The Birth of Automobile Action Photography

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Lorraine Dietrich by JH Lartigue

By the time Karl Benz introduced his Motorwagen to the world in 1886 photography was already established as both an art and a science. 

In fact Frenchman Joseph Nicephore-Niepce, the prolific polymath credited with the first process, to fix an enduring image ,Heliography, in 1827 had invented an early form of internal combustion engine way back in 1807 ,although he fitted it to a boat rather than a car.

So fast was the development of new technologies in the Victorian era that Benz’s quadracycle powered by an internal combustion engine did not evolve much and was quickly overtaken by steam and electric powered vehicles that proved not only faster and more efficient but also the most popular cars in those early days of motoring.

In 1899 Camille Jenatzy broke the important 100km/h or 62 mph land speed record in his electric car Le Jamais Contente (above)) and in 1906 Fred Marriot in a American Stanley Steamer set a new LSR on Daytona beach in Florida at 127mph.

But how to record all this high-speed derring-do.

Exposure times in the early days of the Daguerrotype were up to 30 mins and elaborate frames and braces were offered to hold the subject of a portrait still for the time the shutter was open.Henry Fox Talbot’s coachman had to stand still for 3 minutes for this very early 1841 Calotype (below), there was no shutter at all for the earliest cameras just the lens cap that was removed and then replaced. Exposure times were quickly reduced with further advances in lens technology and accelerators added to improve the light sensitivity of the plate that brought this down to under a minute.

But even the portable photographic equipment of the Victorian era was heavy and unwieldy with early models using glass plates that needed coating with wet collodian emulsion on site and developed immediately afterwards. Matthew Brady’s extraordinary images of the American Civil War, considered to be the first photo journalism, brought the horrors of conflict to the breakfast table but the images were, by necessity posed, portraits a bit stolid to the modern eye and battles scenes seemingly static with any movement blurred due to the long exposure times still required to capture the image. Movement had been captured accidentally as this stereoscope image (below)of Broadway by Edward Anthony in 1859 shows but it was not intentional.

The search for the technology that would allow an ‘instantaneous ‘ image was on.

Fox Talbot had successfully managed to capture motion in 1851 using a sudden electric flash on a copy of the Times newspaper attached to a spinning wheel but was not until 1878 that action photography really came of age when inventor Eadweard Muybridge successfully captured a race horse in motion using a shutter of his own design with speeds of between 1/125-1/1000th second that the problem was solved.( see below)

Cameras were still large and cumbersome but, with the invention of the gelatin coated plate started to come down in size and by the 1880’s there was a myriad of hand held equipment available. This(below) 1889 photo of Buffalo Bill galloping a horse seems remarkable considering the technology available. Enter George Eastman, the manufacturer of ‘American Film’, an emulsion-coated paper he invented and his Kodak box camera. At just 3 x 6  inches it had a fixed focus 57mm lens set at f9, a barrel type shutter and was preloaded with sufficient film to produce 100 negatives.

The world’s first motor race, the Paris to Roeun trial, was organised in 1894 with 21 starters.

First car home was a steam tractor that was disqualified as it took two people to operate it, a driver and a stoker but this fine photo (below) of Albert Lemaitre in a 3hp Peugeot came in second and was determined the winner.

In 1895 the Lumiere brothers showed their first cinematograph, the first moving image film…although the quality was poor it quickly improved and it asks the questions why should photographers persevere to shoot stills of action when you could see the subjects move?

The answer is complex. Cinema was costly and difficult to produce whereas photography with Mr Eastman’s help was simpler and a whole lot cheaper. Publications sprung up that demanded imagery from races and events and now with advancing technologies ‘the decisive moment’, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it later on came into play. Photography could capture a still frame of the action whereas the movie could not.

Freezing action with a fast exposure was only part of the story for, although the image was captured, it didn’t offer any expression of movement and new techniques would have to be developed to capture the atmospheric type of action photography now possible due to the faster shutters, lenses and emulsions.

