On Assignment: shooting a car

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It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these – partially because of respect for client embargos, partially because my recent assignments have been so hectic that I haven’t had time to pause for breath let alone b-roll; however, I’m hoping to rectify that today with a report from one of my larger recent shoots. In Malaysia, Nissan is phasing out the current 2013 Teana to make way for the all-new 2014 model. I was brought in originally with the intention of consulting on the 2014 campaign creative direction and shoot for the new car, however, at the last moment I got roped into the final campaign for the current car, too. And that shoot will be the subject of today’s post.

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Setup for the front shot; naked speedlights provide main lighting and some directionality. The rear strip box forms a long continuous line defining the back of the car, which is jacked up so they can rotate the tyres into position with the Nissan logo facing upwards – attention to detail!

This is the first time I’ve photographed a car under studio conditions. Interestingly, I was hired precisely for that reason: the client wanted something different from the normal stuff; I was told to photograph it like I’d photograph a watch. Obviously, a very, very large diffuser cube is impractical, so we had to find ways to work around this. The size of the car and the perspectives dictated by the car’s proportions and lines meant that we were working with 85-100mm most of the time – for a car plus a little background, that’s nearly 20m of working distance x 7m for the width of the car itself; not forgetting ceiling height for the lighting installations. Finding a suitable space proved very challenging indeed; only at the 11th hour did we manage to secure an empty factory lot.

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Setup for this shot in action; daylight knocked out by small aperture and fast shutter speed.

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Rear setup. Big skylight panel to diffuse the chrome trim on the back of the car to composite into the main shot; held in place by voice activated light stand.

The brief was elegance and craftsmanship; I worked with the agency here to refine a 3-image concept that linked the car with a detail and some element of mastery. There were a few variations on this – I believe the client used three in the end; I haven’t seen the final artwork, but I believe they were put together in a logical order.

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Interior. What appears to be a deceptively simple shot…

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…actually required some elaborate and careful wrapping of the exterior windows to serve as diffusers; wrinkles in the cloth show!

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And then we had to hang an SB900 on a sync cord out of a window in order to trigger the other speedlights, since they were blocked by the diffusion material. Also, let’s just say that fitting the tripod (my usual Gitzo 5562 and Arca-Swiss Cube) in there was a bit of a challenge…

I initially wanted to do this shoot with the ‘Blad, CFV-39 and Profoto D1 heads; however, we ran into a small snag: no power on location, and a limited supply of Acute battery packs. In the end, I reverted to using the D800E plus a small pile of speedlights, which turned out to be a good choice for both easy adjustability and flexibility of layout; there’s no way we’d have been able to fit a couple of monoblocks and diffusers inside the car for one of the images.

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Setup for side view – central support leg was moved between shots, then the two halves composited.

Even so, there were some challenges – the ceiling was so high that we had to construct a flimsy scaffold out of autopoles and C-stands to hold the striplights; it wasn’t long enough to cover the whole car and get out of the way, so I shot it in halves and merged them afterwards in PS. Some chrome elements had to be lit separately and composited afterwards – there are obviously a lot of reflective surfaces on a car, and most of them don’t face in the same direction; there’s no way you can use a single source, and multiple simultaneous sources are challenging because you’ll inevitably get a reflection of something where you don’t want it.

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Engine detail. Bonnet removed, single speedlight in a softbox from above.

Before going out and executing, I spent some time in the studio with a small model (1/43, providing some interesting size challenges of its own with light control, not dissimilar to photographing watches) and the speedlights to figure out the best lighting configuration for the car; it also meant client approval of angles was a lot more straightforward. The two main challenges were to highlight the car’s beltline fold and visually shorten the long front/ rear overhangs by breaking them up with a darker portion after the wheelarches; controlling directionality and spill of the speedlights was very important. I think you’ll agree that the final product looks quite a lot like the initial trials!

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The second portion of the shoot – details and the talents at work – was fairly easy by comparison; we mostly ran with a simple setup of one main light and one catchlight to maintain the same mood. I also discovered that pottery was quite a lot of fun…

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The tailor

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Single light in strip box from top right, gridded.

