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Capture Motion in Car Photography with these Shot List Tips

Tips & Tricks

Interested in car photography? Jim Frenak, lead photographer at FPI Studios, recently shot the new 2014 Chevy Impala for Chevy’s West Coast PR blog. Read about how FPI Studios got the shot by pre-planning with a shot list and employing a couple of popular techniques for capturing a sense of motion. From the original blog post by  Jim Frenak (and edited by Sara Leeper), reprinted with permission:

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GM was looking for a combination of beauty shots as well as photos of the car in action.

Shooting for GM

As we have done many times in the past with GM vehicles, the crew at FPI Studios and I were recently asked to photograph the new 2014 Chevy Impala. The main purpose of these photos is for distribution to all of the media outlets to support any news or editorial stories that are written about the vehicle.

Typical of other vehicle shoots, GM was looking for a combination of beauty shots as well as photos of the car in action. They wanted to present the car in an urban setting and a more natural location. It’s very important that the images define the cut-lines and body sculpting that make the new Impala so distinguishable. Then GM threw in one more caveat…

Since the Impala that we were shooting was a pre-production car, there were a couple of rules that we had to follow. First, the car could only travel on private or closed roads. If it drove on public roads, we needed to close them down and hire police officers to block traffic. This severely limited the number of possible locations to shoot the car. Second, the car couldn’t be driven from one location to another. For each location change, we needed to load the car onto a car hauler and move it to the next spot.

So with our marching orders, we spent several days scouting the Phoenix area looking for great locations to shoot that met our criteria. It may sound easy, but quite honestly it’s one of the most difficult parts. The location has to have the proper background without any building or light posts reflecting in the paint, and it must be possible to close it down from public use. We were denied access to more locations than we were granted, but we found enough places to make it work.

2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ

The perfect time to get the ideal lighting on the car is just before the sun peeks over the horizon in the morning.

Timing

The perfect time to get the ideal lighting on the car is just before the sun peeks over the horizon in the morning, and just after it sets in the evening. So we started off the shoot in a private neighborhood just north of Phoenix, in the dark, at about 6 a.m. For these type of stills, we were running a Canon 5D Mark II and a variety of lenses including a Canon 17-35 f/2.8L, a 24-70 f/2.8L, and  70-200 f/2.8 IS II. We grabbed some sunrise still shots and then moved on to action shots within the neighborhood.

Panning

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Taken with the Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, hand-held panning at 1/64th of a second, ISO 100, and f/5.6.

The type of action photos we did were called “panning shots.” This is when the photographer is off to the side of the road and the driver comes by at speed. The photographer then pans with the car, thus having the car in focus and the background blurred. This is ideal for capturing the profile of the car and giving the appearance of it traveling at a high rate of speed. For this type of shot, we were using a Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200 f/2.8L II, shooting at 1/64th of a second while panning at the exact speed of the car as it drove by.  This setup allows for high-speed passes where the car remains ultra-sharp with a blurred background, which captures the motion of the car nicely.

Car-to-Car Shooting

We then moved across the valley to the north Scottsdale area where we procured access to a gated community that had paved roads, but no houses built yet. Since it was out in the open, we were able to get perfect light on the car. Surrounding the property were beautiful mountains and rock formations that gave us some amazing backgrounds.

We used the open roads to do another type of action shot commonly referred to as “car to car.” This is where we have a camera car that either leads or follows the subject car as it drives down the road. The objective is to get the cars to travel at the same speed, once again allowing the photographer to keep the subject car sharp and the background blurred while employing a slower shutter speed. With the photographer laying in the back of the car with the tailgate open, hanging out the window, or standing out the sunroof, the Canon 5D Mark III and the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II or the 24-70 f/2.8L  (along with a slow shutter speed, as with the panning technique used above) does the job of capturing that sense of speed with a blurred background and a sharp car.

Shooting with a Rig

The camera is placed on the end of the arm, allowing the camera to travel along with the car. The rig allows for much longer exposures, thus the backgrounds will have a lot more blur.

The camera is placed on the end of the arm, allowing the camera to travel along with the car. The rig allows for much longer exposures, thus the backgrounds will have a lot more blur.

The next day involved shooting with a large camera rig from Pursuit Systems in LA. The rig is a specially designed, carbon fiber arm that attaches to the vehicle and extends out to about 45 feet. We put the camera on the end of the arm, allowing the camera to travel along with the car. The rig allows for much longer exposures, thus the backgrounds will have a lot more blur. It also allows us to get the camera in positions near the moving vehicle that would normally be too difficult or unsafe. On the rig, we setup a Canon 5D Mark III with the 24-70 f/2.8L and a wireless trigger with a 300 ft range allowing us to capture images at a safe distance. Our assistants were also handholding and running with a set of Profoto 7b heads with Acute 2R 2400 Watt power supplies to fill in the shadows produced by the surrounding structures.

Taken with the Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II on a rig at 1/1.6th of a second, ISO 50, and f/16.

Taken with the Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II on a rig at 1/1.6th of a second, ISO 50, and f/16.

The process of shooting with a rig is very time consuming due to the amount of time it takes to mount the rig to the vehicle and make adjustments along the way. The idea was to get the car in a more urban setting, which is what the downtown location accomplished. The downside of shooting in town is that when you are in amongst the tall buildings, inevitably, there are a lot of reflections that end up in the car and those reflections can hide some of the distinguishing lines that we wanted to showcase on the Impala. Ultimately, we were able to get a good balance of lighting and location that made the new Impala look great.

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Take advantage of any remaining light while out on location.

After some cool rig shots on the rear of the car, we moved to our final location and got ready to utilize the small window of sweet-light that we would have for the final shot of the day.

We used the next day to grab some more stills and details, and then shipped all of the images out to GM for approval. We appreciate having the opportunity to shoot the new Impala and just finished the project by photographing the media launch event in San Diego this past weekend.

Gear used on this shoot:

Canon 5D Mark II

Canon 5D Mark III

Canon 17-35 f/2.8L USM

Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM

Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM IS II

San Disk Extreme III 4gb-32gb CF Cards

Gitzo G-1410 Pro Tripod

Gitzo GH5750QR Series 5 magnesium QR Off Center Ball Head

Profoto 7b flash heads w/diffusion paper

Profoto Acute 2R – 2400 Watt Power Supplies

Lens Pen

Pelican 1510 Case with Dividers

Pelican Memory Card Case

Variety of Grip Gear

Have some great car shots of your own using one of the techniques employed above? Share them with us in the comments below!

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Alexandria Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

Comments

  • I’m familiar with the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L and the EF 17-40mm f/4L, but I’ve never seen the EF 17-35mm f/2.8L?

  • I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Would be really interested in seeing how you had the assistants running handholding lights while shooting a moving car with the rig….

    • As one of those assistants, I can tell you that it was not an easy task. With the Profoto Acute 2R’s weighing in at 13lbs, and holding the heads with diffusion paper over them, running 2 blocks at speeds of 3-5mph while we popped off a few long exposures was pretty exhausting. We were triggering the lights to pop a few times per exposure, just to help fill in some of the shadows from the surrounding buildings. As always, whatever it takes to get the shot!

  • Rich says:

    The thing you never hear about when people talk about their car shots is how fast the car is going while they handhold pan.

    • Rich,
      As the driver of the Impala in the panning shot above, I can tell you that the car was traveling about 35-40mph. In the rig shots, we’re allowing the car to coast at idle, around 3-5mph.

  • That’s a great article. Having spent a number of years in ad agencies, we tend to forget that photography is the traditional way – CAD and retouchers rule now

  • Ryan Heffron says:

    Great post, thanks for the share… nice to see how the pros do it! I’d love to be able to shoot more automotive. While not exactly using the same techniques, here are my best car shots:
    http://ryanheffron.tumblr.com/post/46336671043
    http://ryanheffron.tumblr.com/post/43253470184

  • Julie Wagner says:

    Exciting!

  • Peter Son says:

    This is really nice. Thanks for sharing .
    Flying car

  • Michelle says:

    Looks amazing. Let’s me feel that sense of a luxury car from the Impala. Red is also one of my favorite colors.

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