Shooting Glamour Models with Exotic Cars

Shooting Glamour Models with Exotic Cars

The most common request I get via email and social media is "How do you shoot exotic cars with glamour models?". I have actually held two classes on this very subject, both in Houston in 2012 and 2013, but have yet to ever discuss it online anywhere. So, in lieu of a full online class on the subject, I've recently documented how I went about my most recent project in Houston with Chicago model Amanda Paris and a trio of European exotics at Potresse Automotive, and I will discuss a few past projects as well.


When working with an automobile outdoors, location is paramount to just about everything else about the project. Just like movie productions, location scouting is vital when working with cars outside so you can ensure the right angle and sun position for your planned shot. Of course, as a photographer, you aren't always given the luxury of extra time to prepare by the client, so improvising on location is common in order to deliver the job on schedule, and so you don't have to reschedule your team and the car owner. This is one reason why I try to work indoors with strobes when I specifically shoot a car with a model. That way I am fairly certain that the light situation will be in my full control, and that weather won't be a factor.

Finding just the right spot for an automotive shoot can be challenging, and finding the ideal portrait location can be as well. Mixing those two scenarios, doubly so. And even when everything is allegedly planned out, you still need to be able to think on your feet when dealing with large sets, expensive vehicles, and a team of set personnel who showed up to work that day. It is much more planning than most photographers realize, and poor planning will always negatively impact your end results - sometimes even nixing the whole project at the last second if you're not careful.

A set up shot of a class I gave on the subject of glamour models and exotic cars in Houston in 2013. The morning of the class, the shop owner had to go out of town for one of his top clients, and we found ourselves in a showroom of exotics and no way to move any of them from their parked positions since we didn't have access to any of the keys. This situation was a prime example of what can happen when scheduling a project with automobiles (that aren't your own!)


I never underestimate the planning process when I am shooting a car with a model. It is obvious that I am setting out to create fantasy images that showcase two genres of photography that many find appealing to look at, and therefore I plan it out in as much detail as I can. The most important thing I try to convey to photographers wanting to shoot cars is, don't ever underestimate what it is like to set and shoot vehicles. If you've never done it before, try this: Pack up your photo gear in your car, and drive said car around your neighborhood or city, and try to find great places to shoot it. Attempt several locations and shots and angles, then head home. You will have easily lost a couple hours of time, and will be more exhausted than you anticipated. Everything about a set involving a car is, quite simply, very big. If your current photography focus is portraiture, you will discover very quickly just how much walking around and moving occurs when you shoot a car. 

8 lights, outdoors behind a warehouse, and at night. The logistics of preparing this large set were not quick and simple, and similar to a small budget movie set. Almost 2 hours of prep time, including car positioning, modifier selection, light positioning, metering, wardrobe and minor set modifications, all for 20 minutes of shooting to create the final image.

Even in unique locations like this massive, pure white garage at Autodynamica Performance, nothing should be taken granted. Idyllic as this set looks, it was also nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit in it due to a heat wave that summer and no climate control. Set up was crucial so the modeling talent would not be standing around miserable, just waiting.


You should also consider the car or cars a props on your glamour set. Styling, color coordinating and wardrobe are things I try not to take for granted when I am planning these projects. I've been criticized in the past for "making the car color and model wardrobe match too closely, too often", but that's the look I tend to like so I go with it (unless the client wants something else) and it seems to be a popular look of mine. 

Furthemore, really try to get your head around the style, vibe and persona of the car you are working with. This will help you in determining your approach for styling the shoot when it comes to the model. For example (assuming the client didn't demand it) I would never shoot, let's say, a Rolls Royce Phantom with a model in a pink bikini. To me, that's no match found in the sense of styling. Whereas a model in a cocktail dress or even a fitted suit would be ideal for the theme that the Phantom sets by default. The location of such a shot would also be crucial, and I'd almost certainly opt for scouting outdoor locations in town for it as well.

Of course, coordinating colors in the styling isn't always simple when you're hit with surprises on set. In this case, the model's dress didn't quite match the Gallardo's paint, so I knew I would make them match better later on in the retouching stage.

While I'm certainly not the first to do it, I strongly prefer to have the wardrobe styling and even makeup somehow work with the car in the shot. This set with Amanda Paris and 458 Spider matched about as perfectly as can be, with the black and white working so well with the yellow accents on the Ferrari and her blonde hair. Obviously, going the exact opposite of this can work to great effect, as well, so by all means put your own spin on your set styling.

