What Makes Great?

Vol. 1: Professional Car Photographer: James Lipman

Photo by James Lipman.

Sometimes the world of photography can feel upside down. Good images, boastfully presented by amateurs with a big following seem to outsize great images, done quietly for clients by professionals. It begs the question: what makes great? Does the great image even matter anymore? And for the up-and-coming young photog looking to make a name in the world of photography, how to go about it? I asked some pros their opinions on this. Starting with incredible automotive photographer, James Lipman.

Hard to name an automotive venue that James hasn’t shot for — from Car and Driver to Porsche Panorama Magazine, his client mix is the stuff of sheet metal lovers’ dreams. Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Citroen, Fiat, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, Tesla… he’s shot them all. I recently ran into James as he was shooting the actual one millionth Porsche 911, an honor in countless ways. I posed these questions to him:

JR: How did you get into photography?

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: As a teenager the photographers I most admired worked for newspapers and press agencies. Once I was done with school, I was more interested in earning a living than going to a university, so I took a one year course in photojournalism and got a job working on the desk of a paper in London. I was also given the occasional shoot to do.

But I was a kid — handy with a camera, but desperately un-streetwise, and with no real worldview. These are things you absolutely need as a photojournalist. At this same time the news industry was still struggling to work out how to exist in the new digital landscape, and the future of papers looked miserable. So I reconsidered my options.

I loved photography, could shoot for publication and was good at it. I also loved cars. It took me two years of working at the newspaper to figure out where I should be going with that.

JR: Was there a precise moment when you realized photography was going to happen for you?

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: There was no single moment of realisation that photography could ever work as a career — on the instruction of a great photographer that I knew, I gave myself no other option. Despite a significant deviation from the plan, I still produce images for a living and it’s obvious to me, in retrospect, that this is exactly where I was meant to end up.

JR: What’s the difference between the images you take of cars and the images that thousands of amateur photographers with great cameras are taking of cars and posting on Instagram?

JL: My whole purpose as a commercial photographer is to create images that enhance the popularity of a brand and sell products, whilst an Instagrammer’s purpose is to enhance their own popularity. So the key difference is that my work isn’t about me — it’s who I am working for, and how it is represented in front of my lens, that is most important to my job. My skill is knowing how to convey someone else’s message.

JR: What are the qualities of a great car shot?

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: To me, great photography is about creating emotional response. If an image makes you want to drive a car, or take a journey, or if it shows a superb piece of design in a way that makes your brain fizz, then it has reached the pinnacle of its purpose. This is where it pays to love your subject matter — if you can’t feel that emotion yourself, you won’t ever be able to communicate it in your work.

JR: Have you worked beside an “influencer,” yet? What’s the difference in how they approach photography?

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: I have shot for social media influencers whilst working with manufacturers on vehicle launches. My purpose in this situation is to ensure the product always looks great, and the brand is represented in the correct light. Having a photographer who understands your corporate identity and product is important — I once had someone, on a media launch, ask me to photograph them standing in front of a $350k car whilst holding a handgun. Crass, irrelevant, and totally shit on so many levels, not to mention a marketing disaster. Always remember who’s paying you, and why.

JR: Are you at all drawn to lure of being “Instafamous?”

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: My work mainly involves working with unreleased vehicles and publications. Discretion is key, and I have no reason or desire to broadcast my working life on social media. The car photographers you see with large social media followings get hired for different reasons to me.

I am passionate about driving and working on old cars, and flying small aircraft, and I do show these parts of my life on social media because I enjoy the contact with people who share the same interests. I am lucky to have met many amazing people this way.

JR: To the young, budding photographer, looking to do what you do… what advice do you have?

Photo by James Lipman.

JL: Running a photography business is no different to any other — you must create a product that people want to buy. Specialise in shooting something that you love and understand entirely — the passion will translate into quality work. Don’t waste energy scatter-gunning your work across social media without first identifying and directly targeting your market. Understand your competition but do not dwell on their work — it’s not yours, and never will be. Do not concentrate on the top-rated images on social-networking apps such as Instagram — they are largely clunky, mass-market visual cliche and will pollute your creative vision. In short — know what you are good at, understand who needs your work, and be careful what you choose to influence you.

JR: So, I gotta ask: what do you drive?

Because I love driving, and simple, elegant engineering, I drive a 1968 Porsche 912. Because I also like air conditioning and carrying big stuff, I also have a 1995 Buick Roadmaster wagon. I’m a big fan of electric cars and I expect my next car will be an EV.

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera, asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Professor of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor. ♥ Tacos.

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