The Making of a Car Review - What Does it Entail?
We go behind the scenes of a car review, as I teach a couple of novice photographers what it takes to put together a great gallery for a car review
For a couple of years now, some of the best photographers in the world have created a tradition out of coming to a small village on the shores of the Black Sea to hold workshops with less-experienced peers. During the course of one week, filled with workshops, meetings and discussions, attendees get to learn a lot about the craft from people who have the patience and experience to guide them through the tricky side of photography. This year, the people from BMW, who are sponsoring the event, invited me over, along with a couple of other journalists, to partake in this event otherwise known as VSLO. My job would be to take a couple of photographers interested in automotive photography out with me to teach them the ropes of what goes on during a photo shoot for a car review. The photos seen here are what came of our collective efforts.
BMW 4 Series Cabriolet - Marius Dincă
Shooting cars may seem like a simple enough job but in truth it's not as easy as it may appear at a first glance. Automotive photography has a couple of different takes and every photographer who does this for a living, has his or her own style, as it very well should be. However, you still need to take into account where these pictures will be used. I have been writing for various publications around the world for some 6 years now but during this time I've never actually done it for a magazine that goes out to print, as all my jobs were for online publications/websites. Therefore, I never really understood that for print magazines, the photos need to have a certain layout to make sure the reader gets the full picture and isn't prohibited from doing so because of the folding pages, for example. Therefore, this was quite an educative trip for myself as well, even though I thought I knew everything there was to know about automotive photography.
BMW 2 Series Cabriolet - Andrei Popescu
Nevertheless, we had 8 photographers willing to learn and we had to provide valuable tips for them to get the cars shot the right way, to make sure the photos would then be usable in various publications. With only four cars to shoot, we had to split into four teams and then head out to find proper locations for the cars and start shooting. I was driving a BMW 4 Series Cabriolet, had two photographers and a colleague with me and the game was afoot. The other three teams had to split between a BMW 2 Series Convertible - pictured above -, a MINI Hardtop 3-door and a MINI Hardtop 5-door. We would share the photos at the end of the day.
MINI Hardtop 3-door - Marian Mocanu
When it comes to car reviews, there are two ways one can go about doing it. Most magazines have their own photographers on the pay roll and whenever a photo shoot is necessary, they send out a journalist and a photographer to get the job done. While one is driving and making mental notes, the other is taking pictures on rapid fire. Then there's the 'one man army' approach. That refers to freelancers mostly, who usually take their own pictures of a car and then write the review themselves. This gives the publication a bit more freedom as they don't have to actually hire a larger number of individuals and keep them on the payroll. Freelancers usually charge a fixed fee for a review, which is usually lower than the cost of a journalist doing it along with a photographer.
MINI Hardtop 3-door interior - Marian Mocanu
Another thing a lot of people don't realize is that every creative mind has its own way of doing things. Automotive photography isn't as easy as one might think. It needs to portray the object in front of the lens in such a way that it complements the words written next to it, creating a larger mental picture of what the writer wants to transmit to the reader. It borrows elements from product photography, where you need to pay attention to details - i.e. when shooting interiors for example, or when shooting various details on the car's exterior, like badges and so on - and elements from street photography. The latter point brings me to what I was trying to explain to my photographers throughout the day.
Shooting the BMW 2 Series Convertible next to a combine - Andrei Popescu
Most of the time you'll have to improvise. Cars for reviews are usually given for a week or at least 3 days. During that time, there's a lot of work to be done and there will be times when you only get a car for a couple of hours and that's when the pressure really piles on. In that short period of time you need to shoot the car's interior, exterior and some beauty shots as well and most of the time, you won't get a pre-setup location where you can do your job peacefully and in a controlled environment. You'll have to improvise and be quick to shoot. Most of the time you're just driving along and you spot a location that perfectly suits your car. In moments like those, you need to quickly find a way to park the car, take the photos and - most of the time - make sure you do it without disturbing anyone or catching any pedestrians or strangers in the shots. It's a pretty precarious balance, to be honest. But if you're creative enough you can be inspired by anything, as is the case with the combine and the 2 Series pictured above. It's not a combination you'd think of normally but put in the right context, it can create a juxtaposition that works.
Shooting the BMW 2 Series Convertible next to a combine - Andrei Popescu
Then you also need to consider the weather and time of day. Most of the shots you'll see here were taken in August, after 1 PM in blaring sun. That can usually lead to overexposed photos or underexposed ones, as you can see in the shot above. Shooting in this light is a challenge as it will require a lot of fine-tuning to be done on the camera to get everything right. Of course, some editing can be done afterwards using popular products such as Lightroom or Photoshop but that depends on the photographers. I, myself, do some light editing on my photos but I prefer to keep things as realistic as possible as people want to see the car I'm shooting as it really is, not as a virtual rendering that looks perfect but can never be achieved in real life. If you really want to get the most out of your photos, you should be aiming at the Golden Hour which refers to the one hour just after sunrise and right before sundown of every day. That's when the light is perfect for shooting, provided the sky isn't cloudy.
In the end, the most important word you need to remember when talking about doing a photo shoot for a car review is 'improvisation'. Most of the time you won't have ideal light or locations or the time needed to procure either of them. You'll end up improvising along the way and that's something not a lot of people are good at but then again, this also isn't for everyone. Some of the biggest issues you'll face while taking car photos can sound familiar to those accustomed to using a DSLR camera. They include over and under exposure, blurry shots and bad framing. For example, the shots below are all underexposed, and could do with some better framing. One of the easiest mistakes one could make is to position the car wrong. Depending on what you want to show in the picture, you might want to reconsider the positioning. If you want a panoramic view, to showcase the car in beautiful scenery, you should position it on the sides, not the center. If you want to show the viewer a particular design, for example, like the front end of a car, you can position it directly in front of the camera, to emphasize on the air intakes or the kidney grilles, for example. It all depends on what you're trying to say.
Of course, these issues can all be addressed by practicing a lot and, as it is the case with any other skill, you will eventually get better at it. Furthermore, what you might not get right with the camera settings can always be fixed in editing, except for shots that are simply way too tight, like the ones in the gallery below. Getting a wider shot is always a good recommendation as it will allow you to crop out whatever you don't like in post-editing. Taking a narrow shot from the get go won't leave you any leeway for further editing down the road. Since you're not likely to get the same car twice for testing purposes, you might want to make the most of every single photo you take. It's the same for shutter speed, which can lead to blurry photos and that's not something you can edit later on.
In the end though, out of the 550 pictures the guys sent in, we could choose enough of them for a review as most of the time, the photo gallery for one car review doesn't require more than 20-30 good photos. You check out some of them in the photo gallery below.