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Setup for the watchmaker shot.

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Two variations. One light overhead and to the right for both images; fast shutter and small aperture to knock out the background, and a large black foamboard for insurance.

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Lighting setup and talent practice

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Prop preparation

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End result: main light from the left, small hard fill from the right, undiffused. Various flags and gobos to prevent odd shadows from the arms.

Would I do anything differently for the next time? Yes; I need more light control – not power (though you can never have too many watt-seconds) – another two or three strip boxes and speedlights would have let me do some interesting things. A completely dark location and more open brief gives me some ideas for light painting. And I’d like to push the creative experimentation even further…MT


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  1. beautiful! how many speedlight used for this assignment especially on the 1st picture?

  2. Really love this.

    I have the d1 lights and 1×4 softboxes… never thought to mount them as you did to get the light coming straight down on the side of the car. Thanks for sharing.

  3. You were brave to take on this shoot … and resourceful and talented to pull it off!

  4. Just WOW! 🙂

  5. Nice post, Ming. Thanks for sharing. Shooting cars is not my usual thing, but several years ago I did have a job shooting one in a studio. We had the luxury of a full cyc and a large remote-control adjustable overhead lightbank. Really enjoyed peeking “behind the curtains” at the approach you used under different circumstances. Very effective!

  6. Ingenuity , creativity , and improvisation combined with hard work ( the bit other photographers leave out!) makes for a brilliant set of images,truly superb.
    (I guess someone has to ask, and as a huge fan of your watch photography for years – which movement is that? I can’t recognise…)

  7. jbjorge1@hotmail.com says:


  8. Interesting read as always and it was neat to see the behind-the-scenes photos. It looks like you were using Nikon’s CLS to trigger your flashes and ran into the issue of needing line-of-sight when you were inside the car. Is CLS your preferred off-camera flash triggering method over a radio system such as Pocketwizards?

    • Pocketwizards are hideously expensive and non-TTL. The CLS system lets me control output of the remotes easily from on camera. This is important when your flashes may be 15 feet in the air on the end of a pole, and attached to some precariously suspended light modifiers…

  9. You did a nice job. Thanks for sharing the process with us.

  10. Wonderful work. Really fantastic stuff.
    Do you use a 3rd party focusing screen when shooting the Zeiss glass on your d800e?

    • I will once it arrives…order fulfilment is terrible.

      • Katzeye?
        I’ve been shooting a lot lately with the Voigtlander 40mm f/2.0, and really like it, and keep kicking around the idea of picking up some Zeiss glass, but still getting comfortable w/MF without a split screen. I really hope you’ll post once you receive and get some frames in…

        • No, they don’t have one for the D800E. Some Taiwanese outfit called focusingscreen.com – all I get are notifications of delays in shipping.

          Note that a split prism screen is only useful if your mirror alignment is properly calibrated to begin with (and it will probably require recalibration again after installing the new screen, especially if the thickness is slightly different).

  11. Iskabibble says:

    What the heck is a “client embargo”?

    • When you photograph a new product far in advance of the official launch or campaign and then can’t release the images before that date (for obvious reasons)

      • Iskabibble says:

        AH! Ok, that makes sense. Thanks for the education.

        • No problem. The trouble is one the embargoes are raised, I’m often several jobs down the line and it’s no longer interesting, or I realize I was too busy/ forgot to take B roll for the behind the scenes stuff…

  12. I have to echo all the other comments about what a treat it was to see what you do behind the scenes. The photos look great too! Did you have to do any compositing on the Z4 pictures?

    • Yes, for the lights (exposure differences) and some chrome elements (reflections – what worked for the badges/ trim strips lighting-wise didn’t work for the car and vice versa).

  13. It’s a nice idea to include behind the scenes photos. Great work, hopefully we get to see the final outcome. By the way, what is the relation of the watch/pottery to the car?

    • I’ve got to try getting a copy from the agency. Though knowing how agencies typically butcher images…I’m not sure I want to see.

      Watch/pottery/tailor – the idea of craftsmanship was the theme of the campaign…

  14. Super-Hyper-Interseting ! Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  15. Hey Ming I can’t seem to find any of those voice activated light stands at the B&H site!
    I need to get me one of those. How about a link! Ha ha!

