How to get started making automotive art (and getting paid for it)

This is going to be a bit different from a normal ‘how-to” blog post. The question I get asked most by far is simple “How did you get started?” Below I’ll list out some of the things I’ve done that have gotten me to where I am today.

1. Love your subject matter.

I’m going to assume that you have a love for cars – otherwise why be here. But this really does apply to anyone making art for a living: love your subject matter. I’ve had a thing for cars since I was 13. I made my parents drive me to dealerships to get books, subscribed to magazines, memorized specs, all in the name of the automobile. If you love what or who you’re working with, it won’t be nearly as hard to motivate yourself out of bed in the morning; it’ll just come naturally. So be real with yourself and ask what you love looking at the most.

Mitsubishi 3000GT
Here it is – My very first “photo shoot” with my Mitsubishi 3000GT, shot on my dad’s Yashica film camera. Dated March of 2001. Note the Twin Towers are still here.

2. Have a solid background

I was lucky; I knew what I’ve wanted to do since I was little, so I didn’t go to a “normal” college. Instead, I chose SVA in New York City, which focuses on making art. Yes, it has an excellent reputation and helped to  get my foot in doors once I graduated, but it does not have to be SVA – any art school can teach you the basics of composition, lighting, equipment and design.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m not very good at drawing, painting or sculpting. But I managed to get in without taking a single art class in high school because of my inherit talent. Focus on what you need to learn to make the art you want, let your natural ability show, and you’ll leave with a piece of paper that you can show to people that says you know how to make pretty things.

Nissan 350z
I’d revisit the spot many years later with my 350Z and pocket Canon Digital camera.

3. Have interest in multiple things

Speaking of education, my degree from SVA says “Bachelor of fine arts in graphic design”. Nope, not a single photography course taken. Instead, I became an expert in layout, composition, typography and design, and how each interact with another. This ability has lead to me to designing brochures and websites for BMW, graphics for AMMO NYC, and even coding this very website. Be versatile, learn multiple disciplines and keep in mind that you might be the best automotive photographer in the world, but your photos still need a place to live. Learn design to showcase them better.

BMW Art Direction
I’m not in the shot, just took a pic at the BMW Performance Center art directing the videographers. My first ‘I made it!” moment.

4. Ask!

Please don’t ever be afraid to ask a question. Social media has made it easier than ever to find examples of work you love by artists you admire; DM them and ask how they made it. Email them off social media for more detailed questions.

Perhaps you think you’re on the level of a professional, and you’d like to make art for your favorite brands. Once again, ask! Introduce yourself via email. If you want to shoot for BMW Performance Magazine, go out and shoot BMWs and email examples of your work to the editor. People have a short attention span, so prove to them that you can do the work you’re asking to do right away. Chances are, you’ll catch their eye. I’ve gotten to work with these brands because I’ve been both bold enough to ask, and prepared to do the job when I’ve won it.

How did I work with Larry? I designed an email blast using AMMO elements, then emailed it to him and said “Hey, I like what you’re doing. Let me help you.” You’ll hear more nos than yeses, but you just need a few to get your name out there.

Maserati AMMO NYC shoot
A behind the scenes shot of my shoot with Larry of AMMO NYC. Another moment I was proud of because I did it on my own, without the help of an agency.

5. Believe in yourself

It’s the best piece of advice I can give you. When you’re on social media, only people that like your work will follow you and give you love, and it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. If you do make a breakthrough, people will hate. This is often because you’re doing the things they want to do, but aren’t because of a million different excuses. Ignore them. And ignore the love to. Stay true to you. Ask people you respect and admire for real feedback. I promise, from teachers at SVA to co-workers to internet comments, I’ve heard it all. But I’m still here.

BMW Performance Magazine
My first magazine shoot, on the cover no less. Again, I did it on my own, without agency help, and with my original D5200 camera.

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post. Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.

 

Photography tips that I’ve learned…the hard way

Surprise! I’ve messed up on shoots. From shaky camera work to not thinking about environment, I’ve ruined plenty of shots. Below are some tips to avoid doing what I’ve done, so you don’t have to learn the hard way.

1. Temperature

Have you ever shot on a hot, humid summer day? Then on the way to the shoot, you’ve most likely cranked up the A/C in the car, like I did on the way to the park where I planned on shooting my own M3.

When I arrived, I took out my gear and assembled my camera, only to find that my lens has fogged up. No worries, a quick wipe will fix…except it didn’t. Neither did compressed air, or warming it up with a towel. In the end, I had to wait about 20 minutes for the temperature of the lens to equalize with the outside and keep the lens clear. Since a lens in closed to the outside environment and  filled with glass, it takes time for it to adjust to temperature if you suddenly move from one extreme to the other.

