Sex on wheels

Just look at those lines. It's sex on wheels!

I know almost nothing about cars. Have never changed a sparkplug in my life, and wouldn’t be able to recognise a locking differential if it came up behind me and bit me in the bum – not that I think that such an ability is a main feature of modern automobile engineering.

I also don’t lust over cars. Have never felt the urge to splash a lot of money out on a machine which sole purpose is to take me safely from point A to point B with as little hassle as possible. My money is a lot happier in Nikon’s bank account than in the car dealer’s!

Boyce MotoMeter on an Austin 7

Boyce MotoMeter (thermometer) as hood ornament on an Austin 7

This didn’t stop me from being happy to go to a classic car show with my friend Steve a few weeks ago.  I mean, even if I wouldn’t want to spend the time and money myself on maintaining an old machine way beyond its expected lifespan, that shouldn’t stop me enjoying the fruits of other people’s labour.

So how do you take good photographs of cars? I know that for advertising pictures, it usually involves scrims significantly larger than the cars and enough lighting equipment to make a budding Hollywood director giddy. It often also involves a couple of scantily clad ladies to make the buying public giddy. It goes without saying we didn’t have any scrims, lights or women in bikinis. So I had to fall back something slightly less staged and more natural – but have to admit also not knowing what a typical “safe” car picture looks like.

So I went back to basics. If you want to take a picture of something, find out what it is that attracts you to the subject, and then photograph it in a way that emphasizes this part. That works for portraits, flowers, landscapes and even derelict architecture, so why not for cars as well?

So what’s the main design criteria of a vintage car? Well, some of the older cars, like the one at the top of the page, had some gorgeous curveous lines. It is sculpted to make anyone looking at it think about sex.  Just look at that long, slender wheel arch that seems to go on forever, and tell me honestly (if you’re male), that it doesn’t remind you of long, well shaped legs that stretch all the way to heaven. And what about the perk, protruding, almost bullet-shaped headlights? Sex, again. I bet the engine even purrs when the owner slides behind the wheel, enjoys the soft touch of the sumptuous leather that caresses him while he takes charge. I’ll leave it to you to analyse what the driving position, surrounded by all these sex symbols, is meant to subconciously remind the driver of! It’s clearly a car designed to attract a wealthy gentleman and to make him feel proud to own this all-feminine machine that does what he wants, when he wants, and all just for him.

Hood ornament symbolising "speed"

Hood ornament symbolising "speed"

And if you think I’m making all this up, have a look at the posters and calendars hanging on the wall in any garage, and tell me again that the car industry isn’t obsessed with sex!

So with that subconscious analysis out of the way, it was easy to pick a three quarters angle, showing off the – ahem – attributes just discussed. And of course, anything photographed from below appears to be towering over the viewer. So I laid down on the ground, aiming the camera upwards. This gives the impression of power. You are, quite literally, looking up at the car – but if you imagine yourself in the driver’s seat, you would, rightfully, be looking down at people.

I picked a wide angle to exaggerate the size of the wheel arch, and also a wide aperture (f/3.5) to throw the background out of focus. I think it works well, also on the length of the car, as the gradual loss of focus helps to make the car seem even longer. I had deliberately focused on the near headlight, thinking that for portraits it’s often sufficient to have the near eye pin sharp. But I think the image would have been stronger if both headlights had been in focus, so that rule of thumb apparently doesn’t transfer to car photography. Next time I’ll have to remember to stop down a little more.

Ferrari 348

Muscles and power

The second example, the yellow Ferrari 348,  is obviously a lot more modern (no, I wouldn’t be able to recognise one model from another, but the owner had helpfully listed all the car’s details on the dash). It’s interesting to see how the design has changed. At first glance, it couldn’t be more different from the first example. Being a muscle car, this machine is all male. Wide, so it matches the owner’s masculine shoulders. Powerful, sleek lines and a chassis that is so low it almost kisses the ground – this is of course clever aerodynamical design, and by buying the car, the owner signals that he is clever as well. To avoid any subconscious conflicts, the driver is now placed in front of the engine. This is not a machine built to make a man think he’s surrounded by femininity; it is built to make him feel like the alpha male as he pushes the pedal to the metal and agressively releases the thrust of the engine.  Whereas the first car’s owner was a sophisticated gentleman at the top of his game, this car’s owner is powerful, ultra masculine and used to get, or take, what he wants. He doesn’t need to buy a car to have something all-feminine ready to do what he wants and when he wants – and to prove the point, he instead buys the Stallion as a symbol of himself.

Daimler 1909 Hood Emblem

Daimler 1909 TB22 hood ornament

The angle of view is almost exactly the same. Wide angle, three quarters view, but slightly more to the front to emphasize the width of the machine rather than the length. As well as the power symbolism discussed above, I also wanted the very low angle to emphasize how low to the ground the car is. The image is again shot with a wide aperture (f/2.8 this time) and focused at the near headlight. Looking at it, I’m sure Ferrari would have insisted on the stallion emblem being in focus. So again, it might have been better to stop down a little.

As well as the cars themselves, I spent some time focusing on details, and in particular the hood ornaments fascinated me. Health and safety has, of course, caught up with reality since many of these cars were built. Just imagine being hit by a Daimler 1909 model TB22 – if the solid iron front of car didn’t crush every bone in your body, the lancer on the hood could conveniently puncture your lungs or rip an eye out!