Movement in a photograph was often unintentional (below) in the early days and more by luck than judgement as professional photographers grappled with handling their ungainly plate cameras and it’s remarkable that there were so many successful action images in those early days.

1906 Vandebilt Cup,Duray in the De Dietrich.

Viewfinders were still basic affairs, usually just a wire frame mounted on the front of the camera making it difficult to follow a moving vehicle and light metering was by external light-meter or general exposure tables and relied heavily on the latitude of the media to capture the image..

There are many atmospheric images of racing from this first decade of the 20th century but as equipment improved photographers started to experiment with what was achievable.

One of the most famous early motor racing photographs taken in 1912 by a young French Photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigues shows a passing Delage (below) taken from the side of the road during the Grand Prix organised by the Automobile Club de France. It’s has become famous for it is one of the first action images using a focal plane shutter which scanned from bottom to top hence the leaning forward nature of the subject. Cartoonists of the day picked up on this and used what was effectively an aberration, with oval wheels pitching forward to depict speed in their drawings from then on.

Lartigues had developed his techniques earlier to produce a number of other interesting action imagery of his friends larking about with a go kart in their garden and it was only in retrospect that the significance of these very modern looking photographs was recognized with their informal approach and technical skill.

He used a range of equipment from large plate cameras, Kodak Brownie and a Leica, the new, high quality German camera that had first appeared in 1925 and was small enough to put in your pocket. Leica’s motto was ‘small negative, big pictures’,beautifully engineered, they featured a  very high quality lens and were virtually silent.

The most successful of the early action images were scenes with the car passing through the frame, with the camera static but as shutters improved and lenses became faster a new style of action photography, that of panning (below) the moving car as it passed by, matching the speed of the swing to the subject, began to be developed. This gave the impression of what the spectators saw as they swung their head to follow the car as it passed by with a sharp subject and blurred background.

1927 Malcolm Campbell, Pendine, Bluebird 174mph

Motoring artists such as F Gordon Crosby and Roy Knockolds were producing evocative illustrations and paintings of motor racing depicting movement and blur to show speed with stones kicking up, spray from wet roads and scarves flying and ES Tompkins argues in his 1948 book Speed Camera that it should be possible to produce photographs of a similar quality and atmosphere.

The amount of blur and the success of the panned image relied on a number of variables some of which could be controlled and others not. First amongst these was the speed of the subject and its axis, whether is was passing straight by or coming towards camera was the most significant one of these with a faster shutter speed needed for a car in ¾ view. With practice early motoring photographers were panning at speeds from 1/250th second down to 1/100th second which, when you consider the equipment, was no mean feat.

Dramatic action images started to appear (below) in the The Motor or Autocar that wouldn’t have seemed possible a decade before. Many of these images were taken on the new 35mm film stock, popularised by Leica and launched by Kodak in a pre-loaded single use cartridge  in 1935. 35mm film had been used before as early as 1908 by photographers but it was 70mm movie stock split down the middle and re-sprocketed and had to be loaded into reusable cassettes for each use.

1937 Auto union British GP Donington

The next development that helped action photographers was the arrival of the 35mm Single Lens reflex cameras that appeared just before the war (Kine Exakta). Reflex cameras had been around for a while but the viewfinder was blanked as the mirror sprang out of the optical path just before taking the picture effectively delaying the shutter release which was not ideal for action photography. (below) This was solved by Pentax in 1954 with the introduction of with their instant mirror return mechanism, a system still in use today.

1954 Fangio W196 Reims

Although the Lumiere Bros had gone on to invent their colour Autochrome process back in 1908 it remained costly and unreliable and it was not until Kodachrome (colour below) and shortly afterwards Agfacolor was introduced in 35mm format in the mid 1930’s that it became more popular .It was still expensive however and many photographers still used black and white film stock until the 1990s as it still offered better latitude and was better for action in low light. (B & W below).