The result? I missed the best part of sunset, and will forever rue the day I forgot science.

 

BMW E92 M3
Even after wiping and waiting, the lens was still foggy, and I missed the shot.

2. Shaking

I’ve covered how to do a panning shot before, but it pays to show some ruined shots that COULD have been epic, if only I’d been prepared. Keep the exposure short, get low and give yourself a good base to stabilize, and shoot in bursts. It’s cool, no pressure here, since you can’t do it again most likely. Sorry, Yaz Marina M3.

BMW F80 M3
This could have been awesome, but I wasn’t ready and was to shaky with the camera.

3. Distracting reflections

A polarizer for your lens is probably the most important thing you can get for shooting a car, and I keep it on 99% of the time. But even when it’s on, you could be looking at the wrong part of the car, and missing some bad reflections. Make sure to look at the environment around you too. If someone is reflecting in the car, just wait until they move (or ask nicely). This shot of a Ford GT would have been really nice, if the person standing there in a red shirt hadn’t been. Oops. Of course, you can retouch it, but it’s always best to look for these things in camera, as oppose to after.

Ford GT
If only I waited for Mr. Red Shirt to move.

4. Wrong color balance

I love shooting cars, and there is nothing like first getting to the scene and setting up, thinking about the awesome work you’re about to do. But sometimes I rush in the moment, and forget to take a step back and review my camera settings (which were most likely left on settings used for the last shoot, and thus, all wrong.) The most egregious of these is using the wrong color balance setting.

You CAN fix this in post, but why add extra work? Simply get it right in your setting, and the photos will look that much better afterward. I’ll review color balancing is a future post for more details on it.

Audi AMMO R8
I was so excited to shoot this car, I forgot to adjust the white balance, and hence it had an orange/green hue that came from an off-frame light source. It was fixed in post.

5. Bad luck

This is out of our control, but sometimes you show up and things just don’t work out. Going back to that M3 sunset shot with the fogged over lens, if I HAD been able to shoot it, look who ruined the party? Hi Subaru Outback.

Remember that we usually shoot in public spaces, and even though it should be obvious what is happening, some people just don’t realize, so simply ask someone to move out of frame if you can. This woman, however, elected to stay put, and with the sunset nearly over, I moved on.

BMW E92 M3 Sunset
Oh Subaru Outback. On the other hand, if I was shooting the Outback, it would have been a great marketing shot!

6. Light painting

This will admittedly take a lot of practice, and I will go over step by step how to do this like in the AMMO video, but for now, just be aware that moving the light bar in FRONT of the car is usually not good. Light the car from father away and hold the exposure open longer to capture more light. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to retouch out. The shot below is good for a wheel light section, but everything is just useless.

If you’re lighting a specific section, you can stand in front of the car as long as you’re not covering what you want to shoot.

Yea. Don’t light paint like this.

7. Out of focus

I always like to check my work on a larger screen, like an iPad, in case something is out of focus, and I always take multiple shots to ensure that at least one is good. But it’s important to check your previews sometimes to make sure everything is ok, because if you shoot 6 shots and never look, and use the same setting for each, then you’ll end up with 6 bad shots.

A good example is this F80 wheel – I took 7 shots, and all were blurry, Only with much retouching was the end result usable. If your shot is soft and you’re having a hard time focusing, aim your camera at something else, focus, then come back to your object and focus again. Also make sure you have enough light so the camera can pick up and focus on what you want it to.

BMW F80 Steering Wheel
I really needed to get this right and I did not. As a result of the softness, a lot of post work was needed.

Now, if you read this and went “Duh Mike, I knew all that”, then great! But hopefully I’ve helped some poor soul pay attention to these things before the shot was missed.

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post. Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.

What camera do I use?

Here it is. The answer to the one question I get asked repeatedly: What camera do I use to make these images?

The answer? It doesn’t matter. Just about any one can do this.

Not satisfied? Ok, keep reading.

I bought a Nikon D5200 while on a Costco run back in 2012. It was a kit that included an 18-55mm lens, a 70-300mm lens, a camera bag, and a 32GB memory card.

I always do my research, and at the time, the D5200 was about the best basic DSLR camera you could buy. At a cost of under $1,000, I figured that if I didn’t like making pictures I could always just keep it as something good for family albums and such. Its 24MP sensor was almost as good as the one from a full frame D750, and I could always get better lenses once I felt I outgrew it.

