Darran Rees, a mural painter who turned to photography, launched his career with a disaster. The government of the United Kingdom hired him to shoot a series of landscape billboards set in a town affected by a disastrous chemical spill. His portraits of the land garnered him national attention, earning Rees his first car commission, from Mercedes. At the time, the portentous event seemed like a fluke. “I had never shot a car before in my life,” Rees says. “But the art director had seen my portraits. He said to me, ‘These are front-on shots of cars in landscapes, but I want to give the cars personality and I want you to do it because I’ve seen your portraits.’” The art director showed good judgment; his then-unknown quantity was recently named one of the 200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide by Lurzer’s Archive.
Rees, who’s first passion in photography was photojournalism, often uses wide-angle lenses (the workhorse lenses of many photojournalists) in his advertising imagery. Our featured image of a Volvo XC90 was no exception. Rees used a Hasselblad H2D with a 55mm lens and polarizing filter (exposure of the car shot was f/16 at 1/30th of a second, the sky and ocean shots were f/8 at 1/60th to 1/125th of a second) setup on a crane which extended out over the rocky jetty. In order to maintain the same camera position throughout his team had to be meticulous “We sandbagged the crane down and every time we got off we put another bag down to allow for our body weight,” he said. But the platform was only part of the challenges on this shoot. The client, Volvo, had arranged a location in famously rainy northern Scotland. They had planned a dark, stormy shot with torrential rains. The trouble was the weather. It was idyllic: Rees and his crew left with sunburns. “We brought rain machines and water tankers with us because, obviously, we couldn’t guarantee it would rain. But we didn’t expect it to be that sunny,” he says. “After I shot the main element, I had to go around for another week with my assistant and hunt for rough seas to complement our main shot.” Rees also surrounded the Volvo with three Profoto bi-tube heads in tulip dishes about 15 feet from the vehicle to add highlights and fill. He also had his assistants move around the car holding foam boards to prevent the sun from reflecting off the metal and ruin the feel of a stormy sky (to later be added in post).
They worked under a tent that housed thousands of dollars of computer, lighting and water-pumping equipment. To create the foam, they used “a very large hose which was about eight inches in diameter. When it hit the floor it was foaming just because of the volume of the hose,” he says. “The important thing was the camera was locked [down] and never moved. We just took sections from each digital file, reassembling them later on.”
The digital revolution is a mixed blessing for automotive photographers. Never mind the global recession or the turbulent price of gasoline: Photographers working with automotive subjects have a different problem: CGI. “I don’t think traditional car photography will ever be the same again, mainly because the car industry is changing,” he says. “Five out of ten campaigns are CGI because it does save on prep and lugging cars around, which is very expensive. Plus, [the company] can advertise a concept car without actually having to make it, which costs millions.” When asked if car photographers were worried, he replied in the affirmative: “Big time.”
Rees was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Tell us about the featured image.
Rees: It was from a nautically themed worldwide campaign for Volvo. They released limited edition models for the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race. The featured shot had a Volvo on a jetty with waves crashing around it. We shot the campaign in Northern Scotland at the end of April, which we chose for its supposedly inclement weather. We were there for ten days and we all got sunburned! We didn’t see one cloud.
F STOP: How did you create this stormy looking shot in such beautiful weather?
Rees: The brief called for heavy seas, tons of rain, and very stormy skies. We brought rain machines and water tankers with us because, obviously, we couldn’t guarantee it would rain. But we didn’t expect it to be that sunny. After I shot the [Volvo], I had to go around for another week with my assistant and hunt for rough seas to complement our main shot.
F STOP: How did the ad agency people react to the unexpectedly good weather?