1958 Phil Hill ,Ferrari Portugeuse GP
1959 Hans Hermannn, BRM P25 Avus

Telephoto lenses with longer focal lengths had started to be developed in the Edwardian era with some featuring multiple positive and negative lens groups as used in opera glasses but it was not until the rapid development that WWII brought to many imaging technologies that affordable versions started to appear. Wide angle lenses were also developed and the first zoom lens appeared in 1959, Voigtlander 36-82mm. Also in the late ‘50’s Nikon introduced their SP camera, although only a rangefinder, it allowed a motor-drive capable of 3 frames per second to be attached.

A new breed of motor sports photographer started to appear who followed the races internationally supplying the magazines and news organizations as well as sponsors as more money flowed into the sport. French photographer Louis Klementaski was one of the finest and he experimented with action imagery using close-ups and slow shutter speeds. (top below). Tom Burnside( bottom below)were also shooting high quality innovative action images with their manual cameras at this time that developed the art.

1957 Fangio in V12 250F French GP-Klementaski
1956 McAfee Porsche 550-Tom Burnside

Until 1960 all photographers needed to use an external light meter to work out the correct exposure but built-in light meters, visible Through the Lens, started to appear and, although not very accurate at first, proved to be invaluable for speeding up the process of shooting an opportunistic image. Other developments that helped the action photographers were semi-auto exposure modes that appeared first in the ‘60s and then in the late ‘70’s the first full auto exposure cameras arrived (Canon A1). With Autofocus coming in 1981 (Pentax ME-F) and the first digital camera in 1991,(54) (Kodak DCS 100) the modern age of car photographers were  properly equipped.  

E Type vs Corvette in LA

Photographing cars for a magazine feature in a big city is never straightforward and if you want to shoot action it takes the level of difficulty to a higher plane. But that’s what Classic and Sports Car magazine required in February of 2020 on a week long feature visit to Los Angeles to collect some sunny stories for the winter pages of the next issue.

Local knowledge is key when finding locations, and although I know LA pretty well, I wasn’t familiar with the area where our cars were so we had to trust the owners and they came up trumps choosing a section of road around the Palos Verde headland south of the city with the glittering Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands in the background.

Shooting action with two cars ,three if you count the camera car on public roads can be a traumatic experience for classic car owners who aren’t used to close formation driving but our guys did really well even managing a smile as we coaxed them closer and closer to get the pictures.

We found a piece of safe two lane highway with turn arounds about mile apart,an elevated bank for panning and a short mountain section for a chase sequence.I just wish we’d been shooting video and sound as the noise was glorious.

When shooting action it really helps to have good communication with the subject drivers so I gave the lead car a walkie-talkie and described each set up to both of them so they knew where they were meant to be in relation to each other and the road positioning for the different shots explaining the safety risks along the way.

We did about 3 or 4 runs of each type of shot to achieve the right placements…I could have gone on all day such were the great cars, locations and weather but owners tend to get a bit gnarly if you push them too long so when I knew I had enough we wrapped it up and went for lunch…not a bad day in the office.

Datsun 240Z action

Photographing features for magazines uses a wide variety of photography styles but the hardest type is definitely action so I thought it a good idea to outline a few of the most commonly used shots and explained how they were taken. The subject I’ve chosen is one of greatest Japanese sports coupes, the Datsun 240Z.

Cornering with the Datsun 240Z

Cornering

In the shot above the car is cornering hard and the idea is to capture an image to demonstrate the handling characteristics .This is best done by watching the car come around a tight open corner and looking for the point when it no longer is coming towards you but starts to travel across the frame, a front 3/4 view . Shoot from a low position using a telephoto lens of about 200-300mm should keep you at a safe distance but be sure to check that your Autofocus is on ,set to Servo, so that it will follow the car around the corner keeping it sharp throughout. Shutter speeds from 1/350th – 1/640th second depending on the speed of the subject.If you too fast on the shutter you’ll freeze the tyres and the car can look parked on the corner.

