Automotive Photographer John Zhang Strives for Perfection
John Zhang is a freelance automotive photographer based in Los Angeles, California. With a diverse portfolio, he has covered everything from classic to contemporary cars. His work in magazines, catalogs, and car culture websites. In our interview with him, we got some insight into his process and philosophies. Click here to view his portfolio.
Q: How long have you been photographing cars?
A: Almost six years. I did photography before that when I bought a used camera to document a study abroad experience, but I started photographing cars specifically in 2007. I switched, because I got a 2009 135i after college and started photographing it. Modern cars are more accessible, but I always cherish the opportunity to shoot classic cars. It’s a great feeling.
Q: What’s your favorite classic car?
A: The E30 M3 and the Ferrari Testarossa.
Q: Do you have a favorite car to photograph?
A: A Lamborghini Diablo SVC painted in purple pearl. I saw one as a kid and knew I liked it from that day. I’ve been chasing this car to find one to photograph and narrowed it down to two owners in Southern California who have one People don’t want to go out driving with it, because it’s kind of risky, but if I had the chance I would drop everything to shoot it.
Q: What draws you to automotive photography?
A: The biggest draw is that cars don’t talk back or move and are very visually appealing. I love the lines and the styling.
Q: Are there specific car characteristics that you focus on when photographing?
A: When it comes to shooting a new car, I just feel it out. There aren’t angles or settings on my camera that I use for every single car—it’s all about what suits each car appropriately. On every shoot I try to create a different look and feel. More than details shots, I prefer shots that tell a story and provoke imaginative thoughts and feelings, but I do like detail shots, because they can show the uniqueness of every single car.
Q: How often do you shoot in a studio?
A: Not very often. I prefer on-location shoots, because I prefer natural lighting since I don’t use external lighting or strobes.
Q: In that case, what is your favorite setting to photograph a car?
A: I like a variety of settings as long as they fit the car. If it’s an SUV, I like to shoot in the mountains or in a forest, and if it’s a race car, I want it on the track. Personally, if I were to shoot my own car, I would do it on a beach or near a futuristic-looking building—two ends of the spectrum.
Q: Do you have a favorite photo of all the ones you’ve taken over the years?
A: That’s a very hard question to answer. I’m a perfectionist, so every photo I take I have to like myself before releasing it.
Q: How about one of your photos that features a car that you really like?
A: One of my LFA shots. I’d been chasing one to find one to shoot; then one of my good friends purchased one, so the opportunity just landed on me.
Q: What type of photography training did you have?
A: When he first started, YouTube wasn’t very big yet, so I just dove in and taught myself. Every day is a new experiment, and I’m not settled in my ways.
Q: How would you compare shooting editorial work vs. shooting personal projects?
A: Shooting for companies and editorials gets the bills paid, but with those jobs I don’t have the creative freedom to experiment. Certain companies have guidelines they’re looking for or go for certain looks like all-night shots or particular angles, or they tell me to tone down the editing style—those are the restrictive parts.
I still shoot personally, because it’s a good way for myself to improve very fast and dramatically, becasue that’s my basic foundation and how I started. When I shoot personal projects, I have the most creative ability to go above and beyond the goals I set for myself.
Q: Do you travel often for your photography?
A: A lot of his work comes from Southern California, but I do some traveling. I just got back from San Jose doing a shoot for Land Rover—I travel to Northern California a lot as well as around the U.S. Next week I’m heading to mainland China and Hong Kong to shoot for some clients out there. I typically do a lot of new cars that aren’t really seen in the States.
Q: You photograph quite a lot of BMWs. Is there a story behind that?
A: I have a lot of access to BMWs because I own one and hang out with a lot of BMW people. This isn’t very good for a diverse portfolio, but BMWs are the cars I started with and what I built my automotive photography foundation on. I have a lot of editorial work that I can’t post on my portfolio yet, since the work hasn’t been released yet.
Q: You have a website that has tutorials on photography. Have you ever considered teaching photoraphy?
A: I’m always open to teaching photography. I’m a very visual, hands-on person, and I encourage a lot of up-and-coming photographers to come with me to photo shoots. For me, it’s helpful to have an assistant, and it’s good to share knowledge and to teach some hands-on things.
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Photography by John Zhang