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Harley-Davidson Fue Tank Badge
HD Badge - © Copyright 2012 by William Beem

The Art of Close-up Automotive Photography

I recently watched a course by Tim Wallace on Kelby Training about close-up automotive photography.  Having seen is work before (check out Tim's web site for examples), I was eager to understand his technique and try it myself. The image above is from my first effort.  The course was intriguing, but extremely easy to understand and replicate.  In his concluding remarks, Tim urged practice of the technique.  Here's what I learned from my first experience.

It's Easy to Get Started

Per the course instructions, I used a single light (an Elinchrom BXRi 500) and a strip light setup at roughly a 90 degree angle from my camera & subject. My camera settings for this shot were as follows:

  • ISO: 200
  • Aperture: f/22
  • Shutter Speed: 1/200
  • Focal Length 52mm (using a Nikon 24-70mm lens)

The exposure settings are there to ensure that the light falls off rapidly.  You can't see any ambient light in this shot, so the background doesn't matter.  I was just sitting on the garage floor shooting up at the H-D badge on the fuel tank.

It Takes Practice to Master

Having only done this once, I'm no master.  However, I believe that it's good to learn techniques and give them a try. That's one of the reasons why I have been an annual subscriber to Kelby Training over four years now.

My brief experience here reinforced many of the things that Tim mentioned during the course, but they had more meaning after a bit of experience. For example, he spoke about ensuring your subject was clean before the shoot, as it was much less time consuming than dealing with it in Photoshop.  I sprayed the bike with a polish, wiped it down, and did my shots.  Everything OK, right?  Not even close.  The lighting revealed many little spots in the badge, swipe marks on the tank, and a plethora of imperfections that I never saw while looking at the bike.  However, they were quite bold and evident when looking at the full resolution images. Every spot & speck is plainly visible, and there are hundreds of them in this shot. Take this engine shot as an example.

Harley-Davidson Screaming Eagle engine
HD Engine - © Copyright 2012 by William Beem

The angle of light matters, but that doesn't mean you move the light. Instead, move yourself.  Using the modeling light, I could get a feel for which parts would be lit and where there were shadows.  By moving the camera around before the shot while looking through the viewfinder, I could easily see which angle offered the best lighting.

Even then, it still took a bit more refinement once the flash fired. In some of my early shots, only half the tank badge was lit properly, and that sliver of it on the left side was completely gone.  I knew that I also needed to adjust my exposure, but that brought new lessons.

Since I wanted to allow more light in the camera to show the entire badge, my first instinct was to open my aperture a bit.  Bad move.  The key to making this shot work is the light falloff. By opening my aperture, I let in more ambient light and had less falloff.  That made the subject more visible, but less dramatic.  They key was to keep my camera settings as they were and adjust the light to punch out another stop.

Angles mean everything here. There are plenty of reflective surfaces and I didn't want the soft box to show up in a reflection.  That meant spending time tweaking the light in small moves until I got the angle I wanted.  As I said, the concept is simple.  It's the refinements that matter. It worked well for me on some parts, and there are others (like the speedometer) where I need to go back and practice a bit more to work out the angle I need.

Knowledge is a Barrier to Learning

Sometimes you can talk yourself out of trying something because you know it won't work. I never tried shots like this before because I knew the reflections would kill me. Tim's course opened my eyes to the possibility and experimenting with these shots was a blast. After I thought about it for a bit, I realized that I also knew exactly why this should work.  It's just that I didn't let that knowledge come to the forefront.

When you think about it, the key here is a fast light falloff and using an angle to eliminate the reflections. I never put 1+1 together to do this on my own, and now I'm keeping myself awake with the possibilities for other subjects. That is exactly why your mindset is more important than your gear. This experience proves to me once again that photography is simple. The only hard thing about it is allowing yourself to succeed. Sure, it takes practice to master. These shots, at least for me, are just proof of concept.  Now that the barrier in my mind is gone, I can practice & tweak things to have fun with more subjects.  You should, too.
Kelby Training has been a great resource for me to see what other photographers are doing, understand the concepts, and then put them into practice. They keep adding new content all the time, so I never stop learning.  It's a wonderful feeling to know that there's always something else to learn, some new technique to add to my bag of tricks, or perhaps just to get me to think about using my knowledge in ways that I hadn't considered.  Kelby Training really works.

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