Datsun 240Z panning

Panning

Panning is one of the oldest and most diverse action shots you can use when shooting a car. You’ll find panning images from 100 years ago which is remarkable considering the ungainly and clunky equipment of the day.
You can shoot a profile, front 3/4 ,rear 3/4, wide angle, telephoto, zoom pan…the list is always being updated as snappers discovers new ways to photograph cars. The original and the best though has too be a profile pan, side on, this flattens the perspective giving the truest interpretation of the shape and is the most straightforward to master. Look for a road that is open on one side with bushes, trees or a fields close on the other side that will offer up a good amount of blur. Start shooting using a telephoto lens of about 200mm at 1/125th second, Autofocus set to Servo, keeping the car in the frame as it passes in front of you from about 20-30metres away swinging your hips in a smooth even arc. Check for sharpness on the screen blowing up the image to be certain and then slow your shutter speeds down to 1/60th and then try 1/30th second to really get some serious blur on your image. Practice makes perfect so don’t be disillusioned if you don’t get sharp images straight away…keep at it.

Cockpit in the 240Z

In Car Action

Another great action image to include in your portfolio is a cockpit shot.You can hand hold the camera and pop a bit of flash into the frame to fill in the shadows, shooting from the back seat with the road snaking away looks good….Or you could get a window clip mount as in the shot above.This fits onto the lowered window with a wide angle lens and uses a super slow shutter speed of about 1/2-1/15th second.Engine off, the car is pushed or rolled down a gentle hill at walking pace to give a highly effective action image.

Car to Car the Datsun 240Z

Tracking

There are lots of other action images you can shoot if you have the time and you’ll find more in the ‘How to Photograph Cars’ book but the other type you often see on the covers of the top car magazine is a tracking or Car to Car shot. This is taken using a standard or wide angle lens from the back of a hatchback from an overtaking position to depict the car traveling along the road. You’ll need a two good drivers to drive the camera car and the subject car , a quiet or private road and a shutter speed of between 1/125th-1/30th second…the slower shutter speed you use the more blur you will get in the background but the lower your hit rate will be as it’s hard to hand hold on a bumpy road.Safety is a priority here so make sure you obey the rules of the road and don’t break the law.

Next post will be about how to choose the right camera bag and backpack and I’ll be testing a Tamrac Anvil 23. intro2020 #tamracphoto #camerabackpack

Silverstone Bentleys

I recently went to Silverstone circuit to shoot a race to celebrate Bentley’s centenary for a magazine.I’m not really a race track photographer as I don’t have the long 400mm +lenses required to reach the action from the behind the barrier that can be up to 100m back from the tarmac on the F1 circuits.. However in a career of over 30 years I’ve had to adapt to get what is required.Fortunately the theme here was for portraits and atmosphere with a mere smattering of action…right up my street.

In a busy race day it’s important to remember that you have to work around the schedule of practise,qualifying,driver briefings and the race itself.Speed is of the essence.If you get hold of a subject you want to shoot, photograph them straight away and don’t make an appointment for later on as they undoubtedly won’t turn up…their priorities are on the race not you.

Be sure to shoot a variety of images ,atmosphere,action,detail,portraits in different locations to build a full portfolio of the event.The assembly area seen above is often a good place to catch up with drivers but be aware that they are often nervous before the race and may not want too chat.

Think about an opening image that might be a double page spread with enough space at the top for the art ed’ to drop in a title, a selection of action images from different places around the track as well as the incidental images that often lighten the feature up in a magazine.

For this feature we asked the organiser ,who knows the field best who, out of the 40 entrants, had the most interesting cars and stories which saved a lot of time.Make sure you have contact details for all the portraits you shoot, in case the writer forgot to ask .I always make sure I’ve got a pen and notebook with me for just this instance.

The most important action image you’ll take is always the start, either off the grid or at turn 1.This is because the cars will be grouped tightly together making for a more interesting image and much of the overtaking happens here.Pick on one car and pan it allowing the other elements to float in and out of the frame.Shutter speeds from 1/1250th down to 1/15th second will all offer up varying degrees of hit rates but with a long race you’ll have time to experiment with longer exposures.

