fuelled by speed

Jessica Bracey speaks to the go-to man for car photography, JUSTIN LEIGHTON, to find out how he captures speed.

Pedal to the metal, eye on the prize and camera ready to capture speeds of up to 189mph, this adrenaline-fuelled genre is not a slow paced feat as car photographer Justin Leighton can testify. «The fascination with cars started when I was about four years old and my friend’s dad had a hot rod in the garage. I remember going in there and he started up this massive V8 dragster engine. As a small child the noise was totally all-encompassing and it burned itself into my brain,» reminisces Justin. But his sporting photography career has only hit the ground running in the past seven years, after a total of 28 years’ photography experience. From garden shears in his previous line of work to grinding gears shooting for the likes of Maserati, Mercedes and Aston Martin, his drive and profession lies in the high-end breed of automotives. In this field, commissions are harder to come by compared to shooting for car manufacturers such as Ford and Kia, due to the fact that these brands are in demand with waiting lists the length of the Pan-American Highway. “High-end cars look great but the money’s in middle-market brands because they have a bigger model range, so need to advertise them more compared to your Ferraris which everyone is queuing out of the door for,” says Justin, «here you’re enforcing the brand as well as marketing it.»

On Localion.

Gaining his Maserati commission through his relationship with Top Gear, Justin’s creative approach depends on whether he is wearing his editorial cap or his cliental cap. «With Maserati, because of the nature of the advert I shot, they didn’t want to go down the over-processed line which we’ve seen from many other car adverts. Many adverts are shot with virtual rigs so that the car is static — spinning the wheels and then superimposing them on different backgrounds so the cars in this instance are pin-sharp because they’re shot in a studio — but here the client didn’t want to go down that route, they wanted it to be far more natural and to use the environment. It’s also about the physics of a car driving down a road, going round the bends, it’s got to look real and believable to the buyer.»

Envisioning more than just a car that costs the same amount as a house on a stretch of concrete in Italy, Justin’s process of shooting on location is also about the lifestyle that the car encapsulates. With a foundation in photojournalism thanks to his background in magazines and newspapers, narrative over technicalities play a vital role. «It’s about reinforcing people’s choice in buying the car in the first place,» says Justin about the Maserati shoot in Italy. “We wanted to use the Italian landscape and what the brand had on its doorstep, which is great history and a great country to photograph in. A lot of car manufacturers choose to shoot there because it is such a fantastic location and everyone’s completely car mad there,» continues Justin.


Streaming through winding roads with your hair blowing behind you and the sun flaring off your sunglasses, this lifestyle seems pretty joyful on first glance, but when it comes to making it happen in camera the logistics of setting up a shoot such as this is all but an easy ride. «As we’re shooting on a public road we have to shut off all access for safety reasons, because of cars speeding up and down the road and the safety of the people involved, but also you don’t want outsiders seeing the car before it’s launched. So police closing the roads is all part of the job, really.»

Like scenes from a Hollywood blockbuster with dozens of crew and paraphernalia on standby, the collaborative efforts of the team, from producers to location scouts, can be demanding compared to the format of an editorial shoot which has more freedom. «There’s a lot of money riding on it and it does soak up time, so you need those people around you to have their roles. As a photographer you’re shooting the car for about a week but there’s endless meetings on pre-production, storyboarding, what’s going on, what’s going where. I’m lucky that this allows me to come in and take the pictures, but there’s a lot of activity that happens before that because there needs to be confidence that the company’s money is being spent well and you’re getting what you need.”

Feeding ideas between himself and the producer, it’s Justin’s style of photography that grabs him the commission, and that again comes down to the narrative behind the advertisement. «You’re making up little stories in your head about why the car’s on the road and what’s happening. I’m not a very technical photographer, I don’t get turned on by the Latest software, it doesn’t float my boat as much as creating something in-camera,» he admits. In agreement with the client to shoot on Location compared to in the studio, the process can prove difficult and more shots need to be fired off, but the buzz of hurtling down the road hanging out the back of a Range Rover and holding on tight to a Cinesaddle to get those moving shots sure is exciting. «It makes my hair stand on end. I just love shooting pictures and still shoot them as the way I did when I used to stick a roll of Kodachrome 64 in the back of the camera. I don’t think about the post-processing as much as I should, it’s all about making it authentic.» Using the technique of tracking to freeze the car in motion while the background is just a blur, Justin uses shutter speeds down to l/15sec on smooth roads. «Basically you’re travelling at the same speed as the car — you can actually attach a rig to it, but I track it from car to car,» he says. «It’s quicker that way and you get more done in a day,» he continues while speaking about sometimes breaking the standard rule of thirds for a different take when showcasing the car.

