The Griffin Interview
Featured photo by Sidnee Schaefer
I recently received an email from Griffin Brugger, a student at Seattle’s The Center School, asking if I’d be willing to do an interview with him regarding photography. I was happy to oblige, and the questions he asked were so good that I felt they’d be perfect to include in a blog post. Hopefully, this gives you some insight into how I got into photography and how I see the photography world currently.
How did you get into taking photos? Specifically cars?
I first started taking photos while attending car shows. I got into the car show scene back in the early 2000s, and I picked up my first digital camera around that time. I would just take fun photos of my friends and their cars before, during, and after the car shows we attended. I would literally take hundreds of photos during shows, and most of them weren’t very good, but all of my friends appreciated them since I’d post them up on our car forums to share with other car enthusiasts. I soon got tired of the poor performance of the Nikon Coolpix 2500 that I was using, and upgraded to a Coolpix 4500 to take better photos. I really had no idea what I was doing with it, but I slowly started to learn more about all of the controls.
Eventually, I started doing “photoshoots” of my friends’ cars with it, while continuing to take photos at car shows. One day, I was on the AWJunkies forum and saw a post from Ryan Douthit, announcing that he was starting a Subaru-specific magazine called Subiesport, and he was looking for contributors. On a whim, I messaged him and said I’d be happy to take photos for him at car shows, and he replied back asking if I wanted to join his editorial staff. That catapulted me to my first magazine photos of Battle of the Imports 2004, and while Ryan was happy with the job I did, he suggested that I upgrade to a DSLR. I ended up buying a Nikon D70 and literally a week after I bought it, I had my first feature photoshoot for Subiesport of my friend Tex’s Subaru GL Wagon. Everything really took off from that point.
What do you love about your job?
This might sound cheesy, but I really love capturing the moment. When you think about the grand scheme of things, you aren’t going to live that exact moment again, and photography has the ability to immortalize it to a certain extent. This is particularly the case when I’m shooting drifting or weddings, since you can’t go back and attempt to recreate the exact shot like you can with commercial photography or landscapes (to a certain extent). There’s just something about the idea of hey, I captured this exact moment in time, from this exact angle and this exact lighting – and no one else did.
What do you hate about your job?
I hate dealing with people and businesses that don’t value photography, and will do whatever they can possibly do to get it for free or at as little cost as possible. I’ve dealt with countless businesses using my photos without my permission, and other businesses that simply just want me to send them my photos for free. They don’t even try to send me a reasonable offer; they just believe that if it’s out there, they can use it for their own purposes. On top of that, these businesses will be using my photos to make money for themselves, and of course none of that will come back to me. They can absolutely afford it, but they just don’t want to pay. Photography is not really seen as a true profession like plumbers or mechanics, thus people don’t treat photographers as professionals either. You really have to stick to your guns and put your foot down to make sure people understand the value of your work.
What was your most memorable moment while taking pictures?
I was hired by Toyota USA to shoot press photos of the new Toyota Corolla around Seattle a few years ago. I had about eight versions of the car to shoot through the entire day, and while the weather held up for most of it, by the time we reached the final car on the list, it started to pour down rain along with thunder and lightning. It also happened to be a Monday and the Seahawks were playing the 49ers here on Monday Night Football, so there was traffic everywhere, especially in downtown at Pike Place Market where we were shooting. We somehow caught a break in the traffic and crowds at Pike Place to take a few photos in the pouring rain, and I tried desperately to get some lightning in the photo, but it was farther south closer to the stadium. I later found out that they postponed the game because of the lightning, so right after we brought the car back to the staging area near Pioneer Square, we were able to catch the rest of the game at a nearby bar. It was a crazy day of shooting with some crazy timing for everything happening.
What skills do you have to have in order to do this job?
I wish it was as easy as just having a good eye, but it really isn’t. To be truly successful as a photographer, first you really need to be an expert at your tools: not just how your camera works, but also how to post-process and how to share and market them with the public. You really only spend a fraction of your time actually just taking photos, because the rest of the time you’re either processing them or dealing with the business side of things.
I also believe you need to have a thorough understanding of photography theory and principles. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go to school for photography, but you should do your own research into using light sources, how to compose a photo, depth of field, etc. I taught myself photography through books and online resources, but it also helped to have some good in-person mentors to point things out in real time that you simply can’t learn from just reading.
What challenges did you face when first starting this job?
I’ll be honest: the pay stinks for the most part. As long as you know that from the start, you’ll save a lot of pain and grief when it comes to paying bills. It’s particularly tough in the automotive field, because there’s a lot of competition and a lot of photographers who are too willing to work for “exposure” rather than getting paid. It’s still like this today, which is why photography isn’t my full-time job. I have a number of friends who are full-time automotive photographers, and it’s taken them a long time and a lot of hard work to get to where they are now. Their time and hard work is truly reflected in every new photo that they share.
What lighting is best for taking pictures of cars?
This is really subjective, and it really depends on what style you want. Personally, I’m a big fan of natural lighting over artificial lighting, but that isn’t to say that one is better than the other. Since I got my start shooting event coverage, I come from more of a photojournalist background, and thus I’m used to dealing with light sources that are out of my control. With natural lighting, the only real control you have is the time of day that you shoot, so I will always prefer to shoot around sunset or sunrise. The lighting just after sunset is probably my favorite time to shoot, but you have to be ready since the light goes away very quickly. On the other hand, the middle of the day is the worst overall for natural lighting, for automotive or just about everything else.
Photo by Erich Breitkreutz
What kind of camera (cameras) do you use when taking pictures of cars?
Since my first digital camera was a Nikon, I’ve stuck with Nikon ever since. I went from the Coolpix 2500, to a Coolpix 4500, then D70, D200, D300, D700, and now D810. I also occasionally shoot with an Olympus OM-D EM-5 as a second or third body, and I’ve also rented a D3s, D4, and D4s for commercial work in the past. These days, the D810 does just about everything from commercial photos to motorsports, and it’s probably the best overall camera that I’ve ever owned.
If you could give advice to a student trying to pursue this occupation, what advice would you give?
Don’t ever sell yourself short, and learn to take constructive criticism as something to guide you to improve upon yourself. No photographer is 100% perfect at what they do. We are constantly learning new techniques and improving upon what we’ve done before, and it’s important to keep an open mind to criticism. Now, that isn’t to say that you should accept all criticism, because there will absolutely be people who are not constructive and will give you bad advice on purpose. As far as not selling yourself short, if you don’t value your own work, no one else will either. Everyone has to start from somewhere, but that doesn’t mean you should give your work away if you still consider yourself in a learning phase. Time is money, and you have the right to fair compensation.
Finally, be diligent about protecting your work: make sure you watermark anything that gets posted in public and keep an eye out for people/businesses who are using your photos without your permission and/or attribution. When someone does eventually use your photos without permission/attribution (and they will), go after them and fight for your copyrights. Far too many photographers don’t do that these days, which ultimately makes it harder for everyone else. We’re all in this together, after all.