Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Arthur Edwards

Andy Wee

Automotive Photography (Singapore)

A "conductor of light" in a sea of steel

After positioning himself as one of Singapore's premier automotive photographers, Andy Wee sought out new challenges by moving his base of operations to Shanghai. He now moves in even faster photographic circles, all while seeking out and shooting some of the most powerful and exotic vehicles in the world. Through years of experience, he developed a unique talent for capturing cars in a more meticulous and romantic light, with domestic and international clients depending on his vision to create buzz and sales. As his expertise grows, so does the collection of awards and his recognition in the industry. Restless both creatively and geographically, Wee regularly embarks on photographic adventures to New York, Tokyo, Melbourne and other vibrant locales.

How I became an automotive photographer

I started out photographing architecture and interiors, and then moved into more abstract work. At the time, one theme I began to work on involved a car, and I submitted a few of those pictures to a local magazine. After a few months, a different magazine contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing some automotive photography for them. I thought the car that I was assigned to shoot − a Pagani Zonda F − was not my style, but since the magazine was taking a risk on me, I decided to give it a go. I had never really considered shooting cars professionally before − I thought it would be too difficult − but it turned out that those pictures were a success, and they launched my career in the genre.

 

Skills required: All of them

I have been shooting fast cars since I first started in the business, and I believe that automotive photography is much more than what most people think it is. It requires skills from every discipline of photography. For example, car images usually need a background, which can then naturally incorporate elements of studio, landscape or architectural photography, depending on your location. If there is a model involved, you need a sense of fashion. For tracking shots of the car in motion, a sports photographer’s talent of capturing movement is vital. On top of all this, most magazines like having a story implied in their images, which can require the skills of a photojournalist. Automotive photographers can also wear the hats of art director, choreographer and digital retoucher, depending on the assignment.

 

Being a "conductor" of the entire shoot

Automotive photography leaves very little to chance. It's all about planning. In fact, I'd say that 60% of my execution has already been completed even before I shoot the car − often as early as 48 hours before. When location scouting, we note the sun’s location and the direction of the license plate so that everything matches up when shooting in the studio later on. We also write down the distance between the car and the camera, as well as the height of the camera and lens used − all crucial to matching the perspective. I take pride in turning a mass of rubber, gears and steel into an image that appears to be a living, breathing beast. I often feel like a conductor as he constructs a symphonic score. I become a conductor of light, and at the end of the session, I am mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. But my performance lives on in an iconic image. The entire crew acts as the symphony. There are six to eight assistants, each with their own duties, responsibilities and temperaments, while three other people handle the lighting. Another guy is responsible for laying down the power cables, and another cleans the car itself. Yet another jacks and rotates the car wheels. I find this invigorating, but most importantly, I find it extremely gratifying. As a conductor, if things are correctly aligned, synergy is achieved and a great car image is achieved. Whether online or in print, each time I see an image that I shot, I must know that I did justice to the car.

What's at stake

The process of shooting car interiors may surprise you. The car is actually cut open for interior detail shots, and because there are several angles needed, the car is slowly carved into smaller pieces at different stages. The photographer is responsible for deciding what to cut first, and cutting the wrong place at the wrong time means towing the car back into the studio. Meticulous planning is required to ensure such mistakes never happen.

 

That magic moment

It can take as long as two or three hours between the first shots confirming the camera angle and the next set of images I shoot, which check the lighting setup. There is a magic moment in there for me, when everything is set up and the lighting is right and that image confirms what you want to see. Lighting the car properly is crucial to bringing out the idiosyncratic qualities of the design. It can make a shot mediocre or awe-inspiring. For this, Nikon never fails to deliver. Sometimes I feel as if Nikon is my third eye, and ensures my satisfaction at the end of a photography session.

What's in my camera bag

I must stress that despite whatever equipment I stuff into my bag, it's always my eye that will ultimately make the difference. My tenacious, high-paying clients trust my judgment to deliver stunning images that hopefully translate into admiration and car sales. At this moment, my main workhorse is the Nikon D800E. Its image quality meets my high technical requirements. Now if only Nikon could put the D800E sensor into a D4 body!

Here is the list of NIKKOR lenses I use.


AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED
PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED
PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D
Ai AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

I mainly shoot with fast primes to get the best quality possible. I also use three tilt/shift lenses: the PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED for car interiors, the PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED for car exteriors, and the PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D for car details such as keys and knobs, because this lens has an excellent macro feature.

I also own Nikon Speedlights SB-800 and SB-80DX (from a different age) but they are only for backup at location shoots when there isn’t enough lighting for car interiors.

The rest of my non-Nikon equipment is listed below. Each component plays an important role.

Gitzo 5561SGT with RRS ballhead
HP ZBook laptop computer
Dedo lights x5
1200ws DC strobes x3
1500ws AC strobes x2
4bank 1.2m kinoflo x2
2bank 2.4m kinoflo x2
9m carbon fiber rig
Aputure radio trigger x9

As you can imagine, shooting cars requires lots of big lights. When I shoot overseas, I usually rent them at the location to save on extra baggage fees, but I use my own lights when shooting in China. I travel often, regularly doing about two commercial shoots and one editorial shoot a month. This is when camera cases with wheels are a must − I can rest my aching back without having to carry everything! They are truly my mobile studio.

The common complexities of my typical workflow

A great photograph cannot be summed up merely as one simple click − countless hours of planning happen both before and after each shot is fired. Here are a few notes from my typical workflow.

A shoot request usually arrives at my desk in the form of a PowerPoint presentation containing the agency’s concept and objectives. My team then does an Angle Test: shooting the car from every angle that you can imagine. Once the client approves of certain angles, we start hunting for a location that fits the concept proposed by the agency. Sometimes the location doesn’t exist, so we have to create it ourselves. There are numerous hoops we need to jump through in order to move forward: location permits, a thumbs-up from the agency, and so forth. Once these are accomplished, the shoot begins. If the car is a prototype and cannot be seen in public, the car will be shot in the studio. If it’s a studio shoot, then there’s an entire array of other pre-production tasks to be completed. I’ll need to know the angle of both the car and the sun in the background so that everything matches later on and achieves ultra-realistic lighting.

Because the entire scene is shot in components, the D800E is actually more than enough for me. The final image is actually bigger than the camera’s already large resolution. The usual size is around 12,000px-15,000px. Like I said earlier, it takes conductor-like skills to piece everything together. The entire project and objective must be crystal-clear in my mind. The camera is connected to an HP workstation laptop with a dreamcolor panel for absolute color accuracy. This is no time for guesswork. Every tone of the shadows and highlights must be dialed in perfectly. A laptop with color precision is a must. Every component needs to be checked for sharpness, depth of field, exposure and lighting. The car is not shot as a whole. Everything is shot separately: the rims, wheels, front window, side windows, badges, front grill, headlights, fog lights, and chrome parts. Even various car shadow angles and the wheels spinning at various angles are shot separately. Nothing is left to chance.