At TI Group in Ann Arbor (1980-89), we had the opportunity to learn automotive photography on-the-fly. Larry Bell got us in on the ground floor with GM Accessory catalog production. Soon we got the chance to replace outdated product photos using my old 4 x 5 Graflex and hot lights in the former kitchen of the old place on Main at Summit.
When Oldsmobile wanted to introduce their “ES” (Euro Styled) cars for 1985, they thought maybe an Ann Arbor agency might offer the sophistication they were looking for.
At that time American cars were shot on negative film and heavily airbrushed on big dye-transfer prints. (Photoshop was a thing of the future.) We looked at the Mercedes and BMW brochures and said “color transparency, no retouch – that’s the look.” Privately I said “Available light too.” Indoor shooting would have cost more than we grossed on the job.
We had a lot of location shots to get for an eight-page poster/brochure, so I scouted every elegant stone building in Ann Arbor. I almost got run over in front of the Gandy Dancer getting that five-second exposure of three cars and six models. We also used the Law Quad, the Clements Library and Inglis House to get the settings we wanted. But when Oldsmobile said “Kill the white letters on those tires” I had to learn E-6 dye retouching in a hurry. It was also needed to darken the sky, overexposed compensating for the natural and electric light.
That led to other new-car introduction photography which paid for a new 4 x 5, some flash units and a Hasselblad for the small stuff.
Unlike any American car company, BMW brochures showed their cars in motion. We had no idea how to get this effect, but the photographers at Car and Driver magazine, just across town, had perfected it. We hired the one who had time between shoots, and had a hair-raising time with him shooting from the passing lane of a two-lane road.
The next time we needed a shot, he was in LA, so we used his technique. “Sit on a load of rocks (for stability) in the back of a station wagon with a motor drive on your 35mm camera. Shoot with Polaroid transparency film so you can see when you’ve got the shot (maybe one out of 30 frames).”
We made one change: we used Huron Parkway (two lanes each way). It was a fair trade: we used his secret, but we probably saved his life by showing him a better road.