    Seriously, very inspiring work displayed. The images are amazing, but what really impressed me were the limitations that you faced and overcame. The average shutter monkey has no appreciation for the skill, inginuity, and vision it takes to execute at the level you displayed regardless of the limitations. Thanks for sharing. Like I said, very inspiring!

  16. Great work, what the word “Teana” means? Thanks.

  17. Great shoot! If you don’t mind me asking, how long did the car shoot take? Between moving a car and setting all those lights, it must have taken a good bit of time.

  18. Very cool – good insight on what goes behind the scenes – photos look fastastic

  19. Slightly unrelated – a patient of mine is a writer and lecturer in horology and travels all over the world to give talks on watches. I showed him your watch portfolio online and he directed me to the photos of Guy Lucas De Peslouan, who he states is the best watch photographer in the world. Now, I’m no expert but I think his work holds up to yours. Or yours to his 😉

    • I’m afraid to say that’s because he always seems to put the watch in one of the same five positions. Do anything a thousand times and you *should* be pretty good at it…I still believe the mark of a good photographer is the ability to excel at a diverse range of subjects and techniques.

      • “I still believe the mark of a good photographer is the ability to excel at a diverse range of subjects and techniques.”

        I believed the same thing about another domain, i.e. that someone with very good talent would be able to make it virtually their routine business of regularly taking on new challenges with new subject matter and executing well. I had conceived that the ability to do so was an even greater indication of skill, intelligence, and understanding, than specialization.

        But as you wrote elsewhere on this site, people HATE generalists.

        • But as you wrote elsewhere on this site, people HATE generalists.

          They – clients – think they hate generalists. But the trouble is it’s what they actually need for the job they want done: unless you’re doing something that can only ever be done correctly in very few ways (surgery, perhaps), some external experience is required for creativity. I suppose the trick is to present as a specialist, but in reality be a generalist. In any case, the fundamental principles of photography like light and composition are completely subject-independent anyway.

  20. Tis the season for sharing and giving and you certainly went above and beyond on this one Ming. Wow…just wow…thank you.

  21. I have only recently discovered you when looking for reviews on the Sigma DP cameras and have been mightily impressed with your photography and your writings.
    This blog is superb and having earned a small part of my living from photography ( photographing fabric,carpet samples and Jewellery ) I can really appreciate the effort that has gone into this shoot. Great stuff and interesting read.
    Very glad I signed up to your blog/newsletter.

  22. Great work ! thanks for sharing your tips and technique !

  23. Wonderful work! The results are stunning.

  24. Next time I read some brainless teenage girl going on about “I got a camera and now I’m a pro, how much should I charge people?”, I think I’ll refer them to this article to show them what if actually takes. The car shots are impressive enough, but the shots of the artists are tremendous. I already have a healthy respect for good photographers, and seeing this kind of stuff only increases it.

  25. Fascinating insight MT! Fantastic work, and so interesting to see the thought processes going on behind the artistry, thanks for sharing 🙂

  26. Thanks for sharing… Very enriching!

  27. Michael Matthews says:

    Thanks for all the detail. Unlike the huge, specialized studio sets with 20-foot hanging soft lights you’ve managed to do it all with a bunch of speedlights and cloth in an empty warehouse. Such an inventive use of skill.

  28. It’s really wonderful you are willing to share some BTS although most people consider shooting architectural and automotives are well… expensive and high trade secrets, no regret following your blog and purchased your tutorial Ming. Thanks.

    • Well, like photographing watches…the theory is one thing, application is quite another. You need vision and then the experience to execute; a small movement of lights in any direction makes a big difference. And with something as large as a car, the placement and setup has to be planned well in advance because it’s really not easy to move things around afterwards.

  29. Just beautiful work all around and such a cool view into how you make it happen, Ming! Such respect! Honestly, it looks kind of stressful! Bravo!


  1. […] car, new challenge. Some of you will recall an earlier On Assignment post where I shot this car’s predecessor; this time the client wanted to push the visuals a bit further than the last car but still maintain […]

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