Seven days before the public release of the Ligier Crawford JS Formula 3 race car, the Exum Photography team – based near Greensboro, North Carolina – had the privilege of shooting this sleek, beautiful, open-wheeled automobile for its official press release. The F3 was designed in California, had its composite body built in Denver, NC and is powered by Honda. Our creative team included head photographer Steve Exum, photo assistant Timur Targay, and myself, Alexander Bernal, as a third photo assistant. Even though I have no interest in cars or racing, getting to see the car a week before the general public was pretty awesome. However, that didn’t diminish the fact that in large product photography, especially car photography, the work is challenging and the hours are long.
We had to arrive at the shoot location – The Decal Source http://www.thedecalsource.com) – in McCleansville, NC – bright and early to unload all the equipment, since we packed everything but the kitchen sink. No joke, Steve had us empty the studio and pack the suburban full. Steve’s motto of “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it” was in full swing that day. This was my first location shoot where practically all of the studio’s gear was used, so I was curious and excited to see why it required so much equipment – until it dawned on me that I was going to have to put it all back the next morning. Figuring out good lighting for the race car was our first challenge. The interior of the Decal Source bay had colorful reflective stripes on the floor that had to be covered up. The F3 itself was highly reflective, so it was necessary for us to turn off all of the ceiling lights and shoot under about 9 different flash strobes strategically placed all around the car. Steve and Timur had to figure out how to control the certain reflections on surfaces while enhancing others.
Once all of the heavy, heavy, heavy gear was unloaded the F3 was rolled in and parked on top of seamless gray background paper. As someone who views cars simply as a method of getting from point A to point B without taking a week to walk the distance, the car certainly impressed me. Its body was sleek and look very aerodynamic. The tires, strangely free of grooves, were wider than any I’d ever seen on a car. I guess it’s a good thing I was impressed by it all because I got to spend a good portion of my day making sure the car was sparkly clean between shots. Every time we completed an angle, the car had to be moved and every time the car moved, the tires accumulated dust and grit. While Steve and Timur adjusted lighting for the next shot, I cleaned and polished the tires, dusted the chassis, aligned the steering wheel and safety harness straps, and checked to make sure the logo on the front wheels were perfectly symmetrical with the logo on the back wheels. If the logo on one wheel was even slightly misaligned, we all had to work together to lift that wheel off the ground and spin it until it was in the correct position. Turns out I much prefer lifting the studio equipment over lifting a car. Lift with your legs, not your back! At one point I played mechanic under the car, wiping mud off the underside of the chassis. Definitely not what I thought I’d be doing that day, but by now I should know that every day is something different at Exum Photography!
One of the most interesting aspects of automotive photography is that the car wasn’t 100% photo ready when the shooting started but it has to be photographed as if it was. For example, the halo around the driver’s seat on the F3 was loose and not bolted into the chassis, so we had to be careful not to touch it, or else we risked scraping up the car. As we were setting up lighting, a separate team was also working quickly to finish putting decals on the car as last minute changes were made to the graphics and logos.
Even though it wasn’t quite ready to peel out of the garage when we were done, that car looked magnificent. I say that the car was beautiful again and again because it was but the irony is that car won’t ever actually participate in a race. Sometime after the public unveiling, it’ll be taken somewhere to be slammed into a wall at very high speeds to test driver safety. It was a little strange, photographing what was basically a doomed-from-the-start car, but it also added to the moment in a way. Now I can say I was one of a select group of people that would ever get as close as I did to the very first Ligier Crawford JS Formula 3 race car – in McCleansville, N.C., no less.
By Alex Bernal, Photographer’s Assistant at Exum Photography