This story depicts a four-day shoot at the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina.
They say football is a game of inches. Well, so is car photography. And there I was, perched out the back of an X5, with my camera inches off the ground.
Move it an inch too far to the left or right, and I’ll miss that dramatic lens flair. Move an inch too high, and I’ll miss that aggressive angle that makes an M car even more menacing.
Adding to the pressure of this high-stakes game of inches is the subject of my lens: Three angry M cars, piloted by three pro drivers from the BMW Performance Driving School. Through my walkie-talkie, I can position them anywhere I need to on the School’s track. I ask them to move not in feet, but inches. Tuck in behind that M3. Space out the M8 a little bit. The composition is everything.
If small measurements are my buffer zone, then time is my enemy. Specifically, the rising sun. Clear blue South Carolina sky means I need to nail this shot while the sun is low on the horizon, before the landscape becomes too bright.
I fire shots off fast, as I have just one straightaway to work with before the cars need to turn hard and away from good lighting. I can’t help but watch in amazement as Matt Mullins, Derek Leonard and Laura Hayes deftly position their cars exactly where I need them. Finally, the lighting is perfect, the cars aligned, and I grab my moment.
Welcome to a day at my job.
You have to love this
Have you ever sat down to play a session of Gran Turismo on your PlayStation? As the action starts, you might find it most comfortable to drive from the cockpit view. It’s the view everyone is most accustomed to from driving in the real world.
Not me. I always had the camera view set to the outside of the car. It wasn’t fun unless I could see that curvy sheet metal reflecting the sun around turn three.
I’ve since made a career out of imagining that. And it wasn’t just video games. I dragged my parents around to every car dealership I could find, snatching up brochures and saving issues of Car & Driver until my bedroom closest was full. Of course, I love to drive on both road and track, but if I had to choose just one thing to do with a car, it would be to photograph it.
As you might have guessed by now, I’m a big BMW enthusiast, so while I never mind shooting any shiny metal, it always means just a bit more when an Ultimate Driving Machine is in front of me. That’s lead me to work with the BMW Performance Center.
From the moment I got behind the wheel of my first BMW M3 over 10 years ago, I knew that simply driving it on the street wouldn’t suffice. So I took the car to many HPDE events and loved every minute of it. But it’s not a cheap hobby, and that’s where the Performance Driving School (PDS) comes in. You get to learn on a BMW just like yours from pros who know the cars best, all while not worrying about tires or fuel.
Seemed like the kind of place I could combine my loves.
Early and Late
The life of a photographer isn’t always glamorous, and I find myself often chasing light. That means at the track at 6AM for sunrise, coffee in hand. It’s May, and the weather is unseasonable warm – 90 degrees that day. Still, there’s a big smile on my face.
We start on the polished concrete of the wet skid pad. Sprinklers on please. Matt, Derek and Laura are familiar enough with me to know what I’m looking for as we discuss the movement of the cars, and my hands move around each other as if each had an S58 engine attached to them. Working with videographer Anthony Purcell of Halcyon, we line up at the edge of the track, and I radio the drivers to start drifting around the skid pad.
It’s a dramatic image: 3 of BMW’s latest M cars slide around and splash water on me as the purple sunrise turns orange, then golden yellow. We move around in multiple positions, and each time the drivers drift on command within a few feet of each other.
It’s impossible to overstate just how good these guys are. If I placed a quarter on the track and asked them to hit the mark with their back tire, they can do it take after take, all day. That just means I can’t mess up.
Putting the M in drama
After our slip n’ slide moment, we hop in for some rollers, which are shots taken from a moving car. We need to up the drama on these, and nothing is as dramatic as a big smoky drift around a tight turn.
The School provides us with X5s, which are the perfect camera car. Fast enough to stay ahead of the cars as they accelerate, big enough to allow me to get as comfortable as possible. That clam shell hatch is key too – it allows me to hang out the back of the car, but not all the way out.
This is the most complex shot of the entire shoot. To be able to drift confidently, the instructors need speed, but we can only go so fast. I always ask for the moon and stars, then the drivers and I work together to see what’s actually possible. We decide on a rolling start. The X5 lines up on a straightaway that connects through a turn. Think of the letter U with a line on the bottom.
As the X5 drives the straight, an M car will accelerate hard to the turn and drift through it. We need perfect timing, good lighting and plenty of smoke. If you’re a believer that modern M cars are too quiet, hang out in front of one going full send. It’s both thrilling and intimidating.
Least you think I nail this in one take and tell everyone to grab a coffee, I do not. It requires multiple tries to get it right (there are many variables that change constantly), with all the cars taking multiple turns. Everyone is patient. In fact, it looks like everyone is having fun.
After going for our flying V formation I described at the beginning of this story, the drivers go to work. That is, it’s class time, and school is in session. For me, that means class coverage, and I become a fly on the wall.
Watching students start out somewhat timid and build up confidence throughout the day offers its own unique moments to capture. Cones are clipped. Driving lines are missed. Time is left in the corners. But everyone improves steadily as classes progress.
Out on the town
As evening light arrives, we do some more good roller work with various cars, but tonight offers a special treat. We’re to take a special liveried G80 M3 into the town of Greenville for a photo op. Remember I said that if I had to choose, I’d shoot the cars, not drive them? Luckily, I get to do both on this night, and I relish the chance to get behind the wheel of my favorite BMW.
Given the car’s paint scheme, it draws quite a few eyes, and parking it on the busiest street certainly gets people talking. But this is one of those “brochure” moments – I got to make an image that I’ve had in my head for quite some time. Years, in fact.
That’s a wrap
Hopefully I’ve broken the stereotype of the director sitting in his chair yelling “Cut!” over and over. I couldn’t stand on the sidelines and just choreograph the action, I have to be in it. I want everyone to feel the passion I have for the subject, and it’s why I shoot cars exclusively. In between takes, I talk with the video guys about the builds they have going on, or what racing projects the instructors might be participating in.
Because at the end of the day, I’m really just like them, and perhaps you too: I just want to be around cars all the time.
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