Sunday, May 16, 2010

Car Photography: A letter to Randolph de Leon

Randy is a partially-blind photographer-hobbyist with a passion for cars. We met him at a workshop for the visually impaired that John conducted for his advocacy - "Photography with a Difference (PWD) - Touching Lives Through Photography." We learned that Randy loves cars, and if not for his impairment, would have wanted to be a race driver. Just for his own enjoyment, Randy shoots cars, especially during car shows. We invited him to our studio the other day during a shoot for Mitsubishi.

16 May 2010

Dear Randy,

I’m glad that you enjoyed your visit with us, and saw how car photography for advertising is done. Your own experience in shooting cars – in a photojournalistic style as you mentioned – is a good introduction but is not quite the same as doing photography for advertising, especially studio car photography. Our lighting has to be more studied, so I hope you did not get find our pacing too slow.

I suppose the two main differences between how you shoot cars and how we shoot is in how cars are lit and what angle or perspective they are taken.

Whereas, as you said, you depend on available light (or lights), we carefully decide each light or each reflection of a light that touches the car. 

Taking on a photo-journalistic style of car photography, you can afford to choose the angles or perspectives that look good to you, given the lighting condition present at where the car is, whereas our angle is dictated by the client or the art director (AD) in order to meet some advertising and marketing objectives.  This is why we cannot even begin to arrange lights until we have set up the car (or part of the car) according to the layout required by the AD. We cannot deviate from that perspective because it is that side or part of the car that they want to "sell." So we can say that you have more freedom in choosing your angle or perspective, since you shoot for your own pleasure while we, on the other hand, enjoy the exacting challenges of specific objectives.

Car photography for print advertising is so precise that it has developed its own jargon. We indicate how we will set up the car by measuring the proportion of the bumper (from the left to the right side of the front or rear of a car, in relation to the length of the vehicle – 1:2, 1:2.5, 1:3 etc.), we indicate the angle – front perspective, rear perspective, full frontal, full rear, perfect profile – the last three also being referred to as dead front, dead rear or dead side; we have to define the camera position - worm’s eye view, eye level (since I am a head shorter than John, we still “argue” which “eye” level), or top view – and the many variations, to the left or right, higher or lower, more head on or somewhat oblique, of all these positions. We have also different terms for the lighting contrasts that we want to achieve.

As you may have noticed, after we set up the car according to the required perspective or camera angle (the AD brings what we call a compre – a guide for the photographer for the kind of image he has to produce), that is the only time that we can add our lights, reflectors, gobos etc. one by one, so that we can produce a beauty shot. Since a car has highly reflective surfaces, we cannot just turn our lights on, as doing so will produce "hot spots." Instead, we often turn our lights towards reflectors (including that giant reflector that hangs from the ceiling, and all the curved walls of the studio), so only the lights’ reflections produce what are seen as highlights on the car. On the other hand, some dark materials are placed at strategic places to help create “shadows.” Highlights and shadows are what actually create the shape or contour of the car, photographically speaking. By painstakingly controlling light, a car photographer is also able to bring out details or provide drama – making the photograph a unique visual rendition of a particular car. As you were able to observe – studio car photography is no mean task.

I remember the first time that we ever shot a car inside a studio (a rented one (RS Video in Paranaque), a few years before we built our own in 1992). The client asked me how many set ups John could do in a day, so they could decide how many days to rent the studio, and added that they had five layouts – all complete shots of cars. Very confidently, John, who had only shot cars outdoors until then, said that he could finish all five set ups in one day.

We went to the studio the day before to assess the situation and what would be required. That studio had a ceiling elevation equivalent to three storeys, and had catwalks all around. It did not have the curved cyclorama or the huge reflector from the ceiling that we now have. In order for us to bounce lights off reflectors, we had to cut our roll of seamless white paper into sheets of 8 feet wide, and maybe 9’ or 10’ long, and tape one end to a long water pipe). We needed about three of those, each being manipulated by two men, according to John’s instructions. Since they were on the 3rd-story level catwalk, John had to shout his instructions (for subsequent shoots, we later bought several sets of walkie-talkies). In addition, we needed more assistants to help set up lights that would be “bounced” on those reflectors.

We also came prepared with car cleaning materials like chamois (which does not leave lint on the surface of the car), including Armor All for putting a nice shine on the car body and giving tires a rich black hue. We also had several cans of dulling spray for controlling hot spots.

High-end digital photography was still more than a decade away, so we were shooting with 4x5 color transparency films and Polaroid or Fuji instant print films.

We started setting up at eight in the morning. Experimenting with the lighting before the clients came later in the afternoon, we exposed sheet after sheet of Polaroids. They came before we were satisfied with our first layout. They looked at the set up, and looked at the Polaroids, and pointed to several “hot spots.” “No,” they said, “you cannot just use dulling spray on those hot spots because that will take out the sheen or shine of the car exterior.”

