What’s the best way to photograph a car? It’s a question that has dogged BMW for over 60 years and counting. The criteria for a lovely and creative photo are determined by the zeitgeist and the current state of technology, not to mention the artistic preferences of the photographer. A trip through some significant moments in the history of BMW commercial photography, and an interview with photographer Uwe Düttmann, who helped shape it.
- Words and interview
- Hendrik Lakeberg
Mr. Düttmann, you’ve watched automotive photography evolve and had a profound influence on it yourself for nearly two decades now. Have things changed very much during that period of time?
Uwe Düttmann: Back when I started out, the most important thing was for the car to look great, that it had a shiny paint job. Those photos were just about the product itself, for the most part. Over the last few years, automotive photography has become much more lifestyle-oriented, more natural. Society itself has changed. People still want cars, cars are still consumer icons, but consumers today are much more sophisticated. These days, cars not only need to look as good as possible, but the entire scene has to have more vitality, which basically means that in addition to the car, a photo needs to have people in it. The aesthetics of photography have become much more dynamic. Viewers, and by extension, potential customers, are not supposed to feel removed from the product and the brand. Also, putting people in the photo and associating the product with a special location and an attractive aesthetic makes it easier to clearly differentiate that product from others, and thereby to address the desired target audience more directly. Pictures can be used to make very subtle sorts of statements. Whatever you do, though, the most important thing is for a brand to develop its own distinctive style, one that the viewer can instantly recognize.
How do you make a car look good? Are there tricks that you can use that will always ensure a successful result?
Düttmann: There’s one basic rule: photograph a car from about nine yards away and you won’t make any major goofs in interpreting its design. That’s important. Cars are usually about 16 feet long, sometimes more, sometimes less, but when you’re nine yards away, that’s a distance that’s well-suited for capturing a positive image of the car as a whole. The height of the camera and the light are also important variables, of course. But all those things aren’t really enough, at least not on their own. Every new car is an entire world unto itself. You need to have a sense of the car, you need an idea. A good photographer incorporates the distances, perspectives and the entire scene into a unique interpretation of an automobile. You can address the designer’s original vision, but the ultimate goal is to use the language of photography to take that design to a new level. If a car is sporty, you need to immediately be able to see that in the picture. You can accomplish that, for example, by moving the camera a little lower, getting closer in to the car. You can always find certain angles and distances that make the car look bigger and more dynamic. As a photographer, I can use light and perspective to highlight a car’s design in the same way that a sculptor works on a sculpture.
With digital photography, you can change a lot of things in a picture after the fact. Is the location where you take the picture still important at all?
Düttmann: To take a good picture, the most important thing is to have a good idea. And it’s also important to work with people who are able to turn that idea into reality. So first off, you need a great art director and a highly-skilled photographer with an experienced team in tow. Once you’ve got those things, the place where you actually decide to take the picture, whether it’s in the studio or on location, is of secondary importance in my opinion. The most important thing is the idea! And as far as digitalization goes: the kinds of editing you can carry out on photos today were also theoretically possible 15 years ago, they’ve just gotten easier to do. Still, though, contemporary automotive photography operates at a very high aesthetic level. It’s gotten much more complex, because it’s no longer just about a sexy paint job, it’s about using images to tell a story. You can achieve that if you do things like playing with light in more subtle ways, or if you can get out of the studio every now and again and photograph a car in the place where it might actually be parked at some point in the future. If you’re able to position the car casually in its natural environment without it appearing forced and stuffy, then the car breathes, and so does the picture.