How NOT to do it
In my many years as a car photographer I was involved in quite a few accidents. Jumping cars over bumps so they fly through the air or running a car through slippery foam laid down by the airport fire brigade can, and sometimes does, lead to disaster. The following incidents all really happened, not all of them to me, but they show that even good photographers make mistakes.
THAT SINKING FEELING
On a beach, somewhere on the west coast of Belgium, a friend of mine was shooting a car. He had a brand new vehicle delivered to the site. At around five in the evening he put the car on the beach, while waiting for the sun to go down, for the atmosphere and light they needed. The photographer and his assistants scoffed sandwiches and coffee and didn’t notice that the tide was advancing at a great rate.
When they finished their coffee break they found the car wheels had sunk into the sand a little, so they decided to move it further up the beach. The wheels only churned in more deeply and it refused to move as the water continued to rise. You can imagine the scene of total panic as the tide came in, until they realised they could do nothing but watch. However my friend did eventually take very interesting photos of the top of the car roof and the aerial sticking out of the sea. It wasn’t a bad thing for me as I gained a new client.
OUT OF SIGHT
A young photographer (not me) and his assistant were sent to Spain on location. The idea was to photograph a bar of soap on a small rock, with the sea lapping one edge of the rock and a little sand in the foreground.
The beach he chose was a holiday spot near some good nightlife and, having a lively nature, he had some difficulty getting up in the mornings. After a week of missing the early morning sun he rang the client to say the sea and the weather were not good and he had hadn’t yet been able to get the shot. Finally, being concerned about the increasing expenses, he put the soap on the rock and positioned the label and packaging. He then turned his back to set up his tripod and camera. He turned back again only to see it all washed away by a wave. “No problem, buy another one” I hear you say. “In any case no one would go on location with only one bar of soap”. You’d be wrong, the bar washed out to sea was a uniquely shaped prototype made from wood and hand painted, the label and package had been produced in the art studio.
I once had to do a shoot for Autobianchi 112, a tiny car with an Abarth engine that made it very lively. The idea was that it should be shot jumping down steps leading from a house. The car had to start from the house, accelerate like mad and on reaching the steps fly through the air with the greatest of ease, hopefully landing on all four wheels.
It was first necessary to find the idiot who would drive the car, well that was easy, he shall be nameless to preserve his reputation, but he hosted a TV show doing stunts. He calculated the weight distribution and professed that adding twenty kilos to the back of the car would avoid it landing on its nose, he was however nervous that the suspension would be strong enough to support multiple jumps. The problem was discussed at a client meeting the next day, and because I could not be certain that I would expose at exactly the right instant to catch the car in the air and at the best angle, it was decided that I should have five cars available, each to be jumped once if needed.
The location was a big old house, converted into a school, with a wonderful stone staircase leading up to large doors and into a big hallway, where we put two of the cars. I set up all my equipment and since I could not be sure how far down the steps the car would be in the air I had six cameras placed a short distance apart along the stairs all linked by a slave system so that when I fired my hand held camera the others, mounted on tripods, would fire as well. The scene was to be lit by flash at the end of the exposure to create a moving image of the car with a superimposed still of the car and a still background.
A video camera was set up to record the whole passage of the car so that if the first shot wasn’t right, we could see what adjustments to the camera positions we had to make. The moment came and the school was emptied so that all the students could watch at a safe distance. My clients were there, and we were all ready to go.
The driver sat in the car, with his helmet covered by a wig, waiting for my signal; I radioed ‘OK GO’ and with a trail of blue smoke and a lot of tyre screeching a red arrow appeared from the doors at great speed. To our amazement it shot into the air at the top step, travelled over a few steps, landed on its nose, bounced over onto its roof and back onto its wheels.
This happened so fast that I really didn’t have time to think. I just pressed the shutter button instinctively. Then, being a professional, I tried to appear calm as if the crash was all part of the plan. Remember that this was before digital photography and I could not know what was on the film until it had been developed at the lab.