To see the whole feature and read all about the incredible Bentley race at the Silverstone look out for the Bentley at 100 July 2019 issue of Classic and Sports car magazine


National motor museum car photography workshop

Mustang -Pan
Mustang -Pan

My latest car photography workshop was hosted by the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in the New Forest for the Royal Photographic Society although, it was open to all. Ford supplied the perfect pair of contrasting cars, a brilliant orange 2018 Mustang and a lovely 1963 Consul Convertible as subjects and although cloudy the threatened rain held off.

Consul-1
Consul-1

The day was in two parts:Photographing the Mustang and Consul in the grounds of the palace of Beaulieu, choosing sympathetic locations for each, working on composition, shooting details and finally action. Here’s the Consul by the abbey ruins and the Mustang driving for cornering photos in the arena .

Mustang -handling
Mustang -handling

In the afternoon we headed inside to shoot cars in the museum. Photographing cars inside is always tricky with mixed low lighting set for atmosphere so we worked with tripods and fill in flash to capture  the historic displays.

Museum-Silver Ghost
Museum-Silver Ghost

Final part of the afternoon covered editing images and retouching.The car photography workshop was fully booked a long way ahead so if you would like to come to the next one do please get in touch via the contents page or drop me an email to: jim@jamesmann.com

Go to the How to Photograph Cars Twitter feed for more images: https://twitter.com/howtophotocars

 

Competition winners 2017

There was a great response to the inaugural ‘Best car photos of 2017’ competition.

Dave Mundy’s superb slow panning image of the Austin special at the VSCC meeting at Prestcott hill climb won the ‘Action’ category. Dave say’s”I loved the ‘lived in look’ of the car and how basic it was.”

Dave Mundy- Action
Dave Mundy- Action

Zack Stiling took the book prize for the ‘Static’ category with his reportage shot taken at the Detonator’s rockabilly BBQ in Shooter’s Hill, south-east London “The show had a great atmosphere, with people dressing in the spirit of their hot rods and ’50s cars, and I wanted to capture some of that. I thought the Buick in the foreground presented the ideal opportunity to photograph the ladies chatting, as the car’s streamlined, Art Deco styling cues direct the eye towards them” said Zack.
Nikon Coolpix L810, f/3.9 at 1/500th second, 9.3mm

Zack Stiling - Static
Zack Stiling – Static

The overall competition winner was a fabulously images taken by Paul Cook entitled “Stallion in the shower’.

Mustang water splash
Mustang water splash

Says Paul”My future brother in law bought a Mustang and when we went out to visit him in Canada over the summer, I decided it was the perfect time for this technique. For this image I first used a Yongnuo YN300II to light paint the car. Then I got my fiance to stand in specific places with my speedlight while her brother threw buckets of water at the car. The result was something I am quite pleased with for a second attempt, and a nice image for him to print”.

Congratulations Paul…Great image !

Enter the best car images of 2017 competition

How to Photograph Cars is launching a brand new car photography competition to find the best images of 2017.

Open to all amateurs of any ages there are two categories that you can enter. ‘Static’ and ‘Action’, one image per category per person.

The overall winner will receive a copy of my Lamborghini: 50 years of the Supercars’ book worth £50 with the runners up in each category receiving a copy of the latest edition of ‘How to Photograph Cars’.

So start editing all your images you took at the race track, car club summer events,classic rallies or motoring festivals . You might get some ideas on how to pick your best photos from this website or the maybe check out the How to Photograph cars YouTube channel .

Your photos don’t have to have been taken on an expensive DSLR , they might have been snatched on your phone or compact camera…just send them them in to win some great prizes.

Lamborghini book
Lamborghini book

How to Photograph Cars
How to Photograph Cars

Image Guidance : Entries should show good use of technique and creativity and be photographed in the calendar year of 2017. Please write a caption for each image including a short sentence about how you took it. Add your full name and address and please list your age if under 18 years old.

