JAMES LIPMAN - AUTOMOTIVE PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 21st May 2018
James Lipman’s dynamic imaging style and love of all things auto have made him internationally renowned as an automotive photographer...
James Lipman's dynamic imaging style and love of all things auto have made him internationally renowned as a photographer of prestigious marques, including Bentley, Porsche and Rolls-Royce, as well as on editorial projects for the likes of BBC Top Gear, Car, Evo and Octane magazines. A self-taught photographer who began by making the most of a disused darkroom at school and a friend's collection of NIKKOR lenses, he explains how Nikon helps him realise his 'auto' focus…
I grew up around interesting cars, and some of my friends' parents worked in the car industry and in motorsport. I love everything that vehicles do for mankind – ultimately the ability to go places and do things independently. And some machines are just beautiful – I have a real love for old Porsches and have had two: a 1972 911T and currently a 1968 912. I love shooting classic cars – a few years ago I worked with a journalist friend to create a book – The Cult of Porsche: In the Beginning. We keep planning on doing two more Porsche books, and life keeps getting in the way… but the first one turned out to be a great marketing tool.
Cars make great subjects – you put a car where you want it, set up, shoot. You can go for lunch, and when you come back, more often than not it's still there, just as you left it. I've always been interested in aircraft, too. I got my pilot's licence six years ago and I love being able to fly for the same reasons that I'm drawn to cars – freedom and independence, but more! In reality, running an aircraft and operating it in the crowded airspace of the southern UK couldn't really be more grief. But somehow it's still worth it.
A lot of my action photographs are shot car-to-car, which involves two vehicles moving with each other at a fair speed. The basis of the technique is using low shutter speeds to convey movement. The shutter speed mostly depends on the condition of the road surface, and how well you slept the night before – around 35mph is about the norm. With the right crew, it's perfectly safe, and I'm careful about who I work with. When shooting near fast-moving vehicles, I use judgment and experience to determine my acceptable level of risk. If you're sensible, it's pretty low. But I try not to dwell on danger – I can think of more dangerous people I've worked with than dangerous situations I've been in!
Probably the hairiest work-related thing I've done was flying myself back from Ålesund, in Norway, after a shoot for Bentley. I decided it would be quicker to route back to the UK over the North Sea directly from Bergen and, exactly halfway across, the engine spluttered for a few seconds. I've never felt so small than that moment – 4000ft up in the air, midway across the North Sea, out of radio contact, with no one anywhere, not even me, knowing what was going to happen next. A few minutes later it spluttered again, and again and again with increasing frequency as I zigzagged my way across the Shetlands and Orkneys towards my destination at Kirkwall. Luckily, despite its repeated indecision, the thing continued to run enough to allow me to land, and I taxied to the small terminal in an extremely reflective state of mind. When I think about it now it still makes my palms sweat.
Then there was another time, up near Nordkapp, also in Norway, when the SUV I was shooting got a flat tyre. As the technical crew were sorting it out at the side of the road, we heard a series of cracking noises and looked up to see rocks tumbling down towards us from the slope above. Luckily they were hitting the road a few metres up from us, but it was another moment where I suddenly felt very small in this world.
It started at school. We had excellent photography facilities but no one was using them – so I basically had this incredibly well kitted-out darkroom, full of really great equipment, all to myself. I couldn't go through paper and film quick enough. At the time I wanted to be a press photographer, with dreams of one day working for National Geographic, so when I left school I went to Sheffield to do the NCTJ press-photography course – I was in the same class as Nikon Ambassador Leon Neal, and we entered the same competition for an intern job at The Times. He beat me to first prize.
My first break came while on that course, during the fire-service strikes of 2002. I knocked on the door of the Sheffield fire station and shot a small photo-story on them, which I entered in the Picture Editors' Guild Awards that year. I didn't win that either, but in the pub afterwards Alan Sparrow – executive picture editor of Metro and now chairman of the Guild – gave me his card and that ended up with me getting some freelance work for Metro. It quickly became obvious I was no good at shooting proper news, so I ended up spending a few years doing features and portraits, and working on the picture desk for them instead. That gave me the confidence to shoot pictures for print.
While I was at Metro, I began thinking about what sort of thing I really enjoyed photographing, and it was cars. I liked messing about with old VWs, so I contacted the editor of a niche magazine called Performance VW, and did a shoot for them. The editor liked the pictures and asked me to do another shoot, which led to more work. Soon my images were being noticed by other similar car magazines, and then the bigger magazines started ringing, and that led to working for the car manufacturers. And now most of what I do is manufacturer stuff, but I still love to shoot editorial.
I try to shoot as much magazine stuff as I can. It's often great fun and helps with ideas for my corporate work. There's never a great deal of planning or time available when shooting with magazines, so you learn to think and work quickly. That helps when it comes to the commercial work – people appreciate your ability to just get on with the job.
At school I had a friend who had loads of Nikkor lenses, and I thought, 'If I get a Nikon camera I can borrow all his lenses.' Come to think of it, 17 years later, I've still got his 50mm f/1.2… My first Nikon was an FM, and since then I've worked my way through quite a few. I'm currently using the D4 and the D810. A few days ago I had to stop my van quickly and my old D700 came flying out from somewhere under the seat, which was brilliant because I just loved shooting with that camera.
