How To Shoot A Car Ad In NYC With No Permits And No Notice

Recently, I was approached by my Creative Director, Scott Rodgers, over at the ad agency Tier 10 Marketing to shoot some ads with the newly redesigned 2013 Honda Accord. The problem? The shoot had to take place in less than 48 hours, we were shooting with 2 of the first cars in the United States, and there was literally NO time to permit for a shoot that had to take place in New York City. Why the rush? US Honda dealers needed these images right away for some new ad campaigns as the first new Accords hit our shores.

Thankfully, I had faced a situation like this before. Trust me when I say that you should not do a shoot in NYC without proper planning and permits, but as I said, what to do when you do not have the 48 hours needed for the permit to be filed with the city? That's easy, never put a tripod or light stand on the ground...

First order of business was to location scout. My Creative Director, Rodgers, scouted locations in New York City from his office in Washington D.C. using unconventional methods that were not available a few years ago. With Google Maps and, more specifically, the Google Street View feature, he selected three prime locations that incorporated iconic New York City visuals – by the Williamsburg Bridge, by the Brooklyn Bridge to incorporate the Manhattan skyline, and in the Meatpacking District by the Hotel Gansevoort. He was then able to map out the route we would use to arrive at each location.

Next, I recruited a couple of assistants. They would serve as human light stands, holding a White Lightning x3200 flashes with 7" silver reflectors for stronger output outside (the silver reflectors supercharge the power output of the light essentially), Pocketwizard Transmitter, and Vagabond Mini powerpacks in each of their hands. As long as a light stand or tripod never hit the ground, I technically would not need a permit in the city, according to an unnamed official working in the New York City permit office. The worst I would risk is a parking ticket for parking illegally for the most part. Below is a previous example of how I backed a new MDX at the crack of dawn into Times Square to shoot an ad, and got away with it without a permit. Cops drove by and I just smiled politely and waved (always smile and be cordial and act like you belong there).

Now, if you have the chance to file a permit to ensure you have a smooth shoot, I would suggest that. Just contact the permit office of the applicable city. You will need to provide proof of your liability insurance coverage, but you should have that no matter what as a professional photographer anyway. You cannot rent any decent studio location in a major city without proof of insurance. If you don't have it yet, look into it. It's not very expensive over 12 months. My clients always seem to be last minute, so I often don't have enough time to get a permit officially filed so I have to find other ways around. It is a relief to have a permit and it also allows you to use a tripod so that you can do bracketed exposures and composite work properly.

We also had a very tight schedule with the cars, only about half a day, and we had to knock out at least 4-5 separate shots in that time period. That means I would use the flashes on location as a fill to make the car's paint and lines POP, but I wouldn't have time to properly light every angle of the car as I normally would. Believe it or not, human light stands made the process much faster and easier. I mean, who doesn't enjoy voice activated light stands that raise/lower/move on their own.

Here are a few of the shots (we aren't done editing everything, but you get the idea). We literally would park in the road and the assistants would quickly jump out of the vehicles and get into position and we would fire some shots off quickly and keep moving until someone would possibly stop us. One one occasion, the Park Service merely asked us if we were "nearly done" as we were literally blocking one lane in the road and I politely smiled and said "ALMOST!" (see the first image below).

My rough lighting diagram for the shot above. I would vary distance of lights and power output based on the time of day and ambient light.

My creative director likes when I leave a lot of negative space to drop in text and logos/branding. Look at that sky and skyline! WOW. We got lucky.

Just like when shooting a portrait of a person, a long lens can really be flattering to a car and its lines. I also shoot a lot of cars from the ground aiming upward to make them appear more grand

My ad agency wrote their own article about the shoot and listed our locations. Feel free to check it out here!

Special thanks to Erik Motta for filming behind the scenes. He's the guy to use, especially if you're shooting in the NYC area. Thanks to my assistant Andrew Tomasino.  Video was edited by the client, Tier 10.

Cars provided by Paragon Honda

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Truly excellent work.  I think I just found inspiration for my next assignment for my photography class.  :)

You did miracles with the timeline... I can't beleive they woke up 48hrs before and went "SHIT! anyone got any good picture for ads???"


That's the world of big clients - "we need it, and we need it now." and if you are *really* lucky, they will then go "here's some cash, make it happen... we don't care how"

really cool

interesting .. 

Nice work! love the run and gun style of this. Permits are great but it's cool to see what you can do with little time and no permits. Good Stuff!

Love it!  Like the MDX shot in time square.

Corey Melton's picture

Andrew Tomasino represent! 

David Lara's picture

Awesome work especially with the restraints of the project.

I would be curious to know how you structured your contract/bid for a project like this. Do you charge more for last minute project or better yet because you only have 48 hours to plan, shoot and deliver. Also if you is the fee more/less because there will be no permits (how does that fit into the equation).

Douglas Sonders's picture

That's a good question. That's a post all in itself. In this case, it's a regular client and they had already established a rate that was within my normal fees for a comparable job but I normally charge extra preproduction fees for rush prep like this when I have to drop everything else

George Socka's picture


Douglas Sonders's picture

HAHA! good catch. My 24-70 2.8L just came back from CPS service and the aperture decided to freeze up for no reason and just not work on set. Needed something mid-range in between my 16-35 and 70-200 in my kit and I keep an old backup lens or 2 just in case. Had my old 50-200 L in my bag. Its way old, but it works!

Pressure creates champions. :)  Nice work...

Just got one of my 'biggest' clients, and our first assignment out of the gate was like that - we nailed it, but I questioned if it set a precedent for production speed and quality.  Would you take that risk every time?  Curious on your thoughts.  That sky IS fantastic.. I mean, you couldn't have planned that anyways, right? ;-)

Douglas Sonders's picture

id always prefer to plan out and be covered, but this worked in a pinch!

You rock, Doug! Great info!! Thanks for sharing.