Photography 101, the Final Test. Chevrolet Malibu

October 01, 2013

I take on a challenge: can I improve my photography in just three easy lessons? The day has come to put everything I have learnt to the test as I shoot a Chevrolet Malibu single-handed.

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Judgement day.

You join me here today with a 2013MY Chevrolet Malibu and a camera for my final test. A little over a month ago I was challenged by my cohorts to improve my photography skills with just three lessons. A lot has been learnt in that time. I now know for instance the difference between high and low key colours and the importance of subject perspective after shooting the Volkswagen Passat Sport. I learnt that majestic landscapes can easily overpower a car and that multi-zoom lenses require a deft touch with the Renault Duster. Magic hour brought with it time sensitivity and constantly-changing lighting when I shot the Hyundai Veloster. I have discovered that automotive photography requires a clear vision, an artistic temperament, preparation, and stamina. And today, all of this shall be put to the test.

There’s a change though. Unlike the previous three instalments in which crankandpiston lensman Arun has been taking his own pictures for the purposes of comparison, the only shots being taken today – aside from new mate Harisanker’s behind the scenes shots – will be mine. I alone then will be responsible for location, framing, lighting, and whether or not this photoshoot sinks or swims. As always, the photos you see here have received only a bare minimum of editing.

Designed for comfortable cruising rather than edge of the seat dynamism, the Malibu may not be traditional fodder, but its bold looks and presence offer exactly the right ‘less is more’ look we need for our photoseries. Plus it’s silver, which makes choosing the location a challenge in itself.

“I alone will be responsible for location, framing, lighting, and whether or not this photoshoot sinks or swims.”

Going big with the landscape is tempting for my final test, but this leaves the risk of the very reflective Malibu merging into the background. For the Chevy to pop, I need a location that mixes a dark, almost monotonous backdrop with infusions of colour. Fortunately, we know one such place by the Meydan race course in Dubai. And while capturing the golden glows of magic hour would be powerful, the pressure required to shoot quickly puts me off. To re-emphasise the importance of framing an image, I have been limited to just six shots, meaning each one has to be right. I’d prefer then to take my time, and Arun and I decide that an early morning shoot would be best. I have also decided to use only the 24/70 lens today – which provides photographic range from close to mid distance – rather than the more ambitious 70/200, takes over where the 24/70 leaves off.

In order to really make the most of our location, I will also be using automatic flashes for the first time that are remotely connected with the camera. When a picture is taken, the bulb fires throwing more light onto those parts of the Malibu hidden by shadow, thus giving the car more definition. While this may sound straightforward, finding the balance – as always – is tricky: too much light will simply jump off the silver paint, over-exposing the shot; too little and the flash will have little significant effect at all. Rather than sticking with automatic settings, this means I have to use a faster frame rate on the camera than normal to get a more consistent ‘flow’ to the light. At the same time, I need a long aperture to restrict the amount of light coming through the lens in order to pick out the Malibu’s finer details: imagine an iris retracting when you blink against harsh sunlight. As you can guess, it’s delicate stuff.

Having learnt (hopefully) from my previous mistakes, this time I am working with a much shallower depth of field and closer cropped frames in order to draw attention away, slightly, from the backdrop and keep the Chevy as the focal point. With this I should hopefully find a 50:50 balance between subject and landscape, a key ratio in automotive photography. Remembering my lessons with the silver Passat Sport, I’m also using the shadows as well as the flashes to alter the perspective: keeping a proportion of the saloon out of direct sunlight allows some of the finer details like the bodylines to stand out, and not just disappear into the reflective silver ether.

One location and three shots down, I decide to mix up the series by changing locations for my final three shots. This staircase allows me to experiment with a dimension I’ve only hinted at during the series, namely shooting from above. Again, it’s a tricky art to perfect. With so little details to work with on the roof, the Malibu can appear flat against the backdrop if not treated correctly. Here though I throw some forced perspective into the foreground by making use of the stairs’ geometric nature and the shadows bouncing off them. It’s a bit MC Escher, but it gives the shot a nice look.

One other problem though is much more down to earth: cramp. Even though I remember to hold my breath whilst taking a shot (which stops the camera involuntarily moving up and down), several frames that are taken back to back are significantly different: in some, the Malibu has shifted in the frame by as much as two inches, simply because small vibrations through my arms have pushed the lens askew. I remedy this by lining up the crosshairs in the lens with part of the backdrop, and using my palm against the body of the camera for a more solid base. It sounds simple, but standing perfectly still is one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced through this series. And since some, if not most, of these shots have been taken whilst I’m kneeling down, my knees soon start to feel the strain.

“I throw some forced perspective into the foreground by making use of the stairs’ geometric nature and the shadows bouncing off them. It’s a bit MC Escher, but it gives the shot a nice look.”

By the end of a long morning’s work, I have six images, a stiff back and right knee, a forehead slick with perspiration, a shirt that’s changed colour and a brain no longer capable of reciting the alphabet. It’s all incredibly draining, and this challenge has given me a fresh perspective on life behind the lens. It’s so much more than just point or shoot, and I’m fully aware I still have years to go before I’m even close to being semi-professional. And yet at the same time, I’ve learnt a considerable amount on the fineries of lighting, balance, perspective, and depth of field. Working with natural light is hard enough, and throwing artificial lighting in as well is an incredibly complex balancing act. And while they are still quite rough, I really am very proud of my finished Chevrolet Malibu set, which I feel shows the car in a light I would have been unable to replicate just one month ago. As far as three short lessons go, I’d say it’s been a success.

But of course, that’s for you to decide.


*Images courtesy of Harisanker.S, Awesome Group, and, well, me!