August 6, 2015 by Zara Naber
German expressionist films, his father’s corvettes and the scenic coastlines of the grey city of love – San Francisco, are just a few of Ken Brown‘s visual inspirations and creative power. Brown’s remarkable journey started when he was working as a security guard at the BlackHawk Museum in Danville, California. In his free time, he delved into the diverse domain of automobile car through mediums of photography and written language. Today, his inspirations and ambitions granted him a still life, car and landscape award, including several projects for multinational divisions such as Mercedes Benz, Chevrolet, Maserati and so on.
Production Paradise: What is your fascination with California? With New York?
Ken Brown: I grew up in California and each time I get a job somewhere different in the state, it’s exciting. California has a little bit of everything. From the beaches and the ocean to sprawling cities and farmland. It’s just a joy being able to hop in my car and drive a few hours to a location that’s completely different from the next.
My obsession with New York began in college when I watched endless reruns of the television show Friends. I ultimately moved there for a short bit and loved the energy, the skyscrapers, and the sense that one gets when living in one of the most sought to live in and widely known cities in the world. I enjoyed my time there but I rarely got out of the city. Which is why I moved back to California; to be able to easily get away from the hustle and bustle and see incredible natural beauty whenever I wanted.
Production Paradise: I admire how you turn cars elements into a mysterious cinematic piece of art. How would you describe your style and how it has developed over the years?
Ken Brown: I studied film theory in college and I have always been drawn to film noir and the chiaroscuro lighting that was popular in early German cinema.
When I first started shooting I got a job at a car museum and I translated my love of film noir lighting to the car genre: lighting only the important stylistic cues of the car while maintaining mystery in the rest of the cars body. I noticed this was a way to differentiate myself from other automotive shooters so I stuck with it. As time passed it became the way I approach most everything I shoot.
Production Paradise: Which design element do you mostly like to capture?
Ken Brown: I enjoy looking at a car for quite some time before I shoot it to get a sense of what the designers were trying to accentuate. It’s fun to then try and capture the one or few things that make the car special. I always try to light/frame a car to show its unique features; be it the doors of a Gullwing Mercedes or the bubbly landscape of a Ferrari hood.
Automotive mascots are also fun to shoot because with some rare, vintage cars, the mascots are almost as famous as the cars themselves.
Production Paradise: How has the automotive photography industry changed since you started?
Ken Brown: I started shooting when CGI was becoming very popular. CGI seemed to have taken over for a few years but more and more I see agency’s turning back to shooting real cars. I think it’s still constantly changing and I’m excited to see where the industry goes during my career.
The way classics have been shot has also changed. More and more they’re being taken out on the road or brought into a studio to be photographed. A long ways away from the past where classics were shot in open fields or pretty vistas at sunset/sunrise.
Production Paradise: Describe the need for post-production in car photography?
Ken Brown: Retouching/post-production in car photography is just as much an art as is the lighting. The fact of the matter is that cars are giant mirrors and see everything. So sometimes retouching is just part of the process to make a car look its best. It’s difficult to light a car and get everything the way you want it to look in one shot. The ability to blend different shots together to achieve several types of lighting is fantastic and a time saver.
Production Paradise: How would you compare shooting editorial work vs. shooting personal projects?
Ken Brown: The editorial jobs I’ve done have all been centered around classic cars or a collection of classics. The emphasis is on the cars themselves so I’ve always been asked to show off the car, not my lighting, and to let the car speak for itself.
When I approach shooting a car for my personal reasons, I always try to use lighting to draw the viewers eyes onto the bits of the car I want them to focus on.
From my past as an assistant and digital tech, I’ve often found photographers say they have immense amounts of freedom on editorial shoots. I never have and always felt that the only way to shoot what I want to shoot has been through personal work.
Production Paradise: Anything you would have done differently in your career?
Ken Brown: Nothing. There were some opportunities I’ve passed up, some bids I’ve failed at winning, and the usual ups and downs of a career in photography. But I don’t think I’d have done anything different…yet.
Production Paradise: What have you found most useful of being a Production Paradise member?
Ken Brown: Car photography is such a specialized niche in the photo world and I spent a lot of time researching the various companies that promise to get your name in front of the people who matter. I have several friends in the advertising industry and know that they receive the Production Paradise emails, showcases and spotlights. It’s also nice being part of such a diverse group of photographers who advertise with Production Paradise. Everyone in the car section has such a unique style and approach that I think we’re not competing against one another and instead, complementing each other.
You can find Ken Brown and other San Francisco car photographers in our directory.