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Lighting Recipe: Anton Watts's Big Car Shot

By Meghan Ahearn


Anton Watts car photography
© Anton Watts

To promote a new feature on the 2013 Volkswagen CC, which moves its headlights as the vehicle turns, the car manufacturer worked on a campaign with Deutsch Los Angeles. For the print ad, the car would be shown in early evening, getting ready to turn into a home’s driveway, while the headlights shone on a teenaged couple getting caught kissing in the yard. The agency tapped automobile and lifestyle photographer Anton Watts, who has done other campaigns for them in the past, to shoot the scene.

“The problem solving starts to commence at that point,” Watts explains, “because the ad agency has a great concept but how do we get all the elements to work together, tell a story and work in several formats while, at the same time, create a beautiful image?” He adds that how large the car appears in the ad is often a concern for clients, and therefore also needs to be taken into consideration. During pre-production, when Watts visited the location in Orange, California, he realized the road was too far away from where the young models would be positioned, and therefore the car would be too small in the frame. His solution was to set up two cameras: one to shoot the teens in the yard and the other to shoot the car on the road. In post-production, the yard and driveway would essentially be shortened so the kids are closer to the car in the final image. “The trickiest part about everything is not so much that we actually moved [the kids] but making it feel real as far as the lighting goes,” he explains.

The Los Angeles-based photographer used an ALPA 12 XY for the shoot with Schneider Optics 47mm and 72mm lenses. He favors the Swiss camera because “it has stitching capability, which means that you can slide the back left and right, enabling you to get more panoramic even though it’s not a panoramic camera.” Watts prefers the ALPA 12 XY, often used by architecture shooters, for automobile assignments because it gives his images more bleed—a request often made by art directors. Additionally, it can stitch up and down. This helps when shooting cars on city streets, because it won’t distort the tops of buildings.

Watts began the VW assignment by photographing the teenagers. Since the shoot started around midday, he “closed down the shutter speed on the camera and used a strobe to give it a night feel.” Watts adds, “It would give me more time later on to capture the whole environment in that twilight, magic-hour time.” To replicate the car’s headlights shining on the kids, which in reality weren’t close enough to illuminate them, Watts used a Profoto Pro-7B strobe octa light filtered through a large scrim as a fill light at camera left. He also placed a bare head Profoto Pro-7B to the right of the camera to light the grass, so it too would look like the car’s headlights were shining on it. A soft beauty dish was placed directly above the models, to give “the feeling there might have been a light on the house,” Watts adds.

Next he would need to shoot the car on the street. His main source of light was an Airstar lighting balloon. The 12.5-foot, 8K, tungsten sphere hovered about 40 feet from the ground. “The reason I use an Airstar is because it creates a very soft overall feel above the set, almost like moonlight,” Watts explains. “It’s a great way to give me a large spread of light that appears to be ambient. It’s much easier than trying to use strobes that don’t have a wide enough spread.”

To ensure that he would have enough time to shoot the entire car and surrounding area during a “perfect light window,” Watts first photographed various details of the vehicle, such as the headlights, all of the chrome and the grill. He had his assistants hold 6 x 9-foot white boards to reflect the light into these various parts. Other elements that were shot for the final image were a nearby house, which would replace the real one that was to the left of the car, as well as a hill in nearby Palos Verdes, California, that would be used as the backdrop.

Throughout the shoot Watts’s digital tech worked at an “outdoor retouching setup” piecing the different elements together into a comp. “Obviously you need to shoot the parts so that they have the right elements to use in the final retouch,” he says. “But if you gave a retoucher elements that are not lit correctly or they’re not lit from the right direction or the angles are off, then it’s going to be a problem.” Watts worked with his longtime retoucher, Mark Francis of Midas Retouching in London, on the final VW image. After uploading the comp created on set and the various hi-res images to Francis’s FTP, the two chatted before the retoucher went to work. “Once my retoucher and I have the image to a point that we are happy with it, then we present it to the agency,” Watts explains. “Generally, the agency and client will have three rounds of changes that comprise of tightening up panel gaps, taking out reflections in the sheet metal, etc. In this case, there wasn’t much clean up due to the color of the car, silver, being very forgiving.”

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