Ever wondered how those crazy colorful editorial portraits are created? I took on the challenge of creating stylized editorial automotive portraits of painting cars at an Atlanta auto collision shop. Armed with every flash and light modifier I owned, some great help, and a rampant imagination, we came up with some of the best editorial photos I’ve ever taken.
Ready to see how I did it?
The inspiration for this shoot came from Rosie the Riveter, that WWII era poster that’s so iconic. I also wanted to do something fun for my dad – he’s been fixing cars since he was 17 years old, AKA all of my life. I wanted to pay homage to a dirty job that I’ve grown up around and also add the twist of putting a woman in such a role. In all the years my dad has been working on cars, I’ve never met a single female peer pulling, fixing, welding, or painting.
I knew this was going to be one of the most complicated shoots I’d ever attempted from a lighting standpoint. My vision was theatrical and colorful. The hardest aspects were going to be how to paint a car without adding more work to the shop’s team, not throw off their production schedule, and how to keep costs down. Automotive paint is crazy-expensive. My dad’s solution was shoot on a Sunday when the shop was closed, and use water for the spray. His shop uses water-based paint so spraying actual water through the paint guns wouldn’t damage them at all. Awesome. We picked out two cars to “paint,” and I also got unfettered access to lots of old materials to use when we replicated paint mixing on a workbench.
The challenge that I knew was going to suck but didn’t fully anticipate just how much was setting up props. With the shop painter and my dad’s blessing, I was able to rearrange some parts of the paint shop to get the overall look and background I wanted for the first image, a painter mixing paint. I also had the benefit of my dad being on-site for the day of the shoot, so he helped prep the cars for the paint booth portion. Getting these automotive portraits right was critical to me, so I really appreciated having experts on site. I’ve never spent so much time setting up three scenes for shots in my life.
Total set up time: About 6 hours
Total shoot time: Around 1.5 hours
First Scene – Mixing the Paint
Once the workbench was set up, and all manner of leftover paint was collected and placed, the lighting cam next. This shot required six flashes, an obscene number that I figured would happen but still didn’t anticipate.
You can see with the following sequence of images how we built the lighting. I always start by taking a picture without any flashes firing. This shot allows me to figure out what the ambient light will look like first. Once I have the ambient where I want it, I start turning on flashes. I always start with the background and work my way forward to my subject. That meant setting up the three flashes I had lighting the environment (two with blue gels and one with orange). Next, I placed a 48” Octabox (a big freaking light modifier) off to the right. The Octabox would fill in the shadows and make sure there was still visible detail in the dark regions of the scene. Finally, I dialed in my key light, a 34” beauty dish that was just for my model, Emma. I used a grid on that beauty dish to make sure that light didn’t affect the rest of the scene. I realized later that I wanted more separation on her right shoulder, so I set up a small gridded stripbox (rectangular light modifier) camera right, behind but facing towards Emma.
Building the Light
Fun fact: if you have a gelled flash firing at the same spot as a white flash, the result is white light. The white will wash out the colored gel! So for this shot, light control was necessary to get all the colors without any weird wash out effects.
I really wanted to get the story right here. Auto shops are not very clean or organized. Part of doing editorial portraits is being realistic, even if you’re enhancing the story with lighting. So as much as my OCD self wanted that workbench to be tidy and clean, I had to let it be what it was. I did blow off the five years of dust build-up on that workbench though before we used it. To get the right colors, painters have to mix various paints by weight to get the proper ratio. Each manufacturer has its own paint ratio for each color. It’s pretty incredible. Last time I checked, there are over 30 different variations of the color black. Every year, shops must order a new catalog with all the latest manufacturer paint codes and ratios so they can properly repair and paint the latest vehicles. I find it fascinating.
You can see the Behind The Scenes video here for the sequence for the mixing shots:
Second Scene: Painting in White
Next came the actual painting shots. We started with a white Porsche with clean lighting in the white spray booth so that the focus was on Emma. This scene is pretty realistic lighting for how cars are painted. You want to replicate daylight and fill the booth with light so you can make sure the paint blends and matches the vehicle.
Another crazy six-light set up – this one was a little more annoying for me. I put two flashes with blue gels in the shop to make the background pop. Without those lights, the background was just a dull, gray wash. Next, I added a flash behind the car to the right with a grid and pointed at Emma’s left cheek. This light would pop the shadows just a bit and maintain detail. I placed another rim light to the left and behind Emma to light her right shoulder. Again, just adding a bit of an accent to make her stand out. Next, that big 48” Octabox came back, placed behind me and to the right. Its goal was to bounce light off the ground to fill shadows. Lastly, for my main light, the 34” gridded beauty dish was placed just out of frame to camera left, with the sole focus of creating some pleasing, contrasty light on Emma.
Getting this lighting right wasn’t too bad. We spent the majority of our time getting the spray nozzle of the paint gun tuned to get the best spray for the photos. Again, bringing realism to these automotive portraits. Emma had to take a 2-minute crash course on how to properly paint from my dad. I think we got pretty close, but my car aficionado buddies have already pointed out where it’s wrong. Where’s the room for artistic license gang? Ha!
Third Scene: Painting in Color
Finally, color in all it’s glory. Five flashes, with 4 of them gelled. We changed up Emma’s position so that she would be facing the camera more, thus adding some more intrigue and story to the images. For these, we used a blue Kia, and I wanted to go nuts with the colored flashes. To start, I threw teal gels on two flashes to light the background. Next, I put an orange gel on a flash to camera right, behind but facing towards Emma. This light would give a crisp edge light to separate her from the background. I then put an orange gel on that 48” Octabox, placed it behind me, and aimed it such that it would illuminate the side of the car nearest to the camera. It ended up lifting the shadows but also added a brilliant orange shine to the plastic tarp covering the vehicle, which added some depth to the image. As usual, the gridded 34” beauty dish made an appearance as my key light, which I kept clean white. It was placed over my right shoulder and aimed smack at Emma’s face.
This set up was the most tedious and tricky because we had to rush. Emma had an obligation, and we were pushing her time limit. I hate building anything intricate in a rush because you tend to miss little details (like super hard shadows) that you end up having to spend infinitely longer trying to fix in Photoshop later. We came out pretty lucky with this final sequence, and I was floored by how well the colors worked together.
To see Behind the Scenes for the last two scenes, with the video below.
If you have a fun photo concept, check out my Portraits page for information on how to make it happen.
Until next time!