Set Personnel

First off, I totally get that not everybody has a shoot team always at their disposal, and often we find ourselves on set with no one else but the model and the car in question. That said, to really succeed when shooting glamour models with exotic cars, you really could stand to have one or two extra hands on set. The good news here is that there is never a shortage of people who want to be around exotic cars and glamour models, and you should be able to secure at least of couple of your friends (or, ideally, photographer associates) to help you on set. Now, that much be said, be sure to bring in set personnel who you feel you can truly trust around 6 and 7 figure automobiles. Apart from the fact that most photographers do not have enough insurance to cover the total destruction of an exotic car, these vehicles can put you out USD$5,000 for a fender replacement alone. So, if you've never done it before, and you do get permission to use high-end exotics for your project, remember it is never worth the risk to be lazy or careless on set. And as my own personal preference, I do not move the cars myself unless there is no other option, considering the liability in that.

Why such a focus on set personnel? It goes back to what I said about these sets being very large. The time you will lose moving a light or two (or eight) back and forth as you get your shot set up will add up exponentially compared to a simple portrait session. Don't overlook this detail, because often your lights are 5, 10, 15 or more meters away from you, and from each other. Also, because of this, having remote triggers on each light, plus control of the light settings from your transmitter, helps to speed things up on these larger sets. 

These types of projects are, make no mistake, proper productions. To do it right, a significant effort has to be made across several fronts.

The photography associates who generally are awesome enough to assist me on these projects (Euan Torrie, Logan Hickle, Alex Ventura, James Stender, Joseph Hemphill, to name a few) I would trust with my life. Many of them shoot glamour, fashion and automotive as well, and they fully understand what it takes to make it all run smoothly, as well as the liability involved. As opposed to some random friend of yours "hanging out" on set, which could spell catastrophe for you and your business if they don't know how to work in such an environment. You don't have even like exotic cars, but understand that someone spent 6 or 7 figures on it, and it's quite likely they will care if you damaged one.

There are offices adjacent to the showroom we were in during this project back in September, and as it happens I needed a light inside one of these offices for the look I wanted. Thankfully the shop staff didn't mind, and Logan moved it repeatedly while I did test shots to determine the exact angle and reflector type I wanted for the shot I was setting up. Another example of how having trusted set personnel can make things run several times more efficiently.


I firmly believe that lighting is not as crucial to a successful exotic+glamour project as the considerations already listed above. Sure, it is definitely important, but no amount of lighting is going to make an unplanned project, in bad location, at the wrong time, with sub-par set personnel go well. However, lighting is still much more important than simply what camera to use, and by a long shot. That said, this matter us brings squarely into yet another reason why shooting cars is so very different than shooting people. 

For starters, cars are, for the most part, highly reflective. Even those with matte finished paint work still have glass windows and mirrors, and as it happens, light loves to reflect of shiny surfaces. So where to place your lights, and the type of modifiers you opt for, can make a big difference in not only how your shot ends up looking, but also how much editing you have to mess with later on in post. Assuming you have the freedom to do so, exploring strong angles in your lighting setups, along with your camera angles, will help you tons in minimizing copious amounts of reflections that need editing out. The truth is, even if you don't consider this going in, I guarantee you will notice when you do your first few test shots. There is no absolute rule on how to set your lights up, so you will need to experiment with many different approaches to this as you learn to light these scenarios.

The worst part, if you will, is that almost every set you find yourself on will vary, and every car you end up working with will vary, from project to project. What works one time may not work at all on the next, so it is vital to keep yourself constantly examining each situation and adapting as needed. This is why I bring a host of light modifiers with me when I shoot a car with a model. I don't always know what I will be dealing with, and need to have the flexibility to improvise.

As shown in the video below, this set up utilizes 4 Einsteins on a PCB omni reflector w/ sock for key, a 10x36 strip w/ grid for rim, a 7" reflector with sock for wheel fill, and a 7" bare bulb behind the car to create gradients on the background (aluminum wall.) I set up the perfect "bubble" that worked with the focal length(s) I wanted to work with. In this case, I knew I wanted a tighter look, so I shot 100mm and longer, and only concerned myself with how the lights were falling on this sweet spot (and not on the driver's side of the car, or the real spoiler area, etc).

Finally regarding lighting, the assumption I am making in this article is that most of us own lighting equipment geared mostly towards portrait work. As opposed to, let's say, being in a large commercial studio with a full corner cyc walls, 10 meter ceilings, track lighting systems, massive light banks, etc, which are all generally ideal for automotive and product work. The fact is, however, once you throw a model into the situation, several automotive lighting approaches are no longer ideal, and adjustments have to be made. As such, working with light modifiers generally used for portrait work is actually a great choice when shooting these genres together.