The How to Photograph Cars photo competition is only open to UK residents.

Send your entries to info@howtophotographcars.co.uk in jpeg format at no more than 5MB at 72 dpi or 30cms / 850pixels wide by Weds 20th December 2017. Please title your image with your name and which category you wish to enter.i.e: Smith: Action

Winners will be notified by Weds 10th January 2018.

By entering the competition you agree to allow How to Photograph Cars to publicise your images on social media. You will be credited and retain your copyright.

 

Time lapse photography at the Frankfurt Motor show

I’ve recently been working for Renault at the the largest motor show in on the planet in Frankfurt,Germany. One of the Renault press team asked me to shoot some time lapse photography of their stand. I’ve never been asked for this before so hadn’t a clue how to do it but another photographer had supplied some clips to them before so I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how to do it.

However Mr Google came up trumps with enough information and an online tutorial which I watched in my hotel room and experimented shooting traffic out of the window. Every camera is different when it comes to built in processes but my Canon EOS 5DSR features time lapse in one of it’s menus.Here’s a clip from my first attempt.

It allows you to set the interval and total time and even displays how long the finished animation will be. Mine was set to 1 frame every 3 seconds over 15 minutes which delivered 12 seconds of .mov file. It’s best to keep time laspe clips short as ,like any .mov file, they  can get too big to be useful. The camera must be mounted on a tripod on other secure platform and on initiation automatically shoots 300 frames building the clip without the use any editing soft ware.

It seems to work best with a mix of fixed and moving subjects in the frame although you can get a motor that will pan your camera during the time lapse.

Note that during the shooting sequence there is no shutter noise but the LED menu screen will show progress and count down to completion.

It is definitely something I will add to my repertoire now that I know how to do it…all you need is plenty of time, some patience and the results speak for themselves.

8 ways to shoot a portrait with a Lotus Elite

Quite a common request from art editors for a magazine shoot is to photograph a portrait of owners with their cars. Usually it’s a variety of makes and models so there’s no problem making them look different but occasionally it’s only one type as in a recent 60th anniversary shoot of the Lotus Elite . How you pose your subject will depend on the individual, some will be happier to lie on the ground and some may prefer or suit a more formal approach as with this portrait of ex F1 supremo Max Mosley. Don’t shy away from the standard set up of standing behind the car but make sure you connect your subject to the car so as not to create two subjects.For a magazine shoot it’s important to always keep in mind how the image will look on the page.Mix up a variety of angles with the car and subject positioned both to the left and right. This portrait of Lotus guru Malcolm Ricketts is back lit with flashBehind the wheel is another great option but it’s a good idea to ask your subject to turn their body towards camera if not belted in too tightly and drop their arm to open up the portrait.This is the same position as the Malcolm Ricketts portrait but from a higher angle on a wider lens making it look completely different. Make sure you ask your subject to keep eye contact with the lens and shoot at least 4 or 5 frames to be certain you have the best shot.One of the keys to relax your subject is to keep talking to them as you work, a good start is to ask them about their car,you may learn something.Don’t be concerned about allowing your subject to be small in the frame for a car portrait as long as your composition is good the eye will be drawn to the face.

Photography workshop for journalists

Last week I led a car photography workshop for the Guild of Motoring Writers at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.

GOMW group
GOMW group

It was designed to cater for journalists who are asked to shoot their own photos on car launches and for magazine shoots. As much as photographers might not like this it’s a fact of life that budgets are being squeezed and we are all being asked to do more for less.

We had a great mix of young and old, classic and modern car writers who learnt everything from the rule of thirds, choosing sympathetic locations, featuring our two vehicles, a Peugeot 3008 and MGB as well as brushing up on their panning and cornering image skills.

The afternoon was spent in the museum dealing with mixed and low light situations and planning a portfolio of images suitable for a magazine to include establishing shots , informative photos and details as well as the star cars on display.

GOMW group
GOMW group in the museum