Bringing out the best.

A challenge in itself, hanging on for dear life to the moving car and functioning the camera, it’s while the automotive is stationary that Justin brings out its qualities.

«I like washing the cars and finding out where the best details are, like the headlights, seats and engine.» he says. «Again it’s about the story of the car and the driver behind it. If it’s an estate, it’s a family car so you know the deal, but sometimes it’s fun to contrast the brand and the location of the shoot too, like an Aston Martin Rapide through a National Park, which I shot for Top Gear magazine. It shouldn’t be there but it worked.»

Using a range of cameras from Canon to Phase One, Holga, Leica and even a Fisher Price camera throughout his career, it’s the Nikon D800E he claims is a work of genius. «With the Maserati shoot I needed something that was small, light and fast, rattling off bursts of five or six frames at a time but also delivered big file sizes as I shoot in Raw, so needed the highest quality. This would be with a mixture of zoom lenses for convenience when in a fixed position, and primes for optimum quality and shooting static shots,» Justin says.

Slightly underexposing shots, on occasion Justin will take along a small Profoto battery pack when in a desert or shooting interiors to lift detail, but prefers to travel light. «The use of artificial lighting will be to kill shadows, then I use a lot of polyboards and reflectors, smoke machines and direct light to make a scene more dramatic depending on the brief, but predominantly I use natural light,» says Justin. «The time of day is a major factor to consider when working with natural light, it’s the same old rules that Mr Kodak came up with so fundamentally nothing has really changed when it comes to lighting. Although I do like shooting into the sun,» he admits about trying to achieve a nice amount of lens flare. «I like it when cars are backlit, especially in the deserts when the light is brutal and then you get an hour of absolutely glorious sunlight which flatters the car in a different way. I’ve got a set of old Nikkor lenses which have no coating on them so that you get this great flare coming into the camera.» When it comes to reflections though, as with any shiny surface let alone with a product of such size, they can prove to be difficult to work with. «It can be a nightmare! And then you have to retouch the car to remove reflections of people, which can be a pain, so you just need to be aware of that.»

Pulling the right moves.

As with any speciality genre which can’t be shot on your average iPhone, Justin understands that it’s the client that is number one. «On big commercial shoots I’ll do a look in Lightroom and then pass it on to the retouchers. I can argue my case with them on certain aspects but at the end of it all the client is paying the bill and gets the results that they want,” he admits. “Things have to get retouched, especially when working on location, because when you source the spot it looks perfect but then, like in our case, we went back and a lorry had gone through the barrier,” says Justin confirming that even the most unsuspecting of mishaps can be removed in post production. “That also goes for different versions of the car, but as a whole, all of the images are shot in camera,” he continues while confirming the importance of shooting authentically on set.

Driving towards moving image and shooting TV ads as well as stills for manufacturers, Justin is expanding his portfolio of the car industry and speaks of the challenges. «There’s an automatic tension between the moving image and stills, it’s a different way of working. You make cars look faster by shooting them in different ways, for example in stills they’re going 20mph and you’re panning through different shutter speeds but on TV the car has to be going fast otherwise it’ll look slow. The physics of it work in different ways.» And how is Justin finding the cross-over between the two mediums? “It’s been painful, it’s been expensive, there’s this fantastic thing called sound which I’ve never had to deal with before, so it’s been an interesting learning curve. But there’s a lot more technicalities with video such as editing and directional elements so there’s still that narrative, and it’s obvious when you get it wrong.»

Looking back on his journey, as with all perks at the end of the road, it’s about starting with your first banger and working your way up. “It gets to a point when you have a reasonably good budget with a reasonably good car and reasonable location that you can really start to make it happen, but that’s after all the hard work getting to that point as a photographer.”

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