Rees: American clients and art buyers were there and could see that it was obviously too sunny. It ended up working out really well because if we shot in dark, rainy weather we would have had to light all the cars on location. The cars were lit very well with natural sunlight we had and we were able to control and bring out more detail. Afterwards I was able to choose the elements that fit with what I had already shot. I made sure that there was a light source within the sky that matched the light source of the car I had already shot, so when it was all put together it felt like one moment in time. For the seas and waves we found a location in the north of the country with large square rocks that gave me the right impact shape of water, which was then matched with the jetty. When we brought everything together it fit perfectly. We took lots of little steps on the shoot. When the car was on the jetty we put water down and made sure it was foamy sea water. It’s all hyper-realistic. They say, ‘God is in the details.’
F STOP: How did you make sure the water was foamy?
Rees: We had a very large hose which was about eight inches in diameter. When it hit the floor it was foaming just because of the volume of the hose. We did ten-foot square patches and worked our way around it. The important thing was the camera was locked and never moved. We just took sections from each digital file and reassembling them later on.
F STOP: Was the car lit only with ambient light?
Rees: There is a Profoto location light in back up. We also walked around the car reflecting areas like the hood ornament. Because it was sunny, the edges of the car were white and I knew that it would go against a black sky later on, so I went around the car with a black board to reflect black lines into the edges of the car. All in all, it was a combination of reflective light, ambient light, and Profoto light.
F STOP: This question isn’t relevant to the featured image but I’m curious: how is the classic effect of a car zooming down a road, with everything else totally blurred out, created?
Rees: There are three ways of creating that effect: you shoot from an adjacent vehicle, shoot from a rig arm, or put in a blur in post production. The shot with the train was shot with a rig, but in a way that creates the sense of real movement, rather than just a whiz behind the car. I’d rather create real movement in the camera than in post-production. I prefer to shoot car to car, but we are usually shooting on a large-format camera and logistically that’s a nightmare because of movement and bumping. A rig arm can give a very natural effect if you think about it. The camera is going at the same speed as the car, but it sticks to the car so you eliminate all of the bumps that you would normally get and everything is in focus.
F STOP: How is the rig arm built?
Rees: It’s either carbon fiber or plate glass. There is less to take out in post production and it can go out to forty feet. If you lock your camera on the end of it and push the car over two meters, it’s is usually enough at about two miles an hour. It gives you a nice natural movement that you can control it.
F STOP: How did you become a photographer?
Rees: I started working as a mural painter when I finished art school. Around that time I bought a camera and after the first roll of film I shot, I realized that everything I was trying to do with drawing and painting could be done in an instant. It was literally like somebody had switched a light bulb on. I dropped art more or less over night. Then I decided to go to photography college and did a two year course. While in school, I called up John Claridge in London and asked if he wanted any help. Nobody else would call him up (for an internship) because they thought he was too famous. Amazingly, he said yes. I spent a week with him and didn’t go back to school. He offered me a job as his assistant, which in 1990 was the golden assistant job. I worked with him for a year and a half until I became frustrated that I was helping create someone else’s images rather than my own. After a year I started talking to advertising agencies trying to get some work.
F STOP: What was you first big break?
Rees: There was a chemical spill in a very peaceful part of the United Kingdom. It was the government’s fault and they had to run a national poster campaign with huge billboards to make up for it. They wanted to do a big picture of this area where the spill had happened and I was lucky enough to get the job because I shot a lot of landscapes and people. It was my first time feeling how powerful photography can be.
F STOP: Did you ever work in photojournalism?
Rees: Regretfully, no. My top college choice was Newport’s College of Photography in the UK, run by Magnum and the Magnum photographer David Hurn. I tried for that and failed, so I went to my second choice, which had more of an editorial angle. There I discovered big format cameras and studios and realized there were other ways to creating imagery. I sort of fell into advertising after working with John. I’ve regretted not doing photojournalism at times because it’s a more reactive and instant form of communication that can be a little bit more honest. I do a lot of charity work and go to Africa a lot to work for fair trade, but it’s not like going to Gaza or anything.
Rees: I shot a lot of people in landscape. My first car commission was a Mercedes campaign, my first big break shooting cars. I had never shot a car before in my life, but the art director had seen my portraits. He said to me, “these are front-on shots of cars in landscapes, but I want to give the cars personality and I want you to do it because I’ve seen your portraits. I want you to bring that same sort of power to these cars.” That wouldn’t even happen now, but he convinced the clients to give me the job even though I didn’t have any cars in my book.