So we moved lights and reflectors around. As we did, the controversial hot spot disappeared, but before we could cheer, we discovered it popping somewhere else.

It was close to midnight and we still had not done our first set up. John motioned me to approach him. In a whisper that still loudly betrayed his fatigue and frustration, John asked me to tell the client that he had made a mistake. Shooting cars inside a studio was a challenge too big a bite for him to chew. “Offer to return their down payment, and to pay for damages, offer to pay the studio rental. And tell them, I am sorry but I can’t do this job.” I could not distinguish his tears from his sweat, but the pain of defeat was very palpable.

I approached the client and the art director and repeated what John said almost word for word. To my surprise, the client said no, they would not let John give up. They then told me, holding the latest of the many Polaroids, that it was the best car shot that they had ever seen, and there was just one hot spot that we needed to work on. They asked me to ask John to tell them how many more days we needed to rent the studio, and instructed me to charge extra for all the Polaroids we’ve used.

I returned to the corner where John was – seated on the floor, looking really exhausted. I repeated what the client said, and he could not believe his ears. Something in him immediately lit up, and together we gathered our crew. We explained our assessment and our client’s decision. John told them that since the client was renting the studio for at least another day, they could decide if they wanted to rest and start again the next day or if they wanted to continue. Jun Tolin, his assistant, threw back the question at John. “Sir,” he said, “it’s up to you. If you need to rest, we will rest, but if you want to continue working, then we will be working with you.” John took a deep breath and said, “We’re almost there, so let’s do it – let’s finish this first set up. Let’s not rest until we’ve done this.” With that, they went back to work, with renewed energy and inspiration.

In less than half an hour, they produced a Polaroid that client was happy to sign. YES! “Let’s shoot film,” and John took out the Polaroid adapter and slipped in the transparency film holder for the first of about ten to fifteen sheets of Kodak Ektachrome 4x5 film. 

The second wind was blowing. Moving more confidently after that first “accomplishment,” John set up the car for the second layout, and rearranged the lights to match the new angle.  Before the crack of dawn, he had finished another set up.

We agreed to return to RS Video to continue the rest of the set ups at five that afternoon. The client only had to rent the studio for one more day.

Fast forward to year 1992 when we built the first studio for still car photography in the Philippines, year 2000 when we invested in a PhaseOne digital back, 2003 for the second car studio on Enrique Street, and on to the present, 2010. John has been doing car studio photography for more than two decades now, and can expertly light a car set up in about one or two hours. He has read books, watched videos, attended workshops, learned from foreign car photographers, and experimented with his car photography to know which combination of lights, diffusers, reflectors, gobos – will give him the exact lighting effect or “feel” that an art director requires. He knows which lens to use to bring the car proportions – sleek or sporty - required for a car print ad or brochure.  He is familiar with different car cleaning materials. He jokes that we can set up a car cleaning and detailing shop – except that we only know how to work on the side of the car that faces the camera! J

While designing the studio specifically for the requirements of car photography has greatly helped in reducing the manpower requirement (he can shoot a car with two assistants, instead of 8 to 10), the need for a catwalk (unless he is doing a high angle shot), and the use of seamless papers as reflectors, John has also accumulated tons of car photography experience from years of experimenting with lights, reflectors, gobos, cameras and lenses to make him truly a master at car photography. Yet, he continues to find ways to bring his car photography to a higher level, and surprisingly, to share what he knows with other photographers.

John has taught another photographer, G-nie, all he knows about car photography in the 18 years that she worked with us. Since she has since moved on to work abroad, John is now devoting his time to mentoring our daughter, Kathy. Just as G-nie’s learning curve in shooting cars was reduced drastically by having John as her teacher, we know that Kathy will learn it too – not in a day, a week or a month – but in the right amount of time that John can compress more than 20 years of doing car photography.

There are more challenges to face. John is constantly reinventing himself, in car photography or in other aspects of advertising photography.

Randy, John invited you to watch him and Kathy at work because you had expressed a great interest in car photography. And even though John and I did not want to raise your hopes too highly about shooting at our shoot (John even asked you not to bring a camera or a companion – we are under contract that dictates strict confidentiality – this is after all, advertising), I approached our client and explained who you were, and why you have such a deep interest in cars. I told him what you told me - that as a child you wanted to be a race driver, and that your disability (of partial visual impairment) has not diminished your passion for cars.

Our client, Arlan Reyes of Mitsubishi, must have been impressed with your knowledge of cars that he allowed you to shoot and even gave you permission to post your shots on Facebook.  Congratulations. It’s very easy to see that passion has brought all of us together. I hope you enjoyed your visit.


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