How the digital age has change Automotive Photography


In a previous life, I was a magazine editor who had to carry a camera and take photos of cars for the print use. This was in the 90s. During that time, I was told repeatedly that shooting cars was the most difficult aspect of photography (analogue) because of how the lighting fell on the car on specific times of the day. In daylight, you can only shoot during the early hours of the rising or setting sun.

Shooting was a pain as you had to recce a suitable location in which to place the cars. That made the whole process even more difficult as it had to be done in advance, prior to getting the cars needed.

Then you have to wait for the weather of course. If that holds up, you have a shoot on your hands.

The process kept a lot of people at work. The whole photography business, even in a studio environment to shoot a car advertisement would cost in the ballpark of US$100,000. Photographers with large studios and strobe lighting were dominated by a few players. Film exposure had to be captured right and that was how the business was done.

I even met John Lamm, of Road and Track magazine once and spoke to him about his photography. He was essentially the man every guy wanted to emulate, photographing the latest cars for the hottest car magazine on the planet. This was the stuff that made college kids dream about being a professional photographer. The art, the skill and the know how was something you had to pick up over time because analogue is brutal when it comes to mistakes. There are no second chances if you fuck it up the first time.

The Great Digital Disruption

Of course when digital photography and Photoshop came along, things started to change. What made matters worst was that magazines started to cut budgets in view of the stuff you an already find on the Internet. Shooting cars wasn't a big deal anymore. Anyone could get the official pictures from the marques which look strangely like pictures taken off a digital workstation.

Looks real? Baby...this is a rendered image!
Advertising companies could even get files from the 3D modelling workstation and place that car in almost any imaginable background and blend that into photo realistic quality. Any other enhancements can be done in photoshop. Car photography, became what is later known as composite photography...where objects are added to to create an image.

But don't get me wrong, photographing cars still happen but not on the same scale as it would for shooting a Top Gear episode.

The decline of print magazines contributed to the decline of photographers working on such publications because suddenly, anyone can shoot cars. You didn't need a pro but just anyone with a camera with an eye for composition. I remember in the old days, we had to shoot covers for the magazine and this meant we had to shoot a car with the right composition to use. There must be room for text, and room for the masthead of the magazine. Heck, you don't need to do all that.

With digital, things got a lot easier. No more fussy with the photos, just ask the digital artist to render a background and drop the surgically clean official image from the car manufacturer into a blurred background. So many work arounds were available where you didn't need to incur the cost of a photographer. This meant that photographers did less specialised work.

Photographers had to play second fiddle to the digital artist who can literally create magic from the desktop.

What Can Photoshop do for You

Photoshop was a blast and it shows. Having a photographer to shoot a car of a different color didn't have to mean having three different colored cars had to be on set. Just shoot one and a digital artist will render a photo realistic color onto it.

This meant no more long hours in the photography studio. Just one shot, or one take with the perfect lighting and that's it. No more fussy around to recreate the look of the first car image of a different color. 

Better still if you have a photo realistic 3D vector of the car which you can tip around on its axis. You can have a different view by tilting the camera of the 3D program and render the image. Who needs a photographer now when everything can be done on a computer?

Digital photography suddenly didn't seem so great anymore when you have hyper realistic cars speeding around the track of a computer game. As long as a vector file of the car exist, you can have that rendered anywhere in the world and have pink elephants flying overhead for good measure. 

Digital has Levelled the Playing Field

Today, we don't need to go on location to shoot a car. You can render one by buying a cheap background image and blending the car in. Drop in the lighting shadow and you're done. 

The only thing that hasn't changed is that motor sports images still have to shot on track or in circuit. Beyond that, there is hardly anything that can't be done. I mourn the passing of a bygone era where the image was sacred. Hardly anyone notices this as many of you have never shot on analogue film. 

The decline of print journalism also contributed to the decline of automotive photography as less and less are paying attention to shooting a car that looks good. Publishers are unwilling to hire a photographer to shoot a unique image when they can already rip one off the Internet for next to nothing. Makes perfect cents doesn't it?