe match too closely, too often", but that's the look I tend to like so I go with it (unless the client wants something else) and it seems to be a popular look of mine.
Furthemore, really try to get your head around the style, vibe and persona of the car you are working with. This will help you in determining your approach for styling the shoot when it comes to the model. For example (assuming the client didn't demand it) I would never shoot, let's say, a Rolls Royce Phantom with a model in a pink bikini. To me, that's no match found in the sense of styling. Whereas a model in a cocktail dress or even a fitted suit would be ideal for the theme that the Phantom sets by default. The location of such a shot would also be crucial, and I'd almost certainly opt for scouting outdoor locations in town for it as well.
First off, I totally get that not everybody has a shoot team always at their disposal, and often we find ourselves on set with no one else but the model and the car in question. That said, to really succeed when shooting glamour models with exotic cars, you really could stand to have one or two extra hands on set. The good news here is that there is never a shortage of people who want to be around exotic cars and glamour models, and you should be able to secure at least of couple of your friends (or, ideally, photographer associates) to help you on set. Now, that much be said, be sure to bring in set personnel who you feel you can truly trust around 6 and 7 figure automobiles. Apart from the fact that most photographers do not have enough insurance to cover the total destruction of an exotic car, these vehicles can put you out USD$5,000 for a fender replacement alone. So, if you've never done it before, and you do get permission to use high-end exotics for your project, remember it is never worth the risk to be lazy or careless on set. And as my own personal preference, I do not move the cars myself unless there is no other option, considering the liability in that.
Why such a focus on set personnel? It goes back to what I said about these sets being very large. The time you will lose moving a light or two (or eight) back and forth as you get your shot set up will add up exponentially compared to a simple portrait session. Don't overlook this detail, because often your lights are 5, 10, 15 or more meters away from you, and from each other. Also, because of this, having remote triggers on each light, plus control of the light settings from your transmitter, helps to speed things up on these larger sets.
These types of projects are, make no mistake, proper productions. To do it right, a significant effort has to be made across several fronts.
I firmly believe that lighting is not as crucial to a successful exotic+glamour project as the considerations already listed above. Sure, it is definitely important, but no amount of lighting is going to make an unplanned project, in bad location, at the wrong time, with sub-par set personnel go well. However, lighting is still much more important than simply what camera to use, and by a long shot. That said, this matter us brings squarely into yet another reason why shooting cars is so very different than shooting people.
For starters, cars are, for the most part, highly reflective. Even those with matte finished paint work still have glass windows and mirrors, and as it happens, light loves to reflect of shiny surfaces. So where to place your lights, and the type of modifiers you opt for, can make a big difference in not only how your shot ends up looking, but also how much editing you have to mess with later on in post. Assuming you have the freedom to do so, exploring strong angles in your lighting setups, along with your camera angles, will help you tons in minimizing copious amounts of reflections that need editing out. The truth is, even if you don't consider this going in, I guarantee you will notice when you do your first few test shots. There is no absolute rule on how to set your lights up, so you will need to experiment with many different approaches to this as you learn to light these scenarios.
The worst part, if you will, is that almost every set you find yourself on will vary, and every car you end up working with will vary, from project to project. What works one time may not work at all on the next, so it is vital to keep yourself constantly examining each situation and adapting as needed. This is why I bring a host of light modifiers with me when I shoot a car with a model. I don't always know what I will be dealing with, and need to have the flexibility to improvise.
Finally regarding lighting, the assumption I am making in this article is that most of us own lighting equipment geared mostly towards portrait work. As opposed to, let's say, being in a large commercial studio with a full corner cyc walls, 10 meter ceilings, track lighting systems, massive light banks, etc, which are all generally ideal for automotive and product work. The fact is, however, once you throw a model into the situation, several automotive lighting approaches are no longer ideal, and adjustments have to be made. As such, working with light modifiers generally used for portrait work is actually a great choice when shooting these genres together.