BMW M3
This was from one of my first shoots, using the D5200 and a kit 18-55mm lens.

So I suppose tip #1 would be; start small and cheap. No F1 driver hops into the car on his first day at the track; they start their career in something much slower and less capable, then build up to higher speeds. Same principals apply here. Learn what aperture, exposure and ISO mean. Understand white balance, and see how shooting in RAW vs a compressing JPG feels.

Even with a cheaper camera, you don’t lose much from a full frame pro camera as far as settings go, so don’t feel like you’re missing out on a lot.

I kept this setup for a long time, until I was able to buy what still is the best Nikon DX lenses available, the 16-80mm. Always invest in glass before investing in a new body, which are constantly in flux. A new, sharper lens can rejuvenate your camera body and give it many more useful years of life.

And that’s been my setup for the past 6 years. Every image on this website has been taken with my Nikon D5200, and either the kit 18-55mm, or 16-80mm lens, except the intro image here. That includes magazine and advertising shoots.

Now, I will tell you that I recently traded in my beloved D5200 for the new Nikon Z7. It’s mirrorless, full frame, and faster. It takes better pictures than my D5200, but it did NOT turn me into a better photographer. We’ll get to the Z7 in a minute.

Going back to the D5200, I received a lot of “hate” on the AMMO video because of my use of such a basic camera. We’ll take this comment:

“For a pro it’s just unacceptable to use a D5200. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that you don’t need fancy gear to take a nice picture and a D5200 is a great camera to improve your skill. From a pro however, I expect a higher quality product. You do want to use something like a full frame camera to get these rich colors and a greater dynamic range. Even more important you want to be using a camera with 2 card slots, just in case one fails you have a backup of your work… Other than that: nice video!”

Dynamic range simply means the amount of color, or data, the camera can capture in one shot. This used to matter more, but the D5200 has a similar EXPEED image processor from a full frame camera of the same vintage. As for the range of color per shot, it has almost no effect on the final image. We are taking multiple exposures and combining them, but even if we were not, you still would not see any visible noise or banding in a RAW image from this camera. It’s simply to good to do that (unless ISO is turned way up, but that is any camera).

Expose your image correctly and dynamic range will never be an issue with any modern camera.

Finally, DX (cropped) vs FX (full frame) – means that in full frame, you see more of an image. But if you are willing to use a prime lens and walk around for the perfect position, than a DX camera is just another version of that. How would you know if an image is full frame or cropped if the photographer has the car positioned properly in frame? You never would.

And, the D5200 produces images sized 6,000 x 4,000 pixels. That’s huge. To give you a sense of scale, an iPhone XS Max has a screen resolution of 2,688 x 1,242. By comparison, a Z7 produces images of over 8,000 pixels (with huge file sizes to boot) – you’d never notice this difference on ANY current TV, tablet, phone, computer monitor, or starship Enterprise view screen.

Next, think of what we are editing the image on. My work station is an iMac Pro with a 5K monitor, and even at that resolution, it still only displays 15 megapixels. Anything after that is simply gravy. Those extra 9MP from the camera? They are in the file, but not displayed, because the monitor can’t reproduce the color. Even the Z7 and its 47 megapixels of glory are not of much use. I can tell you, however, that one day, monitors will catch up, and then perhaps some of these images will still look very good, even on a 45MP monitor.

Finally, it’s a good idea to have a backup memory card, but then again, the Z7 has only one XQD slot, and I’ve never had a memory card fail, I’ve just replaced them when the contacts look worn.

AMMO R8
The AMMO shoot was with the D5200 and the 16-80mm lens

Moving on to the Nikon Z7, I felt it was time for a general upgrade to full frame, which will allow me to have more image to work with in post. As compared to the D5200, the Z7:

  • Is sharper overall
  • Has many more points of focus, so you can tell the camera more accurately where you want the focus to be.
  • Reproduces color more accurately.
  • Is able to focus faster in general.
  • Is “futureproof” – DSLRs are not going anywhere anytime soon, but the smaller size and weight of mirrorless cameras, and more compact lenses, make it easier to carry, and options for the camera will expand down the road.
  • Has a better screen and an Electronic View Finder to more accurately preview my image. What I’m seeing is literally what I’m shooting, including exposure length.
BMW M2
BMW M2 shot with the Nikon Z7 and 24-70mm zoom lens

These things make my life easier when shooting, but they don’t make me a better photographer. Please don’t think you’re basic camera is holding you back – it’s your creativity that will enable you to get noticed.

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post. Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.