Photographer Spotlight Jeff Ludes
Jeff Ludes is a world-leading automotive photographer, with clients all across the globe. Taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us (after just getting back from Germany, no less) we were able to dig a bit deeper and see what makes Jeff tick, and how he’s formulated his photography career.
Your photography is full of motion, and full of automotive icons. How did you get started in your career? What drew you to automotive photography?
While I was in school at Art Center, I was mostly interested in conceptual work and portraiture. I put all my energy into it, and got a little burned out at one point. So, I felt like doing something really different, and just took a cool car out to a cool spot and explored with it. Cars and automotive design was always a side interest, but I had assumed that good automotive photography was too technical and expensive. Pretty quickly I figured out the right techniques in shooting and in Photoshop, and was able to build up a portfolio. This was all on medium-format and 4×5 film, in the beginning just printed from an enlarger, and a little later when I wanted more control, I started scanning it. I just made a lot of calls to agencies I wanted to work with, and pretty soon I had a rep, and jobs started to trickle in.
You have an incredible natural flowing mix of studio-style lighting to natural (or natural-ish) lighting in your book. How do you broach the divide between the two styles and make them work together? Many photographers will stick to one or the other; are you working off client direction, self-exploration, or something else?
A great question, because that’s always a challenge and a delicate balance. It’s really easy to shoot 100 frames with various lighting elements, and composite them in Photoshop to create a “perfect” image. But images like that are more illustration than reality. On the other hand, a single frame might not show off the design of the car clearly enough. So there’s a happy spot somewhere that gives an emotional response, but also shows off the features of the car. We arrive there with a back-and-forth process of discussions and reference images between the ad agency and myself, with a treatment or mood-board as our starting point when the shoot starts. But even after the shoot, I stay involved in post-production- it’s like the pot where we stir the right ingredients together to make the soup.
I see you’ve got a tumblr and instagram, both of which show you’re constantly travelling. How do you balance the large scale productions you’re doing with the more intimate nature of these social media outlets?
I love Instagram, and use it to simply show what I’m up to. It’s a combination of portfolio images, behind-the-scenes, travel… and anything pretty that strikes me. I think it’s a great way to stay in touch with people. When I see something really inspiring, I go looking for more online- so hopefully my clients do the same, and are led to see the whole series on my site.
Why Capture Integration? What made you choose us?
When I started shopping for a tech camera, the team at CI had the most knowledge out there. Steve brought a couple different setups out to LA, and together with my digital tech, we spent some time getting dirty with them. Within an hour or two, the differences were clear, and I knew I wanted to go with a Cambo system- it had the best blend of the features I wanted- compact, simple, precise. He also helped me decide on the IQ260– we decided it’s the best match for a tech camera, because it handles large lens shifts perfectly.
From your vimeo page, I see that you’re working with a tech camera for some of your work. How do you like that type of setup for automotive photography versus the traditional SLR camera? Has it changed your workflow much?
Yes, I usually work with my Cambo system when shooting from a tripod. It’s slower to set up, but the image quality is much better than anything else I’ve seen. Plus I always have the ability to correct perspective. In car shooting, I’ll use this to remove the distortion that happens when the car is close to the corner of a wide-angle lens. The other advantage of the rise/fall/shift is the ability to extend the frame in any direction, then get right back to zero. Art Directors love this, because they can have images that work for any format. And retouchers love it because they get images that align perfectly.
The Ford Fusion ad looks incredible, and doesn’t seem like it’d be something that would be done in camera. Do you often work with wild productions along the line of painting multiple cars in real life, rather than doing post production? With the amount of CG and Photoshop work in automotive photography, it’s refreshing to see something done almost entirely in camera.
That project was really fun, and totally unique. Sadly, budgets are not what they used to be in car shooting, and we often have to turn to other methods like CGI. Of course, everything has its place, and the upside is when we get to shoot CGI deep in a beautiful snowy forest, where it would be impossible to bring any car. But I always try to shoot as much in-camera as possible, and keep in mind anything we can do to avoid compromises in Photoshop.
With your chase cam work, do you ever find yourself shooting differently for medium format digital vs 35mm? I see you have switched back and forth from your behind the scenes work.
I don’t think there’s a different technique- it’s just a question of how much time we have to get the shot. Usually I choose a pretty low shutter speed, to get a bit of blur in the scene, but even with a gyro stabilizer, not every frame is going to be sharp. My Nikon will shoot 5 times the frames as my IQ260, so if the road is rough or the light is low, I may go that route. I’m constantly impressed with the shots I get with my Sigma Art lenses at high ISO on the D810, but when we have time for ultimate quality, I’ll do take after take with my IQ260.
There seems to be a mix of more lifestyle work on your website with models present, such as in your BSA series, much more than many traditional automotive ads where the people are merely props and the car is the subject. Do you see this as a growing trend, or is this something that’s more limited to the motorcycle realm, where a lot of times a motorcycle is seen as lifestyle choice moreso than transportation?
The BSA series was a personal project, so I can’t speak for the motorcycle market. But with cars in general, happily, I do get to shoot a lot more people these days. In the past, shots were more about this perfect car sitting in front of a perfect house. But I think it’s very exciting to inject some life into the images, and I love working with talent and stylists. It adds so much energy to the shoot day, and so much depth to the final image. I think adding people helps us connect with the image better. I also think that we are so much more tuned into imagery in general today, with things like Instagram all around us, that we can quickly recognize an authentic image.
What’s currently in your bag? What are you shooting with, what are the go to essentials on your sets, or even for when you’re editing or lighting?
Phase One IQ260, mounted on a Cambo WRS-1000 or WRS-400, with one of my 7 lenses mounted (between 32mm and 150mm). Or the IQ will go on a rented Hasselblad H kit, often with the 80mm- it’s so light and fast to use. And then my Nikon system, when I’m shooting low-light, hand-held, or short on time- my current go-to is a d810 with Sigma 50mm Art. I love the 35mm Art when I need to go wide, and the 120-300mm Sport is really fun and amazing- I shot my Paris series almost entirely with that lens. I just got my Sony a7rII, and am really looking forward to getting adept with that camera. Gitzo Series 5 tripods hold it all, securely in all situations. I use various Profoto strobes, and like cameras, selection depends on whether we need power or fast setup. Images are processed in Capture One, and then over to regular old Photoshop, where I’ll mock up my own vision of the image to get the retoucher rolling.
What would you want to see next in the industry? Any big changes to your gear or photography that you want to see in the next year?
In the next year, I can’t really say. Just faster, better, more of everything. What I’m really dreaming of is more like 10 years away, I’m sure- a 100 megapixel medium-format back, that looks great at ISO 25,000 or so. Hand-held night shots would look amazing! I’d love to be able to capture just what I can see with my eyes, in any situation, without the need for artificial lighting or post-production.
You can see more of Jeff’s work below: