Monday, May 20, 2013

It's All In The Details

I love cars. Always have and always will. There's just something about a bad ride that makes me drool. So what better way to combine something else I love (photography) than by shooting photos of cars?

I've been reading posts by +Scott Kelby over the past couple of years as he has dabbled in some car photography after hooking up with +Tim Wallace, a UK based automobile photographer. Scott is a car nut too and just as it is for me, combining two things he loves (photography & cars) is just too cool for school. It was just a matter of time before Scottie took the plunge into car photography, but I am so glad he did because when he gets into any aspect of photography, you can expect him to seek out the best of the best in the field and have him or her provide the rest of us with the road map to successful shooting. Every time I decide to dabble in a new aspect of photography, I know I can go to  and there will be insightful, helpful video tutorials on how to do just about anything. Shooting cars was no exception.

Scott had Tim create some videos for Kelby Training on the ins and outs of shooting cars.  I watched three of Tim's videos and I was soooooo hooked as I drooled over some of the images that one might create with Tim's method. I was chomping at the bit to shoot some cars, but the problem was equipment. In order to shoot cars a la Wallace, studio (as in artificial) lighting is essential. I have studio lights (monolights) but they're not very portable and they require AC power. For us mere mortals who don't make a living at shooting stuff on location, having portable power packs/strobes on top of everything else is just not in the cards.

That's where for me, hot shoe lighting is the ticket. I've been putting a portable, serviceable, location lighting kit together using hot shoe strobes as the foundation for about a year or so. For the every-now-and-then location shoot that requires lighting, I felt like this was all I needed and it wouldn't break the bank. As hot shoe strobes have become increasingly more versatile and powerful, they have become a viable lighting option, indoors and outdoors, for a lot of people; and when folks are willing to spend money, all the necessary equipment suddenly becomes affordable as knock off gear is mass produced. Can I get an Amen for knock off gear?

All of the car images in this post were shot with one (and on a couple of images, two) Nikon SB-800 strobes which you can pick up in used, great condition for $250. Most photographers have at least one high end strobe like the SB-800 in their camera bag so a lot of the shots I got would be possible for most everyone without dropping a wad of cash on gear. The strobes are mounted on inexpensive hot shoe flash brackets (depicted above) designed to accommodate light modifiers such as softboxes and beauty dishes. The best part is you can buy them all day long for $30.

The mounting system for light modifiers is the Bowens system (L, with three protruding tabs) so the only thing to which you need to pay attention is that your light modifiers have Bowens mounts. Bowens-mount beauty dishes and softbox speedrings are probably the most universal of them all and thus it's easy to find light modifiers that will work. I wish the flash brackets came with the Photogenic mounting system as all but one of my studio monolights are Photogenics. Unfortunately, they don't. If they did, I would have a plethora of Photogenic-based light modifiers at my disposal and could use any of them with the hot shoe strobes at a moment's notice. Fortunately, I have one Bowens moonlight and because of that, I already own an 18" Bowens-mount beauty dish with grids and diffuser plus two Bowens speed rings for softboxes. In a pinch, I can use any of my softboxes with the hot shoe strobes by changing out the speed rings, a bit of a pain but an option if need be.

For detail car shots, a strip softbox is the secret ingredient. You can easily drop a couple of hundred bucks on a strip softbox if you go with a hoity toity name brand but I'm just not a hoity toity kind of guy when it comes to gear that will only get sporadic use. For me, something serviceable that will accomplish my needs without the Gucci label is just fine, especially if there's no difference in the quality of light. While at Photoshop World, I asked Joe McNally if there was any difference in the quality of light between expensive softboxes and the Chinese made versions and he said no, not really. He did say that the expensive ones are made better, will last longer, and are built to withstand the abuse of constant take down and setup, but since I don't intend to use my portable equipment very often, if I can save a few bucks, I am down with a $50 version instead of a $200 one. I bought two $50 9"X36" strip softboxes (with grids that I did not use in the shoot) and used them in all the car images you see above. So much for not having the Gucci label on the boxes.