But, you must keep in mind that a 10x36 strip box with a grid, for example, creates a very small area of light when compared to the size of an average car, and the sets in which you shoot these cars in. This is why multiple lights are generally required for (controlled) lighting across the entire set. It is definitely not about "more is better", but more about "Using what is needed to get the shot you envision." In fact, one of the most common problems I see on images of cars with glamour models is hugely uneven light (a mistake I made the first time I attempted this, as well, years back.) Happily, it is often quite simple to attain an even look to your lighting. Generally, just stop over thinking it and just point a light at a wall, or a wheel, or even inside the car. Get creative! Move that light around your set and control it.
Camera & Lenses Considerations
And at the bottom of this list, though hardly unimportant, are your camera and lens. And right off the bat, the main point I hope to convey has to do with depth of field. A car is, obviously, quite a bit larger than a person. The average car length is something like 4-5 meters. This becomes a significant concern if your goal is to show the full length of the car in focus inside the depth of field range. Usually, when a model is in the shot, you have to make compromises with depth of field as it is not always possible to attain full focus across the entire length of a car when using longer focal lengths.
Depth of field is calculated, or affected by, three factors:
- Focal length
- Subject distance
So let's say you opt for your trusty 85mm prime for your exotic+glamour project because, hey, that's an ideal focal length for portraits. Right? You set up the car at a strong angle, place the model next to it off to the side, and start with a nice ƒ5.6 from about 6 meters away. Just like that, you have about 1 meter of depth of field, and that's it. If your goal was to have the car fully in focus, you have a problem now. Adjusting the power of the lights and/or the ISO to allow, say, ƒ22 would yield you almost 5 meters of depth of field, which would likely have enough acceptable sharpness for the length of the car (at a strong angle).
In most cases, a lot photographers wouldn't normally shoot a portrait at ƒ22 (yes I know sometimes ƒ22, and tighter, has its uses in certain types of portraiture, but stay with me here) but perhaps you will need to explore such apertures when trying to achieve the looks you are trying for when a massive automobile is on set.
One way to minimize this need for super tight apertures is to use wider focal lengths, as depth of field expands exponentially the wider you go. While this "solves" your aperture and depth of field concerns, you start to distort your image considerably the wider and wider focal lengths that you use. And while automobiles and architecture can often look amazing at 14mm, glamour models generally do not. So you need to find the happy medium that works, and that fits the style you are after.
My approach is less about the car, and more about the model. I use cars on set as props (unless otherwise requested by the client), and as such I set up my lights and select my focal lengths and target apertures to work with the model and the location and pose that they are in. That said, ƒ4 is about the widest I will open the aperture to if I want the car to be somewhat in focus (or very in focus), and I prefer to stay at 50mm or longer (on full frame bodies) when shooting exotic cars and models.
TIP: If you don't have a nifty depth of field calculator for your smartphone, download one right now. You may not ever use it on set, but playing around with it can help you understand how depth of field changes depending on these factors. Once you know that 85mm at ƒ22 from 6 meters gives you 4.82 meters of depth of field, and that 50mm at ƒ2 from 3 meters nets you 0.27 meters of depth of field, for example, you will start to estimate depth of field in your head when on set. Eventually become second nature, this will help you expedite your projects, but also ensure mistakes aren't made due to overlooked depth of field concerns on large sets.
In summary, you may find yourself well out of your comfort zone the first (and tenth) time that you attempt to shoot a glamour model with a car. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense why. These are quite different genres with quite approaches, and it is your job to marry it all together into a cohesive image. Ideally, one that doesn't feel forced or arbitrary. Now, when it comes to retouching these type of shots, well, there's always room for Part 2, so stay tuned for that.
And as an added bonus, my good friends James Stender and Andy Brown helped me to produce a 5 minute behind the scenes how-to video of my most recent project with Amanda Paris in Houston. Check it out:
Finally, here are the final shots depicted in the BTS photos in this article, plus some more examples of exotic car + glamour model images I've done, showcasing several different approaches.
Have fun, and watch those light stands near those USD$20,000 paint jobs!