But, you must keep in mind that a 10x36 strip box with a grid, for example, creates a very small area of light when compared to the size of an average car, and the sets in which you shoot these cars in. This is why multiple lights are generally required for (controlled) lighting across the entire set. It is definitely not about "more is better", but more about "Using what is needed to get the shot you envision." In fact, one of the most common problems I see on images of cars with glamour models is hugely uneven light (a mistake I made the first time I attempted this, as well, years back.) Happily, it is often quite simple to attain an even look to your lighting. Generally, just stop over thinking it and just point a light at a wall, or a wheel, or even inside the car. Get creative! Move that light around your set and control it.

As seen in the video below, I decided I wanted the GT3's headlights on in this shot. Sounds simple enough, but while a car's headlights are powerful, they not nearly as powerful as four 640ws strobes going off at full power. On top of that, headlights (like the sun) are a constant light source. This means your shutter speed can control the brightness of headlights, as long as your overall setup is within the power range that works with them. Add to that the extra complication of trigger sync speed limitations, and you can find yourself juggling umpteen settings on your camera and lights, and scratching your head as to why the headlights effect isn't happening like you want it. A little bit of experimentation goes a long way on something like this.

Camera & Lenses Considerations

And at the bottom of this list, though hardly unimportant, are your camera and lens. And right off the bat, the main point I hope to convey has to do with depth of field. A car is, obviously, quite a bit larger than a person. The average car length is something like 4-5 meters. This becomes a significant concern if your goal is to show the full length of the car in focus inside the depth of field range. Usually, when a model is in the shot, you have to make compromises with depth of field as it is not always possible to attain full focus across the entire length of a car when using longer focal lengths. 

Depth of field is calculated, or affected by, three factors:

  • Focal length
  • Aperture
  • Subject distance

So let's say you opt for your trusty 85mm prime for your exotic+glamour project because, hey, that's an ideal focal length for portraits. Right? You set up the car at a strong angle, place the model next to it off to the side, and start with a nice ƒ5.6 from about 6 meters away. Just like that, you have about 1 meter of depth of field, and that's it. If your goal was to have the car fully in focus, you have a problem now. Adjusting the power of the lights and/or the ISO to allow, say, ƒ22 would yield you almost 5 meters of depth of field, which would likely have enough acceptable sharpness for the length of the car (at a strong angle). 

In most cases, a lot photographers wouldn't normally shoot a portrait at ƒ22 (yes I know sometimes ƒ22, and tighter, has its uses in certain types of portraiture, but stay with me here) but perhaps you will need to explore such apertures when trying to achieve the looks you are trying for when a massive automobile is on set.

One way to minimize this need for super tight apertures is to use wider focal lengths, as depth of field expands exponentially the wider you go. While this "solves" your aperture and depth of field concerns, you start to distort your image considerably the wider and wider focal lengths that you use. And while automobiles and architecture can often look amazing at 14mm, glamour models generally do not. So you need to find the happy medium that works, and that fits the style you are after.

My approach is less about the car, and more about the model. I use cars on set as props (unless otherwise requested by the client), and as such I set up my lights and select my focal lengths and target apertures to work with the model and the location and pose that they are in. That said, ƒ4 is about the widest I will open the aperture to if I want the car to be somewhat in focus (or very in focus), and I prefer to stay at 50mm or longer (on full frame bodies) when shooting exotic cars and models.

One method I use to control depth of field is to position the model on the same focal plane as the area of the car I want in focus, then set an aperture that I find works best with the look I want. In this case, I had Caitlin on the same focal plane as the California's wheel, allowing me to use as open as ƒ3.2 to separate her from the painting in the background without losing sharpness in the key elements in the shot (model and wheel).

TIP: If you don't have a nifty depth of field calculator for your smartphone, download one right now. You may not ever use it on set, but playing around with it can help you understand how depth of field changes depending on these factors. Once you know that 85mm at ƒ22 from 6 meters gives you 4.82 meters of depth of field, and that 50mm at ƒ2 from 3 meters nets you 0.27 meters of depth of field, for example, you will start to estimate depth of field in your head when on set. Eventually become second nature, this will help you expedite your projects, but also ensure mistakes aren't made due to overlooked depth of field concerns on large sets.

In summary, you may find yourself well out of your comfort zone the first (and tenth) time that you attempt to shoot a glamour model with a car. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense why. These are quite different genres with quite approaches, and it is your job to marry it all together into a cohesive image. Ideally, one that doesn't feel forced or arbitrary. Now, when it comes to retouching these type of shots, well, there's always room for Part 2, so stay tuned for that.  

And as an added bonus, my good friends James Stender and Andy Brown helped me to produce a 5 minute behind the scenes how-to video of my most recent project with Amanda Paris in Houston. Check it out:

Here is a quick glimpse into a couple other projects with models Heidi Fahrenbach, Shelby Leger and Savanna Little.