The first thing to do was check the video and I found, to my horror, that there was nothing on it. We had forgotten to switch on the video and the slave connecting all the cameras! Four assistants and I hadn’t noticed.
As panic set in I had one last chance to see what I might have on my hand held camera. We had placed another video camera behind me to run during the whole shoot just to give us a record of the event. Playing this back to the moment of the flash I saw that we just ‘might’ have a good image on my camera.
So, decision time, risk crashing another car or hope that the one image I had was good enough. Since I was not sure that the driver would or could do it again, I decided to risk that I had the shot. After much soul searching I bravely, (or stupidly), called it a wrap and stopped the session.
I ran the rest of the film through the camera at the same exposure shooting just the steps. The film would be cut in two and the last part processed first to see if any adjustment in development time would be necessary for the part I hoped carried the full picture. The lab did not open until the next morning so I had a very bad night. As luck, and I mean luck, would have it, the one frame of 6x6 film was great. I would like to have the shot to show you but I gave it to the client
CLOSING THE SHUTTER.
In the days before digital it was normal to use Polaroid backs on cameras, they were made for almost every size including 35mm. When the shot was set up a Polaroid exposure would be made to check lighting, composition and provide a reference for the sequence of shots on the undeveloped film. An 8x10 Polaroid was often taken in the studio so that the client, if he was present, could approve the shot or you could, as usual, argue about alterations. The 35mm Polaroid backs were time consuming to fit so it was necessary to have one permanently fitted to a Nikon.
A fashion photographer friend had a location job in Africa. He left with six models, two clients, an assistant, a makeup artist, a stylist, and a hairdresser for two weeks. A shoot like that would cost around the £80,000 – £100,000 mark today.
All went smoothly using 35mm for the whole job. Every shot had a Polaroid reference taken first with a specially backed camera and then the final shots were taken on a normal 35mm camera. My friend processed his films when he got back, only to find that the shutter had been blocking only halfway open through all the exposures. He had nothing, and his reputation in Europe was ruined. I last heard that he was working in Canada.
The moral of this story is check and check again. Quite often I wish I had remembered that. If it can go wrong it will go wrong.
GET THE light RIGHT.
I had a very embarrassing moment with a Porsche in my studio when we let a very large and heavy 2kw studio spot fall right across its wing and bonnet, but don’t worry there was absolutely no damage to the light.
SHOOT THE RIGHT WAY UP.
Yet another car shoot I made was for street posters, the idea was to have the posters grouped in pairs one showing the car on a white background announcing the new model and the second showing the car upside down with text that said ‘At a price that will turn you upside down’ (It sounds better in French).
This campaign was very urgent, as was often the case, as it was to launch before an upcoming motor show. How did we do it? It sounds easy, but turning the first photo upside down didn’t solve the problem because the angle of the shot meant that the underside would not be seen and the wheels not look right. The only way was to turn the car upside down to shoot it, this had many advantages, it allowed a real shadow and when a car is not on the ground the suspension looks totally different, the wheels camber in and there is more distance between the body and the wheel.
I knew that it had been done before for Volkswagen in the States, and I had read how it was done, so with great confidence I went to the client meeting. I said that we would have minimum damage to the vehicle; I estimated a new roof, sunroof, aerial and a few other things. It was agreed that this would be quite acceptable for a shoot of this kind.
Having the OK from the client we set to work. After shooting the car in its normal position we removed the engine and all the liquids, lifted the car, slid mattresses underneath its wheels, then lowered it again. That was easy, next came the difficult bit.
I had ten men available to help to lift the car, turn onto its side, lift again and roll it onto its roof. Great! That was fine. Now we only had to take away the mattresses underneath, so lift, pull them out and hey presto, that’s how it’s done.
Then I looked from the camera angle and realised that having taken the engine out I was looking at a gaping hole where it used to be! By propping up parts like the sump guard and using various pieces of cardboard and polystyrene we managed to make it look acceptable.
