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Behind the scenes of a Hemmings photo shoot with Troy Dooley’s 1965 Pontiac GTO resto-mod

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Color: it’s the most important element of a location shoot like this one. Make sure that the car’s color is complemented by its surroundings. Guess what the complementary color of blue is, on the color wheel?

Photography: Matthew Leland Sumpter

We hear it all the time: “Oh, dude — you get to work with old cars every day… that must be [expletive] awesome!

Well, yeah. It is. Most of us at Hemmings have held down just enough other types of jobs before getting into this racket to know how much of a privilege it is to build a career out of one of the greatest exports America ever invented: car culture. But, at the end of the day, it’s still exactly that: a job that we’re all responsible for in our own ways.

When it comes to recording all these great cars and their stories in any number of different ways, a photoshoot is one of the first things we learn how to produce. If you’ve ever had a car that was used in a magazine, movie, newspaper story, or TV show, you’ve gotten a peek into what it takes to do this stuff. But even then, it’s hard to imagine what it takes to get to that point and the motivations for why we do what we do. So, we thought we’d peel back the curtain on the dark art of a photoshoot and drag you in!

We’ll use a killer ’65 Pontiac GTO restomod as a great example: the Muscle Machines team had spied Troy Dooley’s car at South City Rod & Custom in Hayward, California, a few months ago, while working on another story, and made a note of it for an upcoming issue. Bill Ganahl and his crew have built a few of these now and we truly dig their hot rod and custom approach to first-gen muscle.

If the story is focused on just the car, make sure the car is the hero of every shot. In some cases, that means selective focus: bringing the important features of the car into focus and letting everything else around them go “soft” or slightly out-of-focus.

Now, we had the car and knew we needed to produce a fairly basic photoshoot around it. When we say “basic,” we mean the standard fare that you’ll see in any magazine: exterior, interior, engine, drivetrain, wheels, and any unique features. You know the drill, even if you don’t think you do. And there are two forms of basic shoots: studio or location. In this case, we’d produce a location shoot. The car would be photographed away from a professional photography studio where everything is controllable; instead, light, background, surroundings – and sometimes, people – are all variables. That adds a whole ‘nuther set of challenges, but location shoots always make for more interesting images.

The “front 3/4 shot” is one of the most common types of shots for publishers: make it interesting with a filter that bends the color and light a little, then get an action shot. The car doesn’t have to roll very fast to make for a photo that looks fast: 30mph and a slow shutter speed can look like a hundred bucks – and 100mph, if necessary.

But, that also means that we’d need to tap a photographer who knows how to handle all those variables. And who thrives on location shoots. For this shoot, we tapped Matt Sumpter: He’s a good car shooter, can turn unexpected challenges into great solutions, and solves problems on-the-fly. Perfect.

We also knew the car was in Gilroy, California. Now, Gilroy is known for two things: garlic and cherries. So, we talked to Matt about pitting the perfect lines of this sano Goat against the beautiful imperfection of the agricultural community that is Gilroy. And then there was that bright, electric blue paint over that great wheel and tire combo. This was gonna be fun…

The “rear 3/4 shot:” these are fairly easy, but if the car has a raked stance, make something out of that. Using the location and background to point to the wheel and tire combo and the car’s attitude that comes from all those elements is always a good idea.

At its core, photography is the manipulation of light. And, in this case, color. We had a preproduction meeting with Matt and talked about what we were about to get into. Could we find one of those great roadside fruit stands in Gilroy to shoot the car in front of? How ’bout some oldtown locations? What’s Troy’s house look like? Is there any metal flake in that blue paint? What time is sunset? Can we get the car into a garlic field? Does everyone have current health insurance?

Inspecting the car’s undercarriage after inadvertently testing its suspension, tensile strength of the chassis, weld composition, tire pressure, wheel density, owner intestinal fortitude and, frankly, our pants. All systems OK.