Finally, here are the final shots depicted in the BTS photos in this article, plus some more examples of exotic car + glamour model images I've done, showcasing several different approaches.  

Have fun, and watch those light stands near those USD$20,000 paint jobs!

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Patrick Savage's picture

Nino Sir... you are the bomb. Very inspiring. Amanda is also so beautiful and great. She came here for NOPI and was a so nice. Thanks for this great BTS and what you do.

michael buehrle's picture

another great read. it's good to be the king huh ? keep it up.

Matthew Hyson's picture

First off, just want to say the article is very well written and laid out. Great job. I appreciate the thought that clearly went in to it. Also, some great tips! And the photos are technically great! That being said, the content is just so stereo-typically "dude". There's nothing inspiring about them. How about doing work that DOESN'T perpetuate sexist ideas that objectify women and create ridiculously unattainable beauty ideals?

michael buehrle's picture

you do know he is not a nature photog right ? he takes pics of cars and women (and gets paid well i'm sure) and people pay him to do so. is he the "problem" or is the client who want them ? how about women photogs who shoot boudoir ? are they "problems" too ? are they creating ridiculous unattainable beauty ideas too ? i don't see your point. if you wanna just take pics of clouds and bunnies then go ahead but i think your comment a little out on the harsh side. he obviously is a well respected and talented photog or he would not write for fstoppers right ?

Emil Nyström's picture

I think he was pretty clear he didn't complain about the quality of the photos nor the article. However i agree with Matthew. The images are quite stereotype, sexist and really not empowering for women.If you take a picture of a guy next to his car, it's quite clear he's driven it and is powerful. Here the women are just another dudes trophy the same way the car is.

a couple of links:

Nick Viton's picture

There's obviously a market for these images. Can't fault Nino for that.

Chris Cameron's picture

There's a market for kiddie porn too. Sure as hell doesn't make it right.

Nick Viton's picture

Having a market for something and it being right are two completely different things. It would help if your statements were coherent. Thanks for trying though, Chris.

Jason Ranalli's picture

I don't find the images very inspiring because it's just not my style but to call them sexist or not empowering to women is just not true nor fair to the photographer.

I don't see the point in protesting this guy when there are many more artistic/commercial works relegating women to simply pretty faces out there. Ever see the ads outside a Sephora? And yet women go piling in.

Christian Berens's picture

Excellent writeup! I've been a NINO fan for a few years now (thanks to my friend Curtis for introducing his work to me!) The BTS and explanations are simply amazing and informative! Thanks for your insight Nino!!

Trevor Dayley's picture

Great job Nino. I've got to say though you all are much braver than I. I would have had a couple sand bags on each of those light stands. I would be too worried it would get bumped and fall on top of one of those amazing cars.

Ross Jukes's picture

Very informative article. I only shoot cars and not the models but would love any feedback...

Nino Batista's picture

Excellent work!

Ralph Hightower's picture

In the first video, I saw the White Balance temp range from 5000 to 5200 in the shot information. Was Auto White Balance set or was it dialed in?
Also was that a Karmann Ghia that I spotted in one of the shots?

Nino Batista's picture

That was a Porsche 356, but I can see how you could make the misidentification. :)

And when shooting with strobes, I never ever use AWB. In fact, I never use AWB on any portrait session of any kind! AWB belongs, in my world, only when candidly taking shots in a park with the family, for example.

Dave Doeppel's picture

great article Nino. Love the breakdown and showing that you don't need massive amounts of gear to get great shots.

Chris Adval's picture

Wow, all I can say honestly! I'd love to see at least one of those photos before/after.

Was these photos from personal project productions?

Nino Batista's picture

Combination of both, Chris. And thanks!

Chris Adval's picture

is there a way to see a before and after of one of them? ;)

Brett Seeley's picture

Great work as usual Nino!

Nino Batista's picture

Thanks my man. Good to hear from you…!

Kim Brown's picture

Now... i'm sure somewhere in the title of this thing there was something about cars.

Justin Piccari's picture

Definitely super helpful! Do you have any advice on shooting outdoors? I'm about to try my first shoot with a car and model and we are looking at potentially being outdoor, so I'm trying to compile a list of equipment and precautions and I just don't want to overlook anything! Really great read and video!

Enrico Pascucci's picture

I have soon a shoot (first time for me ) of model+vintage car and I was quite worried since I smelt that most of the rules I learnt in portrait photography could be wrong with this new type of shoot. With this great tutorial things are more clear and now what to expect and be more confident and aware. Thanks, Nino.