In his 25 years as an automotive photographer, Tim Damon has made almost every kind of image that car clients demand: performance shots on race tracks, cars and trucks in dramatic landscapes, and lots of studio shots, sometimes done on his 18,000-square-foot stage in Los Angeles. But whatever the assignment, his goal is to bring out the unique contours of each car. “When designers sculpt a car, they want all those lines and shapes to be celebrated,” he explains. “What normally happens is that a client gives me a preferred angle: ‘This will be a three-quarter, passenger-side rear view.’ Once we set the angle, my job is to use lighting to make it look its best.”
Recently Damon got to employ all his skills for what he calls “a dream job” for Ferrari. The car manufacturer gave him a new car for two days, and asked him to take some “cool pictures” any way he liked. The four shots he came up with included outdoor shots and a shot he created in his studio, which he turned into a dark parking garage. Using multiple lights and a camera rig, he shot a long exposure, capturing the moving car in crisp detail, while the dark walls around the car blurred.
The studio easily accommodated the rig, which lifted the camera about 20 feet above the car, and scaffolding on which Damon stood to look down on the scene. The studio also provides storage for all the lights, cameras, gear, and camera trucks that Damon and his production company, Square Planet Media, own and use.
The studio also serves another purpose. Damon says he always prefers to get the shot he wants in camera. “It is sometimes easier just to fix it in the computer, but I would rather work harder and get it in camera.” However, if a location shoot isn’t working the way he wants, he may bring the car to his studio to get an additional shot for a composite. “That’s why it’s important for me to have my own stage: I don’t want my hands to be tied.” On a recent shoot for Lincoln, for example, he photographed the car in early morning light on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. The silver car’s reflective surface wasn’t showing all the colors of the city lights, however, and to Damon’s eye, looked detached. Back in his studio, he says, “I could use colored gels and different types of lighting sources to give the vehicle more shape and depth,” then he had his retoucher composite the two shots (see final image below).
Damon believes that his clients come to him knowing that he prefers not to rely on compositing, and he finds the challenge more fun. “I’d rather do the extra work,” he says, than have a retoucher do a job Damon enjoys. “I believe that if I get a Christmas card from a retoucher, I’m not doing my job.”
For his studio shot of the Ferrari, Damon’s crew set up black cloths and flats to block off an area of the white studio and make it look like the inside of a parking structure. Damon mounted the camera to one of the rigs he designed himself for car photography. It was attached to the rear of the car, extended about 25 feet and lifted the camera about 20 feet high. Damon wanted the driver to maneuver the car out of the studio’s cyclorama. During a long exposure, the background would blur while the rig-mounted camera, moving along with the car, would keep the vehicle in focus.
The lighting had to be adjusted to accommodate the movement of the car. “When you’re doing a rig shot you don’t put a light here and there. It’s not like playing sheet music, it’s like playing jazz,” says the photographer. “The only way you’re going to get it is to start doing your exposure and then moving your lights. It sounds tedious but it’s fun.”
Damon oversaw the scene from scaffolding about 20 feet above the floor. To preview his work, he usually uses a second, smaller camera on the rig to deliver a live video feed, but on this shoot, it wouldn’t show him the blurred effect of the long exposure. To see that, he also tethered his main camera to a monitor so he and the digital tech could preview the actual shots and test the lights.
“I say this all the time: Black cars separate the men from the boys,” Damon notes, because bringing out the contours in the dark metal is challenging and unforgiving.
He begins by lighting the car—“It’s the most important thing,” he says—but because the car is reflective, he has to consider how he’s lighting the background at the same time.
One Kino Flo created a streak of light on the window on driver’s side. Another light made the streak along the roofline. A line of Kinos was also positioned on the floor, with another slightly higher to create the line of light along the back of the car.
He placed one of the softboxes that he had made above the car; measuring 40 x 15 feet, the light is visible at the top of the frame as a streak of light. He says he positioned it to bring out the crease just above the driver’s door handle.
He also used a 10K ARRI tungsten light with a Fresnel just outside the left side of the frame, down stage. This light illuminated the floor and, in the long exposure, made it glow.
“Funny, I like big, big, big lights. I use old ones with big Fresnels on them,” he says. He prefers the quality of light from a tungsten rather than HMI, which Damon says feels “clinical.” When using a big light source like this, he positions it far from his subject. “If I flag off an area, it’s a softer transition than if you put a barn door on a 1K: That’s a harsh transition.” Using a large light source, he adds, “gives me the ability to come in with hot lights and kiss an area with hot lights. It won’t feel forced.” For example, he used an ARRI 1K tungsten light just to illuminate the area near the taillight on the driver’s side. Without illuminating that small area, he says, “There’s no shape there. I added the light so it’s more convex.”
A Hasselblad H4D camera with a 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5 HC AF lens was used for the Ferrari shoot. Damon estimates it was an eight- to 12-second exposure.
The studio shot of the Ferrari, one of four he delivered to the client, needed only slight retouching to remove the arm of the rig, a job Damon’s digital tech, Anthony Dias, performed. On jobs requiring compositing, Damon has the retoucher on set throughout the shoot, then produces a tight comp to show the client how the finished shot will look. “It is absolutely the best way to work,” he says. “Everyone is there: the retoucher, the client, the agency. We can make decisions and get everything expedited really fast.”