How to capture the sleek curves of cars with the Profoto A1 and the FDL technique

5 Mar 2018

Acclaimed automotive photographer, Sarel van Staden, puts the Profoto A1 for Canon and Nikon through its paces.

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I’m a commercial photographer with a passion for lighting techniques and, in particular, cars. For years, I photographed cars using different styles taking inspiration from other automotive photographers such as Tim Wallace. My passion slowly progressed towards creating fine art images of cars. Every car is designed by an artist in their true right and I wanted to capture their art using low-key lighting which would accentuate the curves and lines of the car.

Creating a low-key light source for cars with reflective surfaces (especially black reflective cars) can be difficult especially when the light modifiers available on the market don’t give the desired results. For this reason, I started building custom modifiers.

Rolls Royce Wraith Black Badge front view, photograph using the FDL technique.

After many months of research and a fair amount of trial and error, I eventually had the custom built light modifiers to create the low-key lighting effect that I wanted. I reverted to the basics of creating soft light and fine-tuned these principles to create a light source and modifier that would provide focused diffused light, or as I now refer to it, the FDL technique. By keeping the light source as close as possible to the car, I was able to overpower ambient light resulting in the desired matte finish on the surface of the car.

Needless to say, I was very excited to have been given the opportunity to test the Profoto A1 as the light source for the FDL technique. It was with much excitement that I opened the box delivered by the courier – it contained the long-anticipated Profoto A1! Ever since I heard of its launch I had been looking forward to using it to create car fine art images.

2017 McLaren 720 S side mirror detail
Rolls Royce Wraith Black Badge front view, photograph using the FDL technique.

This was by no means going to be a side-by-side comparison with other flashes, nor a technical review. I was keen to see what it could do, and how it could complement the way I shot my subject matter. I needed a lightweight, easy to handle, low-key light source to accentuate the car’s natural curves and lines. Could this be it? Profoto calls the A1 the “world’s smallest studio light”, but as 90% of my work is done using speedlights I decided to treat it as such.

As I was opening the black box with its all too familiar branding on, all the other photographers in the studio gathered around me in no time at all – clearly, this was going to be a show-stopper.

2017 McLaren 720 S side mirror detail

First impressions are meant to be lasting and in this case the first impression came as no surprise. The superb built quality was obvious and the layout of the buttons, the big dials and large LCD screen made navigating the settings easy and almost intuitive (who has time to read a manual, right?) This flash is easy to use – in fact much easier than the speedlights I am used to.

The Profoto A1 is lightweight and small enough making it perfect for the FDL-lighting technique, which calls for a handheld light source held close to the car and at different angles for about 50 exposures. From these 50 images, I normally select about 20 which are later layered in post-processing to make the final image.

A pleasant surprise came from the battery. The Profoto A1 comes with its own rechargeable Li-Ion battery, which lasted much longer than the usual AA batteries.

Rolls Royce Wraith Black Badge front view, photograph using the FDL technique.

Profoto is a brand synonymous with quality, precision and class. Needless to say, the models I was going to test drive this light on had to come from similar elk. I chose a black Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge, with high gloss black body panels and brushed steel and titanium on the hood and grill. The other models were a red Aston Martin Vanquish S and two McLarens.

As a shoot like this yields approximately 500 images per car, I needed the light source to be reliable, the white balance to be constant, recycling times to be fast and no overheating of the flash head. The Profoto A1 passed with flying colours – even after 1500 photos on a single charge of the battery.

In fact, I had so much fun that (only after I reluctantly returned the Profoto A1) I realised that I had been using it in manual mode and that I never even tried TTL. I am looking forward to test that in a future shoot.

Rolls Royce Wraith Black Badge front view, photograph using the FDL technique.
Rolls Royce Wraith Black Badge front view, photograph using the FDL technique.

About the Author:

Passionate Photographer and Proud Owner of Photowise

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