The last piece of gear I used to do the shoot was a Nikon SU-800 Commander unit which was the camera mounted trigger for the SB-800 strobe(s). This is where cost cutting can mean the difference between getting shots and a very frustrating experience of intermittent flash firing. A reliable trigger that consistently fires the strobe(s) means the difference between your strobe(s) firing and not firing, especially when you shoot outdoors in broad daylight.  Cheap infrared triggers or wireless poppers (aka, "Chinese" poppers) are readily available and tempting, given the cost, but they're a waste of money. The cheap infrared ones are useless in daylight (the infrared light beam is too weak to overcome daylight so the strobes don't sense it) and the Chinese poppers may work once or twice (if at all) but give them time and I'm told they will crap out on you when you least expect it.

Other than the SU-800 (or using a strobe with a Commander feature like another SB-800), I would go with Pocket Wizards as flash triggers. I chose to use the SU-800 (instead of Pocket Wizards) so I could take full advantage of Ninon's Creative Light System (CLS) which includes strobes like the SB-800 and a trigger like the SU-800. CLS allows me to adjust exposures by up to three stops up or down by just pushing buttons on the SU-800 instead of having to adjust light output  manually on the strobe units. When shooting with just one strobe, not a big deal; when shooting with multiple strobes, it sure is nice to be able to fine tune the amount of light generated by the strobes without having to do anything but push a button on a camera mounted device.

Technical Exposure Details

Tim Wallace's method incudes shooting at f22. Trust me, the man knows his stuff. If you want the huge light dropoff that yields the dramatic, dark shadows with nothing lit except whatever the light modifier(s) are illuminating, you have to be at f22.

When I first set out to shoot, I grabbed my 85mm f1.8 lens that I frequently use in the studio. It has a max aperture of f16 and I thought it would be no big deal - f16 and f22? What's the big deal? Hah. At f16, enough light spilled over to light the areas around the fenders, hood, rear, etc. in the images. The images did not look like the ones I saw in Tim's videos.

After the initial, disappointing test shots, I changed out lenses to a 35-70mm f2.8 lens that was capable of going to f22. Voila. Literally and figuratively a night and day difference. For all practical purposes, the car images above required no shadow darkening in order to create the dark, dramatic lighting. That was pretty much straight out of the camera when using f22 as my aperture.

I also used a 1/200th second shutter speed, ISO 200, and shot with the lens at 70mm which is in the focal length range Tim recommends for detail car shots.

Next Up

Now that my first car shoot is over (note: I completely forgot to shoot the engine...rats) the next step for me is to take the car to a covered parking garage or other cool looking outdoor location to get some full length shots  of my baby. For this, I will need to use larger strip softboxes and multiple strobes. In a parking garage or indoor warehouse setting, Tim Wallace's method employs 4 lights and two large strip softboxes. Rather than take the larger soft boxes I have from the studio, I found some 12"X56" strip boxes sold by for $60 and the price includes the $30 hot shoe bracket and grids. Two are  already on the way as you can't shake a stick at the price. I realize that Tim uses somewhat larger strip boxes when shooting his full length car images but he's powering them with 1600 w/sec flash heads and I'm limited to hot shoe strobes.  It will be interesting to see if an SB-800 can light up the 12"X56"softbox and put out enough light for use at f22 but I think they can, I hope they can.

All in all, I was ecstatic to walk away from my first foray into detail car photography with the shots that I got. As with any kind of photography, the more you do it, the better you get so I'm hoping I can improve on what I got as I shoot more cars. Yesterday's exercise accomplished several things, though: 1) I got to try out the portable, hot shoe gear I've been acquiring in a no-pressure situation; 2) I learned a lot through trial and error on where/how to place the lights; and 3) I got a shoot under my belt in preparation for shooting some ultra cool cars for which I will have access.

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