Counterpoint: same subject, different eyes

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If you’ve attended an MT Masterclass, you’ll have spent at least one session shooting the same subject(s) under the same conditions with MT. I’ve found this form of learning through osmosis quite effective as it allows me to deconstruct images and figure out what went right or wrong ex post facto. I spent a good portion of MT’s one thousand kilometers with the 2019 BMW M5, riding along as passenger. This included the one stop where all the pictures for both our posts were shot. Given that we both shot in the same 30-minute window with virtually the same gear (Z7 vs Z6) and a similar shotlist in mind, I thought it would be interesting to compare both sets to find areas for improvement and ideas to experiment with next time.

Before we jump into the images, let me lay out the scene of the shoot to provide some context. All of these images were shot at noon by the side of the road after a 350km+ drive – not what I’d call ideal conditions. We were early to our next meeting and had time to kill – this was not a preplanned shot. So, to summarise – less than ideal light, tight working space, limited gear and a dirty car. And aside from a Contax-Yashica 2.8/135 lens, MT and I were shooting with virtually the same gear (the resolution and DR differences between the Z6 and Z7 can be ignored at base ISO and these viewing sizes).

Even at a quick glance, you’ll notice that both our sets are primarily detail shots in monochrome. This was not premeditated but simply a consequence of the setting – the midday light plus less-than-ideal backdrop made close-up details the logical choice. We both defaulted to monochrome because there were too many colours in the frame (blue/cyan for the sky, green/yellow for the vegetation, yellow/red for the gravel – all reflected by the car).

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Above: My take on an environmental portrait of the car. Below: MT’s version.

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There is still one image that shows the entire car as it provides context for the entire set and acts as an anchor. Given the homogeneity of modern car design, it can be very hard to tell what car you’re looking at if only presented a set of detail shots. I chose to go with a wider shot with more environmental context since I liked how the transmission wire contrasted the curves of the hill and car and the extra space in front of the car alluded to the journey ahead.

Another fundamental reason for my choice of framing was perspective. Shooting a car is much like shooting portraits of a person – you have to pick your focal lengths with care. Too wide and you exaggerate the wrong features and do a disservice to your subject. On the other hand, if you go too far on the tele end, everything begins to look flat and you don’t have enough visual layering and separation from the background.The sweet spot for cars is between 70-180mm. Unfortunately, all I had on hand was the 24-70mm*, so my solution was to shoot the car from further out and include more context. MT’s solution was to swap to the Contax 135 or shoot in DX mode**.

*The purpose of our trip wasn’t photography which is why we travelled with minimal gear. But it is experiences like this that make us bring everything we could possibly need and then some during a commercial shoot.

**Since this wasn’t a commercial shoot and resolution didn’t matter, using the DX mode was smart and something I’m still kicking myself for not thinking of.

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Above: My image. Below: MT’s version.

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The next pair of images best highlight the differences between MT and myself – in my opinion. With sufficient practice and experience, it’s (relatively) easy to churn out an acceptable image that makes the best of the light at hand. A knowledge of the exposure triangle and the ability to find a workable composition is all you need really. My image is a good example of this – it’s clear that it was shot outdoors, in fairly strong daylight.

And then there is MT’s image shot under the same conditions. I was next to him when he shot this but I still remember my surprise when I saw the end result. This image looks like it was shot indoors, in a dimly lit space. There are almost no reflections that betray the surroundings and the curveball that throws you off is the headlights. You don’t expect someone to shoot with the headlights on while outdoors and in the middle of the day. In hindsight, it’s a simple image to execute but one that I would have never thought of. Whether this is a result of practice, experience or something more intrinsic is a discussion for another day.

In the interest of keeping this post a reasonable length, I won’t do anymore A-B comparisons but will go through some of the other takeaways from comparing both sets. Another area for improvement is in handling (and hiding) reflections. While I was aware of reflections while photographing, I only avoided the obvious ones and chose to let the unobtrusive ones through. MT on the other hand worked to find composition that have no reflections at all or a couple reflections that completely blend into the image.

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I’ve always been a little sloppy when it comes to cut points – you’ll notice that while MT’s frames always terminate neatly, I have several images where elements seem to be abruptly cut off. While you can correct for too much edge elements in post, there’s no simple solution when you have insufficient edge elements. This balance is particularly hard for me to achieve when using foreground out-of-focus elements like MT and I have in several images. Determining where to place your cut-off points at the time of capture is important, particularly if you want avoid cropping to frame after in post.

You’ll also notice that, in general, my images aren’t as clean as MT’s. Part of this is due to the reflections discussed above but a lot of it is also from not watching out for dust, dirt and smudges in the car at the time of capture or not retouching them out in post. This isn’t an issue if you don’t need dust free shots of the car but it is something to be aware of. If you want dust-free, cosmetically perfect images, it’s always easier to get rid of dirt and grime before capture than in post.

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It’s also worth looking at what MT and I did share in common while shooting the BMW M5. In general, it seems we found the same elements visually interesting; the mix of light and shadow on the interior, the ‘M5’ on the headrest with OOF wing mirror in foreground, the curve of the pillars against the carbon fibre roof, and the roof antenna mimicking the curve of the hill in the background. Given the amount of time we had to work, I would have been surprised if MT saw an angle or element in the car that I had not identified as well (execution is another matter, of course).