For dynamic shots, I sometimes use my D4 or D810 mounted on a carbon-fibre tripod attached to the car. I was using this set-up for one particular assignment in Wales and there was a signpost at the far end of the stretch of road we were shooting on. I told the driver, very clearly, that we had to stop before we reached it, otherwise it would smash everything off the car. On the third take, he didn't stop, and as we passed the signpost the tripod hit it and exploded into pieces, and my D4 and 24-120mm lens fell to earth, slamming into the asphalt from a height of about eight feet, at a speed of around 20mph.
I lifted the intertwined heap of camera, filter mount and tripod bits from the ground with gritted teeth, and was astounded to discover the D4 and lens in one piece and full working order – focus spot on and all controls still working. It says a lot about how well Nikon gear is built.
Nikon's range all works together, and it always works with no messing about – it's an amazing system. The D3 and D700 was the benchmark for me – that's when Nikon's digital quality started to get properly good. The dynamic range with Nikon cameras is immense, and with every model it just gets better. For me, ISO isn't such a big deal as I'm usually shooting with lighting or on a tripod, but the dynamic range is key to my work. AF tracking is a big deal, too, and again it's amazingly good.
I occasionally still hire medium format cameras for specific jobs and I often find the handling, speed of operation and dynamic range just infuriating compared to what I'm used to with Nikon. I also love the way the general layout of Nikon controls remains consistent from one Nikon model to the next – I've used the system long enough that I can set up my cameras without even having to look at them.
That would be the 24-70mm f/2.8, the 70-200mm f/2.8 – that one gets monstered – and the 24-120mm f/4 VR, which is ideal for moving car-to-car shots. I've also got a bunch of primes, including the 105mm Micro-NIKKOR, for studio work. My studio photography often involves shooting multiple frames to create the final image – cars are a real mix of shapes and textures, and showing them at their best often requires a range of exposures and lighting treatments, which are composited in post-production to create the final image. For this technique it's vital that the position of the camera, focus or focal length doesn't alter one bit between frames. The camera is tethered to my laptop so that it doesn't need to be touched. Besides their razor-sharp resolution, primes won't move if left untouched, whereas there's sometimes the risk of a zoom lens creeping under its own weight if you find yourself working a long time on one shot.
Everything I shoot has at least some element of post-production. The amount depends where the images will end up. All car manufacturers put out 'press-packs' of images when they release a new product. For these, I'll clean images up – colour, exposure, dodge, burn – but I don't go too heavy because they're supposed to be an accurate representation of the machine, and many magazines won't run news images that don't look believable.
For marketing work, it's all about showing the vehicle in the most perfect, visually-enticing way and, for that, anything goes. Sometimes with a concept or pre-production vehicle, or a test mule that has spent some time on the road, it will take a fair amount of work to get it looking clean, tidy and accurate to the likeness of the vehicle that will eventually be on sale.
One of the things I love about my D810 is the dynamic range and shadow detail it resolves. A few years ago I was using ND grad filters to help suppress highlight and shadow details into one image. I was going through grads like a maniac – dropping them in dirt, cleaning them with my shirt, getting them all scratched up. Now I can expose for a certain part of an image and rein in shadows and highlight detail in post-production – just like Ansel Adams was doing with his prints back in the 1930s! I never used to take much notice of his Zone System, but every day now I see its genius.
I'm really excited to have just signed with a rep in LA, as I'd love to work in the US. I want to continue balancing editorial with higher-end commercial work, while shooting classic cars for fun. It'd be great to combine all this with a bit more sleep, too.
One of my all-time favourite photographers is David Alan Harvey. His work is utterly beautiful, but most obvious in his documentary work, especially his series on Cuba and Haiti, is his huge love and intricate understanding of his subject. To me, that's everything about photography – communicating the experience of your privileged insider point of view.
Many years ago, when I was near the end of school, I did a photography workshop in London with another photographer whose work I really like – David Modell. I had just applied to do a geography degree at university. He asked why, and my answer was that it was a back-up in case my photography didn't work out. David looked very uneasy with the thought, and then asked what I'd do if I didn't have a back-up. So I dropped the university idea. That was the best advice I've ever been given in any aspect of life
The advice I'd give others considering a career as a photographer is less romantic than that! As a photographer, you need to know for certain whether anyone needs your work enough that they're going to pay you money for it. Then identify who that is. Making photography a business is complicated, but it isn't mystical or magical and it rarely involves luck – it involves time and effort creating and selling a product to someone that needs it. For the business to be viable, the product should be valuable to someone and always treated as such.
That has to be with Rolls-Royce in 2013, when they recreated the annual Alpine reliability trial from 1913. In the 1912 event, a man called James Radley entered his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which broke down and failed to finish. The factory found out and were so dismayed that the next year they engineered three cars specifically for the gruelling event, and cleaned up every other entry. This is how Rolls-Royce got its reputation as 'the best car in the world'.
In the summer of 2013 Rolls-Royce created a commemorative edition Ghost, and I spent four weeks riding around the Alps with a bunch of other, much older Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts, shooting from the back of a motorbike. It was unbelievable – photography, mountain roads, old Rolls-Royces, sun, incredible scenery and a motorbike! But everything I do seems OK to me – I love cars and photography and couldn't imagine a better job. I plan to keep with it for as long as I can.
You can keep up-to-date with James' work on Instagram @jameslipman