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Car photography is a world – and culture – of its own. Paul Harpin, who designed the first TopGear magazine, compares some of his early encounters with Porkers, Bimmers and a young Jeremy Clarkson with the techniques used today by the best in the business

The McLaren F1 road car hit the hump-backed bridge and leapt through the air. I screamed. “Let me out! I don’t want to die!”. No-one had told me who Sutcliffe was — the UK’s best test driver/writer. James, his deputy, was also screaming, but with intense pleasure.

I’d thought cars were all the same. I was so wrong. This one had three front seats. ‘Sutters’ was in the middle caressing the steering wheel, then, as it leapt, crashing gears in mid-air. The day before, a two-meter long flame had shot out of the exhaust pipe. Photographer Andrew Yeadon was trying to get the greatest car picture of all time. McLaren F1, tick. Giant leap, tick. Massive flame, tick. No Photoshop. I was starting this car photography lark at the top, I know that now. This was only my third day.

Day one: pink rim lighting in the studio. The car as modern art. Andrew was turning out brilliant angles and details. I was learning – to light the car, to highlight the amazing curves you light the studio walls. Wonderful.

Day two: Bruntingthorpe test track. The car sped around the corner to reach 210mph. Formula One’s Jonathan Palmer was driving. Andrew refused to get in the car. Too dangerous. His clamped camera was set to auto. We got it – a close-up of the speedometer at over 210mph. Then a helicopter shot: Jonathan had just two in-flight CDs – James Last and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Car magazine’s special Photo supplement from 1985
Car magazine’s special Photo supplement from 1985

Autocar was staffed by nobs or yobs with nicknames – Chip, Skid (Mark). Cars had nicknames too – Porkers, Bimmers. It took a while. “Chip’s brimming the Porker”, is not a Tory ritual but actually translates as “The road test editor is filling the Porsche with fuel to the brim, to get accurate figures”. I was learning the photo language too – tracking and panning, pushing and pulling and shammies and hot spots.

Adam Stinson in Car magazine's Photo supplement, 1985
Adam Stinson in Car magazine’s Photo supplement, 1985

I’d just launched TopGear magazine. I’d had two mag design heroes. One was Mike Lackersteen at Redwood and I’d just taken over from him, but my big hero was Adam Stinson at Car magazine. The king of ideas. Hidden messages everywhere. Dogs in pics if the cars were… dogs. VWs: lemons. Peter Charles, his deputy, recalls, “Adam pissed me off one winter, wasting time photographing dead insects in the office. Months later, for their awards issue, the dead insects were in amongst the poorer cars”. Great ideas. Great planning. Their 1985 Car Photo supplement was my bible.

"So I was to meet Jeremy Clarkson....told me about a pic he’d seen in Germany. One shot – every car you could buy. So we had our first cover idea." TopGear magazine, issue one, Oct 1993
“So I was to meet Jeremy Clarkson….told me about a pic he’d seen in Germany. One shot – every car you could buy. So we had our first cover idea.” TopGear magazine, issue one, Oct 1993, featuring Frank Herholdt’s cover photo and poster.

So I was to meet Jeremy Clarkson. Wrong politics. Huge, actual, head. Studded leather jacket, cowboy boots over jeans. I was the son of a coal man, he went to pre-prep school with my posh friend Pam. We were both from South Yokshire. We had a laugh, he’s a great writer, he wrote every caption for issue one, and told me about a pic he’d seen in Germany. One shot – every car you could buy. So we had our first cover idea. We shot at Brooklands with Frank Herholdt. We shot from the bridge. Frank had a megaphone. His assistant was helping to park, so I had to focus for Frank. It became a poster.

Technology makes ideas happen. Tim Wren had made a long boom that fastened his camera onto the car, way out in front. Sharp car, moving background. We used this boom technology for one of my favourite Haymarket spreads. A Rally team, unusually, had a female driver and a male navigator. So: sharp car, moving background, eye contact, spinning wheels, flying mud, forest blur. The headline capped it off: “I tell her where to go, and she drives me round the bend”. Words and pictures forming an irresistible whole.

A Jaguar XF shot in Kowloon, Hong Kong, by Andrew Shaylor in 2012 for Haymarket’s Jaguar Magazine (shaylorphoto.com)
A Jaguar XF shot in Kowloon, Hong Kong, by Andrew Shaylor in 2012 for Haymarket’s Jaguar Magazine (shaylorphoto.com)

So to the present, Tim Scott, creative strategy director for Haymarket Network, and former art director for our Jaguar magazine, explains how technical car photography has become: “Photographing a car is all about the way light reacts to the angles, textures and colour of the surfaces of the car. In a studio you can control everything to achieve the style of image you want, each small nuance of colour, tone and intensity. On location there is the added dimension of natural light, how it constantly changes.

“A single image can be made from multiple shots and lighting set-ups. These will then get stitched, painted and brushed together. Commonly a front three-quarter car shot will be made up of at least 8-10 separate shots – such as the front bodywork, the left-side body, the roof, one shot for each wheel, etc. Tricks can be used to create the right effect on each part of the car, such as big, soft, diffused lights bounced from around a white wall and ceiling to give an even tone across the car, or a harsh thin Keno light that gets walked around the car on a long exposure.

Stan Papior for Autocar
Stan Papior, chief staff photographer, Autocar. “Stan Papior is an artist,” says former Autocar art editor Amar Hussain. “He is always looking for an angle, a bit of terrain. Stan is the pioneer of British automotive photography, his style and execution have been emulated by almost every modern car photographer.”

“The complete car will then probably be placed on a background that has been shot separately and carefully measured and angled to ensure it works with the studio image.

“Car manufacturers will usually create heights and angles guidelines for each car model. This will have been worked out with the help of the car’s designers to specify measurements for the height, distance and lens preference of the camera to show the car off well”.

By Stan Papior from a 2014 Autocar road trip story which took a Nissan Qashqai from its birthplace in Sunderland all the wayto Istanbul.
By Stan Papior from a 2014 Autocar road trip story which took a Nissan Qashqai from its birthplace in Sunderland all the wayto Istanbul.

Car photography is a mix of authenticity and trickery which constantly moves on, improves and changes. It’s compelling, so compelling that one photographer, who will remain nameless, once held onto the door handle of a car on a shoot. He’d left the hand brake off and somehow followed the car, off a Quayside and into the water. He was fine. Thank God. And thankfully, there was no-one inside. Car photography – it takes a great amount of effort, but it’s not quite a matter of life or death.

Paul Harpin was previously creative director at Haymarket, BBC Redwood, Centaur and SPH magazines in Singapore and is founder of the EDO. See paulharpin.comHarpin recently started design consultancy Harpin & Wearing with fellow magazine designer, formerly creative director for Elle and design director for Vogue, Geoff Waring

Image shown top: From a shoot by John Wycherley (johnwycherley.com) for the Spring 2015 issue of Audi magazine, commissioned by art editor Emma Try. “John Wycherley did an epic travel story for us titled Everyday Quattro,” Try says. “It demonstrates the off-road capabilities of an Audi A7, usually found in the fast-lane of the motorway. We travelled to the Arabian desert outside of Dubai. John and the crew worked with a local sand-driving expert and survived 40-degree heat to photograph the car dramatically blasting through the dunes. The birds-eye view cover shot was captured using a drone – our first drone cover!”

The November issue of CR. Cover image: Rich Stapleton
The November issue of CR. Cover image: Rich Stapleton

This piece also appears in the November print issue of CR, a Travel and Transport special. Details here

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