F STOP: Why do you think things have changed, that your experience with Mercedes wouldn’t happen now?
Rees: In the last ten years the power has shifted from creative to accounting. Everything at advertising agencies now is much more tightly controlled. It needs to be researched more, pre-visualized. Everyone has to agree on how it’s going to look before it’s even created. Many times someone has said to me, “You’ve got an amazing portfolio, but do you have a picture that looks like that layout?” It never used to be like that.
F STOP: Do you think the ad industry is going to continue in this direction?
Rees: People might finally realize that nothing really great is coming out of all this control. Perhaps we’ll start getting back to basics again. I’m cautious, but hopeful about it.
F STOP: Why can’t creatives envision your style matching up with their aesthetic if you have something similar but not exact?
Rees: I have no idea. It seems to be embedded much more with clients in the United States than it is elsewhere. Clients tend to trust the creatives more in the UK. Commerce and business don’t necessarily make for great creativity, but that’s kind of the world we live in at the moment. That’s why we are seeing a break between art photography and commercial photography.
Rees: Yeah, I do. I’m usually given a lot of creative freedom. Ninety percent of the time I’m allowed to work with my own people on post-production, Saddington & Baynes London, who did the amazing job on the featured image.
F STOP: Do you feel like you get pigeonholed sometimes as a car photographer?
Rees: No, not all the time. To me, cars have always been elements in one of my pictures and my pictures are always about emotion and the feeling of being there. Once you put a car into one of those pictures then you have a sense of what it’s like to own that car…I would never want to be classified as a car photographer because I didn’t set out to be a photographer of cars. I’m just a photographer, period.
F STOP: For the people who do consider you a car photographer, is there anything you try to dispel that?
Rees: Other than what I just told you, I make sure that the portfolio is always varied, which isn’t a great thing from a business perspective.
F STOP: Do you ever use CGI in your imagemaking?
Rees: We’ve started doing more and more of that now. Not with cars though. The ice plane shot [from my portfolio] is CGI, for example. It was a concept that I was asked to come up with to promote CGI. [CGI’s] creative possibilities are wonderful. People are going mad with it now, as they do with all new forms. People try to create unreality because they can. What I’m interested in doing with CGI is creating reality. I have a book of images that I’ve drawn for years and I haven’t been able to physically create with traditional photography.
F STOP: Do you do the CGI yourself?
Rees: God forbid, no. I’m good at photography and leave the post-production up to the people whose forte is the technical side of things. I sit with them and direct.
F STOP: Do you have any idea about the range of cost for using CGI?
Rees: No, I don’t. I know that it’s double the re-touching rates, which are up to a thousand dollars an hour. An image like the plane would have taken a couple of days. Everything about CGI right now is expensive. It’ll come down, like everything else, within a couple years.
F STOP: Do you think people are worried about it threatening the car photography industry because it’s sometimes more cost effective to just plant a car in in post then take it all the way to the location to have it photographed?
Rees: I think it’s taken over a big chunk of the market. I don’t think traditional car photography will ever be the same again, mainly because the car industry is changing. But even before all this started to happen you started to see less and less work and more CGI cars. Five out of ten [car] campaigns are CGI because it does save on the prep and lugging cars around, which is very expensive. Plus, they can advertise a concept car without actually having to make it, which costs millions and art directors can come up with outrageous concepts.
F STOP: Are car photographers worried?
Rees: Big time. I’m pretty sure they’ve seen half their market erode through CGI and the car industry collapse.
F STOP: Are you trying to position yourself in a different way now to appeal to other markets?
Rees: Well, I never positioned myself in a way to get car work anyway. I’ve always tried to work in other areas too. And as long as I have my little Canon G10 camera and I can walk out the door every day here in Paris and photograph someone on the street then I’m involved in my art and that’s all I really care about.
To see more of Rees’ work visit his website.