The differences between a bad, good, and great photo shoot is the ability to manage the unknown. Like we said earlier, a location shoot is nothing if not a blend of public relations, crisis management, on-the-fly opportunity, art direction, unforeseen risk, and creative problem-solving. You have to embrace, nay, love the challenges of all that stuff in order to pull off location shoots well. In this case, we really experienced very few problems. Except for that one trip down a backstreet in Gilroy proper as Troy got on the pedal pretty good and put that 700hp+ LS platform to the test before putting those giant disc brakes to an even greater test when we saw that deep groove in the street running across our path. The car bottomed-out so badly we thought we at least suffered a bent A-arm, if not a broken wheel. We suddenly weren’t laughing, anymore. But that Art Morrison chassis suffered nothing more than a paint chip to its transmission crossmember, and the only bruise was to our collective ego. Kudos to the South City Rod & Custom crew to a car very, very well built.

On a location shoot, a static profile shot can be cool, if the environment is right. You can never go wrong with a great store front. And even when there’s a sign post sticking up behind the car, it can still work in the context of which the image was made.

Speaking of which, a location shoot with a short-list of five locations in one 90-degree day can wreak havoc on a car’s ignition system and cooling abilities, the owner’s patience, and the local constabulary’s good graces. Lucky for us, Troy’s a professional firefighter and paramedic, and the seemingly unofficial mayor of Gilroy. There are not many people and businesses he’s not friendly with, which made for a nearly free pass for anywhere we wanted to plant the car for a series of photos. We ended up on the grounds of the largest garlic producer in town, the old city hall, in front of the best taqueria in 100 miles, a few back roads, a farm lane, and just the coolest roadside cherry stand in all of Gilroy. And Matt handled it all with ease. Do enough of these types of shoots and you’ll come to realize some of the best images come from the least-expected places. At the end of a long day and an exhausted location list, we went off-script and stumbled across a great big shade tree in the middle of a corn field, and captured one of the coolest shots of the project. Keep your eyes – and mind – open, and these things practically find you.

Make the most of your location. In this case, Gilroy is known as the “Garlic Capitol Of The World,” so we decided to make that work for us: welcome to Christopher Ranch. The family Christopher was kind enough to let us put those giant stacks of garlic to work in ways they probably never imagined. This is also the moment to mention the editorial crop: Shoot “wide” enough and you can always crop in on the photo, varying the degree of focus on the subject matter. Good times. Smelly times, but good times.

A great location we couldn’t have planned for – a grove of shade trees in a farmer’s field. Also, Golden Hour: the hour of sunrise or sunset when natural light can supply some of the most valuable color to a shoot. It always lasts far less than an hour and the light changes quickly, but is a staple of pro photography. This is what late golden hour looks like in Gilroy. So pretty. So lovely.

In the end, we answered the mail on the obligatory shots every car magazine requires of a shoot:
1. Front 3/4 view
2. Rear 3/4 view
3. Both sides of the car
4. Interior/dash/seats
5. Wheels/tires
6. Engine bay/underhood
7. Undercarriage (if necessary/possible)
8. Details: what elements make the car unique and worth talking about?

A “front 3/4” shot can always be improved by the simple trick of turning the front wheels away from the camera. In the case of Dooley’s ’65 GTO, it’s lowered just enough in the front to accentuate that trick even more. Which makes for a tasty shot of the car’s general attitude toward life.

But the goal is to make those images interesting. After all, this is a game of repetition, quantity and consistency. We don’t have to produce just one of these shoots, we have to produce a dozen of them every month, one way or another. After a while, the challenge isn’t the work, as much as it is making sure the work is worth spending your hard-earned money and/or time on.

As with any job, there are a million little tricks we learn along the way to make a shoot work. And one of the coolest features of the job is that no two photo shoots are the same: they’re each challenging in their own ways, and we could write a book on some of the things we’ve experienced, avoided, learned from, escaped, and survived. But if we do it right, a location shoot is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, and the work will last long after we’re gone. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. Which, sometimes on a shoot, it does. But that’s a story for another day.

A “production shot” of the last location of the day: this is the one we didn’t plan for, but it turned out to be a great location during Golden Hour. Not a bad day.