Considering this was my first time attempting to photograph a car, I was reasonably happy with my set. This comparison exercise has given me plenty of notes and ideas for next time. Exercises like this are particularly useful, because it helps me focus my efforts at areas that can use actual improvement. I don’t expect my photography to improve if I continue to shoot blindly. While you can improve muscle memory and reflexes with hours of shooting, your ability to think creatively when it comes to composition or execution are less dependent on how many hours you spend shooting.

On a tangential note, MT has written in the past about why, to be a specialist, you must first be a good generalist and I can vouch for this. Shooting a new subject like the BMW M5 gives me ideas for other subjects that I photograph regularly – like watches. You can’t always visualize or think of all possible lighting or composition choices, sometimes you stumble across them serendipitously while photographing something completely unrelated. Shooting the BMW M5 helped me figure out how to handle certain reflections while shooting watches, something I do on a regular basis.

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For those of you curious about my thoughts on the M5 as a petrolhead, I didn’t drive it myself. I know my limits as a driver, and the M5 is far far beyond what I could comfortably achieve on a public road. However, even as a passenger, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the M5 (and by extension, other performance sedans like the E63 AMG) is too much car for most drivers. In addition to the limits of the car being ridiculously high for a 4-door luxury sedan, there is an unexpected sense of disconnectedness.

It’s easy to forget how fast you’re going – doesn’t matter if it’s sideways or in a straightline. A fact that was hammered home when I caught myself sending emails, with no hint of car sickness, as the car was taking corners at three times the posted speed limit. This lack of drama leaves you wanting more and with a tendency to push the car harder and harder, until you hit the electronic speed limiter. I suspect it would be a lot more fun in RWD-only mode on a closed off track, but as a daily driver on average public roads it leaves me conflicted. To use a photography analogy, the M5 is like a Hasselblad H6D-100C – you know you can’t deploy all of its capabilities and it will cost you an arm, leg, kidney and first born, but you can’t help admire it and occasionally toy with the idea of trading in aforementioned organs and offspring.

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I hope you guys found this post interesting and I’d be curious to see if you can spot other difference or areas for improvement that I may have missed.

This series was shot with a Nikon Z6 and 24-70/4 S with available light in a single session.

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Images and content copyright Praneeth Rajsingh 2019 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Tom Gibbons says:

    Fantastic images guys. I just bought an E-Class estate, which I adore,
    but I must admit that the recent BMWs are INCREDIBLE. Please continue to document their good work

  2. Dear Praneeth, I just saw Ming’s photos and I feel the main difference in your two approaches is that you are mostly showing best details of the car whereas Ming is using the car’s details to build abstract and geometric interpretations. He’s pretty good at that. Which ones would end up being used in a commercial shooting? I guess both types of photos. One should try to cover all bases but curate the images according to its final use.
    I didn’t know he was so well versed in automobiles! I am sure you enjoyed the ride… I would have as I live in a boringly slow driving country!!

  3. Most interesting. The pictures really do tell the story.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You’re a braver man than I am, Gunga Din! I wouldn’t even attempt to take on Ming Thein – either as a photographer OR as a driver!
    LOL

    Praneeth, some of us learn in a school room by listening – others (like me) learn mostly by “doing”. And I agree with the thread – it isn’t as important WHAT you’re doing – it’s WHETHER you’re doing. Over the past couple of years I’ve learned a great deal more about digital photography than I ever knew 5 or 10 years back. And I’ve learned it by starting up different “projects” and pursuing them to the end of the road.

    That said – you have my sympathies most of the way through. I would agree with Ming on the first shot (LMAO – wasn’t it presumptuous, to say that?!) – mostly because I have to keep kicking myself to get the “crop” right in cam – sometimes I find I shot too low, sometimes off to one side, sometimes not enough space and sometimes I buggered up by including way too much. Most of the rest are pretty good – it was cool, camouflaging which were Ming’s and which were yours, by putting your tag on the bottom of all of them!

    And I think your shot of the driver at the end is way better than Ming’s attempt on a selfie stick! He hasn’t even got his left hand in the frame!

    • Hahaha! I’m not going to go anywhere near a selfie stick after my last attempts with the H5D a long time ago.

      But more seriously, I agree improvements are from doing rather than hypothesizing – like everybody else I know I started off rubbish; I occasionally look at the evidence to make sure I’m not deluding myself. But there’s no question practice and experience both make for both gradual improvement and occasional step changes when everything happens to come together.

    • Praneeth Rajsingh says:

      It’s a fine line between bravery and masochism ;).

      Good point about “doing” vs “listening/reading”, but there are two way to go about “doing” something I think. A lot of photographers, myself included, start off by trying to mimic the work of other famous photographers who we find interesting. The problem I’ve found with this approach is that you have no idea what went into the making of the image, you only see the final result. This skews your expectations and may lead to frustrating results. It’s a lot easier when you’ve seen someone in action and seen the work produced live.

  5. Very cool ! I like the idea of comparing MT’s approach with others : it helps a lot to understand key issues and things we have to take care of. Many thanks !

    • The real unsung hero is Praneeth’s selfless self introspection – he could have just as easily said ‘no big difference!’ :p

    • Praneeth Rajsingh says:

      Glad you found it useful! I find it’s a lot easier to evaluate my work and improvements when I have a benchmark or something to compare to. It’s a lot harder if I look at my work on its own without any other point of reference.

  6. SLightly out of topic, but what’s that glass frame Ming’s wearing?

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