Now was the time to light the car and shoot it. As I shot the last sheet of film I heard an almighty crack, the windscreen had broken. Well, that's not too bad, after all we had the shot in the can! As we turned the car back on its wheels a side window exploded and I saw we had forgotten to take the wing mirror off. Well as you can imagine the car was looking a bit sad by then.
The damage - wing mirror ruined, dented door, dented front wing, broken sun roof, flattened roof, broken windscreen, door window smashed, front and side pillars a little out of shape, the doors were impossible to open and there were many other little dents and scratches but - we had our pictures!
I later learnt that I had wrecked a pre-production car that was due to be transported to the Geneva motor show the following weekend, thank goodness it made it.
SHOOT ANOTHER WAY.
This was going to be an easy one, shoot a bottle of champagne being broken over a very large, new model Mercury outboard motor. As you have seen in the past even Her Majesty can have a problem with this.
We tried everything, scoring the bottle as much as we dared and hitting it against the motor but nothing worked. Then my client came up with the idea of the century, shoot it with a .22 rifle, this seemed a bit drastic but plausible to me so we sent out for a rifle. The shot was set up and ready to shoot, so I shouted fire! The next thing I remember was a terrible explosion, we were covered in glass splinters and champagne but the bottle did burst. For the next attempts we built a protective screen around us leaving only tiny holes for the lens and rifle several bottles of Moet & Chandon later we had finished.
My assistants were picking pieces of glass out of the studio walls for weeks to come.
A COOL LOCATION.
Weather forecasts can help but so can a little intelligence. I went to Sweden to shoot a new prototype Volvo. The photo was to be taken car to car on a test track travelling round a banking at 100 mph. That sounded straightforward and I went without looking at the weather forecast, as one does. In the north of Sweden, in February, it is only light enough to shoot for about 30 minutes of the day and the temperature is about zero centigrade, so if you add the 100mph wind-chill factor it’s bl***y cold! Sitting tied down in the open back of a camera car at that speed, is a very lonely and uncomfortable place to be.
I did feel a bit stupid for not having realised before I went that I might cool off a bit.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND.
Here is another example of my infallible planning. I had to do a shoot with seven cars of a French manufacture, not Peugeot or Citroen the other one. The location was found and the cars, all seven on one lorry, left France for the location in Belgium. Unfortunately two miles before the location the lorry got stuck under a low bridge, yes I did feel stupid for not checking the route! However, after closing the road, we managed to free the lorry by letting the tyres down on the trapped car, and they started on their 60 mile detour.
Finally having arrived at the location, all the cars were prepared and placed next to a reservoir where I knew, because of a prior visit, ah I’m not stupid, that a beautiful dawn caused the pine trees in the background to reflect into the reservoir. Happy with the set up, all I needed to do was push the button the next morning. My client and I went off to eat and sleep leaving my trusty assistant to sleep in a car to guard the site.
The next morning an hour before dawn we arrived, woke my guard, removed the morning dew from the cars, set up the plate camera and took the cable release in my hand waiting for the amazing reflection I knew would come. As the sun started to appear over the trees it became obvious that no reflection was forthcoming. Have you guessed? During the night the reservoir had been emptied for cleaning! Who would think of checking that a thing like that might happen? Not me.
GET ON THE RIGHT SIDE.
Looking at a picture of a car interior have you ever wondered how we could shoot all the seats and the interior fittings that would normally be hidden by the door and other bits that get in the way? Well it’s very simple; an angle grinder was part of the studio equipment so that we could remove door mounts and other obstructions that spoiled our field of view. In most cases the client preferred to do this before delivering the car to the studio.
On one occasion Fiat delivered a car with no door mountings to show a completely open side view. While it was being delivered I noticed that unfortunately the wrong side had been cut off, so it was sent back to Fiat for them to weld the side back on and cut the other side off.
Three or four days later the car returned and was put in place in the studio, the advertisement we were shooting was for a manual gear change petrol car and to my horror I noticed we had an automatic diesel. I won’t tell you what the client said but it was a pretty blue colour.
There have been many other incidents over the years but they are for volume two.