We asked Maryna Cotton to interview her partner and fellow commercial photographer, Sarel van Staden, about his love for cars, their automotive photography work – which they like to refer to as “car porn” – as well as his innovative lighting techniques that give their work its signature look.

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

It’s a love story

When Sarel talks about cars, his whole demeanor changes. His childhood stories include tales of many hours spent with his dad, a motor technician who rebuilt cars from the chassis up, learning about engines and cars. He is, however, quick to set my mind at ease by adding that the only love stronger than his love of cars, is his love of photography.

It is a well-known fact, that a great photograph is dependent on great light and Sarel adds: “Understanding the basic characteristics of light and how to apply it, makes photography an amazing creative journey that feeds my soul”.

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

Most photographers will tell you that lighting a car poses challenges such as unwanted reflections and hot spots in paintwork, but this is the very thing that makes Sarel tick. Figuring out ways to light reflections, enhancing the colour and showing shape, in for instance a black car, is what he lives for. “This is my way to express myself and create art – a means to pay homage to, and thank all car designers over the centuries for spoiling me and many other passionate car lovers with their beautiful creations.”

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

When asked about the industry and automotive photography, in particular, he explains that advances in 3D rendering techniques are limiting the need for conventional automotive photography and it’s notorious lighting challenges. According to Sarel, photographers constantly need to push the boundaries to create something unique and he does that by coming up with new and creative lighting techniques. “To be able to use light to bring out the shape and the beautiful lines in cars is almost like a drug to me. In my mind I am constantly conceptualising new and better ways to create art and to beautifully showcase cars. This eventually lead to the ‘car porn’ images”.

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

Does he take inspiration from anyone in particular?

Referring to acclaimed automotive photographer Tim Wallace, he says: “Tim refers to the emotional human responses to cars and how passion is involved when car lovers buy or collect cars. He captures this passion or human element into his artistic style and car photography. It is just amazing”.

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

Curves, lines and light

Huge lighting set-ups and studios come to mind when one thinks of conventional automotive photography. I asked Sarel to tell us more about the lighting techniques he uses for the fine art car shoots, as well as his preferred lighting tools. “I mainly shoot using instant light sources with extra diffusers or painting-with-light wands, also with extra diffusers. For instant light, I use the Elinchrom Quadra lights or the Profoto B2 system in combination with a 400mm beauty dish, which I modified to create soft, focused light. This, I double diffuse with an extra diffuser to create the matt finish, characteristic of my fine art images. I developed and built a custom light wand, which I also double diffuse, for the painting-with-light technique. With the wand I create soft light and an almost matt finish, without unwanted reflections in the paintwork.”

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

“To create soft light, a conventional lighting set-up requires a 3 x 7 m scrim positioned 1-2m above the car in a commercial studio. I can create the same soft light with the handheld light wand. The positioning of the conventional light scrim creates spill-off light that also exposes the surroundings which in turn reflects in the paintwork of the car. By using the light wand less than 100mm away from the bodywork of the car, there is almost no spill-off light, eliminating the reflections of the surroundings. By moving the 2m light wand over the car, during the exposure, we create a soft light source much bigger than the traditional light scrims in automotive studios. The only limitation of this technique is that it can only be done in low light.”

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

Asked about his future plans, he was quick to answer: “Many many beautiful cars!”

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)

 Photo Credit – Sarel van Staden (Photowise)