Pro's Choice: Peter Dawson Takes Cars On The Road: Meeting The Unique Challenges Of Shooting Cars Outdoors
Philippe Halsman, in his book Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas, talked about an ad he’d shot, where he had to show a car making a splash as it was driving through a water-filled trough. But rather than give it the traditional treatment of the day, he sought to make a real splash with the picture, so he lit it differently. Shooting at dusk, he positioned flashbulbs so they hit the “wings,” as he called them, from each side. Like Halsman, photographers specializing in automotive are finding ways of introducing unusual and unique twists to make the shot stand out. Peter Dawson is one such automotive photographer who takes a particularly keen interest in dealing with challenges outdoors, on location.
Los Angeles based, Dawson studied photography at Brooks Institute and found himself shooting for the music and entertainment industries after a short stint as an assistant. One of his passions had been landscapes, and, when he started to show this work to potential clients, they suggested these landscapes would make very convincing backdrops for cars shot on the road. So in 2007, Dawson began shooting cars for editorial and advertising clients, while using his continually growing library of backdrops to lend these shots a defining atmosphere.
Camera Gear Of Choice
In school, Dawson shot with a Nikon and 4x5 Horseman. But he soon gravitated to medium format, renting a Contax 645 for jobs. He still used the Nikon for portraiture.
“I transitioned to digital shortly after I started shooting cars. Automotive photography requires a lot of postproduction, layering numerous files to bring out various aspects in a vehicle. Film proved too costly and time-consuming. So I switched to a Canon EOS 20D at the time.” Now Dawson works with an EOS 5D Mark II for editorial and low-budget advertising shoots. With the 5D Mark II, he uses a 50mm f/1.2L and a 24-70mm f/2.8L.
For his big-budget advertising work, Dawson shoots with a Phase One P 45+ or P 65+, on either a Hasselblad or Phase One body, converting Raw files in Capture One. Lenses for medium format are the 80mm and 50mm. “On big jobs, we work with a production company and digital tech, who brings the camera, back, lenses, and computer to the job site. The digital tech is also in charge of making sure all this gear is properly set up, and he manages the files as we’re shooting.”
Available Light Plus Strobe
Because electricity is unavailable at most sites, Dawson largely relies on battery-powered Profoto Pro-7b systems, which he rents. “I shoot with a lot of natural light, mixing strobes in to highlight certain parts of the car.” He adds: “I use Profoto white beauty dishes with grids frequently to highlight tires and anything that’s not just metal.” You won’t find a softbox or umbrella on his sets.
“Every once in a while I’ll use a 6-foot Kino Flo single tube fluorescent at night to add a linear highlight to paint in lines in a car.” That requires a Honda generator. And every so often he’ll pop a Canon shoe mount if he just needs a subtle hint of light. HMI lighting is rare because “it’s a hassle, and just unnecessary for the most part.” On the one or two occasions Dawson did use HMIs, it was to light an expansive backdrop that was essential to the shot as part of the original ambiance of the set. “Sometimes I’ll use a 4x8-foot white card for certain sections of chrome on the car, especially the grille.”
Whether it’s an advertising or editorial shoot, the client generally comes to the table with a concept and a location in mind, notes Dawson. “Land Rover really likes to show their vehicles tackling challenging terrains, while still appearing stylish and refined. On one shoot we were in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and Kodiak Island, Alaska, on another. I’ve also shot Ferraris in Central Italy, which was fun.
“On editorial shoots, they’ll give you a visual treatment and a description of what they’re looking for. In cases where I’ve previously worked with an AD, he may leave me to my own devices. With commercial and advertising, there’s always an AD looking at everything and you’re making decisions together on what to do.”
Dawson notes: “Being able to communicate each step along the way is vital so that all involved are on the same page. I have found that being a good retoucher has helped me immensely in being able to assemble quick composites on set, and that helps us all communicate more effectively.”
Advertising jobs are routinely shot with the camera on a tripod, either a Gitzo or Manfrotto, when the car is stationary. When the car is moving, the camera goes on a carbon-fiber rig—to show motion. The rig consists of a long arm to which the camera is attached. A production company is responsible for attaching the rig so that it’s not visible in the frame (a tiny bit perhaps, but retouching takes care of that). Setting the camera on a tripod beforehand helps establish the shooting angle for when the camera is moved to the rig, where it remains fixed in place.
“The rig is so solidly constructed that the camera stays in perfect relation to the car. The thing is that the car is not going 30 mph—it’s literally moving at a crawl or being pushed. The car might move a total of 3 or 4 feet during a 4- or 5-second exposure.”
For editorial, Dawson may sometimes shoot car to car, in which case the camera is handheld, with one vehicle pacing the other.
Dawson offers this advice: “When shooting car to car, the main challenge is finding a smooth stretch of road to minimize vibrations in the car and in my camera, while still making the shot visually appealing, with a good background. The other challenge with shooting motion car to car (instead of on a rig) is finding the right combination of car speed and shutter speed. This combination allows the road to blur nicely and the wheels to spin, but minimizes any other vibration which would make the car appear blurry. Using as wide a lens as possible also helps.
“On advertising shoots a challenge I often run into is that the angle of the car in the shot is often set and unwavering, and that dictates focal length. Once we have the art director’s approval, the camera is locked in place. That also goes for the lighting. And when natural light is involved, you have to literally predict where the light will be when you start shooting.”
To see more of Peter Dawson’s work, visit www.peterdawson.net.
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