Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Top Photographers Interview: Clint Clemens – The Father of Modern (and Future) Automotive Photography


Prior to my obsession with photography (one of many obsessions in my life), I was (and still am) a car guy. In fact, all of my film shooting in the early 80’s was of only one subject – cars! In 2006, I was lucky enough to finally buy my dream car – a Porsche 911 (997) C4s Cabriolet, but I’ve only taken a few pictures of it with my DSLR as I’ve always wanted to get some special shots of it.

Porsche is famous for great automotive imagery and offers posters at their dealerships, so my office is wallpapered with their posters. However, there’s one poster that all true Porsche lovers know and lust after and that’s Clint Clemens’s famous “Kills bugs fast.” poster of a 911 Turbo.  It represents the type of image I’d like to get of my car one day, so you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to speak to the legend who created this iconic image!


Clint Eastwood, I mean Clemens, Kills bugs fast.!!!!

For normal people my age, when people thing of Porsche iconic moments they think of the movie Risky Business and Tom Cruise being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp in his dad’s Porsche 928. However, for hard core Porsche fans like myself, we think of the ultimate Porsche poster by which all others are judged – the 911 Turbo “Kills bugs fast.” poster. This is a “the” poster to own (which sadly I don’t), but two of my friends have a framed copy hanging in their office. Now stop and name two people you work with who have the same ANYTHING framed in their office – it just doesn’t happen, but this poster is just that cool (especially in real life).

When I found out that Clint Clemens took this iconic image he immediately got to my top 50 list, but when I went through his portfolio I began to feel like I was on Wayne’s World and was saying to myself “I’m not worthy.” With this in mind, imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to talk to Clint and ask him about this legendary image – yeah, it was hard to take notes!

When I talked to Clint about this image I found out that Porsche trusted him so much that his only information from his client was the slogan “Kills bugs fast.” and he was simply told to “illustrate the idea”. It was up to him to figure out the rest, and so he did. What’s more, this was during a time when Clint invented this type of image style which is so common today – the sharp image of a moving car with a blurred background. Yep, that’s right Clint invented this concept in 1980, and he was the only photographer who could pull this shot off thanks to his patented rig to grab these shots off with his FILM camera!

In case you glossed over that last statement, let me say it in another way - these are in-camera film shots in the days before Photoshop and Digital Cameras existed (resume bowing) where you had to get it right in the camera. Pardon my French, but H O L Y  F * * K!!!!!!!!!!

How to Interpret Speed

In 1979 Clint was inventing motorized overhead light banks and new concepts on how to photograph cars at his studio in Boston. In this studio, which would go on to be featured in American Photographer for its revolutionary design, he would practice with silverware to prepare the lighting he needed for his famous shots. However, he quickly learned that this was an expensive endeavor that found him working to simply pay for the studio bills, so he left the studio for the road – where cars belong.

It was around 1980 when got the idea to attach a camera to a car. After numerous failed attempts using steady cams, and other devices from the video world, he and Craig Hunter of Safari Filmworks in California invented his patented camera mount using SpeedRail. He also invented a system that would allow him to drive the car (yes, you read that right) while looking at a video screen that showed his a real-time view through his viewfinder (hum, can anyone say Live View?) and remotely trigger the camera to take the shot at exactly the precise time – ON FILM! <censored barrage of jubilant expletives>

Naturally this was a HUGE hit with his clients, and for roughly 10 years Clint would go on to build around 8000 of these rigs and enjoyed a monopoly on this photographic technique. In fact, he was getting clients sending him magazine ads for a shot he did for another client, and they’d just put their logo and text on the page and say “we want this with our car”. This was the heyday of his career, but it all came to an end shortly after he landed the print and television campaign for the launch of the first Mercedes E-Class in America (W124). Despite having a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the famous German magazine, Stern, they took photographs of his rig while he was shooting in Las Vegas’ Valley of Fire and published them. Game over. His secret was now out and everyone started to copy him. 


For most of us, that’d be game over and we’d sue until the end of time, but Clint moved on doing tons of great work in transportation photography. However, even there he started to notice that competition was becoming intense, so it was time to reinvent himself again.

“The Art of Photography has been lost”

One of the interesting discussions I had was about photography in 2009. He explained how he feels that “the art of photography has been lost” because the “barrier to entry” has been lowered. It used to be that you needed to know how to “choose the proper film, expose it, color balance, etc…” and that made it difficult for just any average Joe to master this craft. However, digital photography has changed all of that so that anyone can do it. Clint offered a good analogy:

“Imagine photography is a rain barrel and the photographers are the water. It used to be that the barrel had a inch or two of rain, but now the rain barrel is overflowing. The value of a photo is inversely proportional. Imagine if the same happened to another craft like dentistry where anyone could be a dentist?

Now if the barrier to entry has been lowered, how does one succeed in these times? If you examine Clint’s work and see how creative he has been, then you know the answer – you raise the barrier to entry!DHL

Raising the Barrier to Entry – Modern Day Transportation Imagery

Just as Clint broke new ground with his automotive work, he’s not just sat back and let himself become obsolete. Instead, what Clint has done is pushed himself to raise the barrier to entry once again. The way he’s done this is by redefining how cars are photographed by recognizing that a camera is just one way to create an image of a vehicle, and that the real objective is the image itself!

Imagery to the Web

Clint points out that that the evolution of images require that in today’s world that we think about how the images will be used. The web promotes interactivity and implies 3D, so CGI is where all car stuff is going today. To embrace this change he has founded two companies, Goodstock (HDR Spheres) and Zerone (CGI), to help lead the way in the future of automotive imagery.

HDR Spheres

Most of us have heard the term HDR as High Dynamic Range photography created by products like Photomatix where multiple exposures are blended together to create the perfect exposure, but that concept is really just Tone Mapping. High Dynamic Range is about combining multiple exposures to create a super high resolution image and HDR spheres are about using a device to create a spherical image of an environment that can be later used with a CGI image of a vehicle to create image based lighting (accurate lighting and reflections on the vehicle). It also raises the bar for CGI as it creates lighting with the same conditions found in the real world shot, so when you render the car it looks like it was in that scene. In short, this concept eliminates the need for the vehicle itself (which is replaced by its wireframe) as  the image is entirely computer generated. To better understand this concept, visit for a more detailed demonstration.

This represents a change in the art because to play in this world you are no longer the  photographer, but rather the artist seeing the vision of how the image will look. The later half is no different than things have always been in photographer, as anyone can take a snapshot, but only the best photographers can create art with their imagery. Here the rules and tools have changed, but the fundamentals remain the same.

Models from Mars


Of course, some of you out there will say – hell, if the car is in CGI why not just create the environment in the computer as well? Of course, Clint agrees and has formed Models from Mars exactly for that purpose! This is the next step where  both the environment and vehicle are CGI based and the possibilities are limitless! His company is doing groundbreaking work that creates huge 1GB scenes and shrinks them down to an ultra light 4000 poly image using 8 & 16k texture maps. This is the same technology used in video games, and its where the future of interactive worlds will continue to evolve.

How you can be a part of the future?

SweetSorrowWhen I was listening to Clint, I was thinking crap – my dream of ever doing transportation imagery has just been flushed down the toilet! However, he pointed out that his company will be selling devices for creating the HDR Spheres that will be used to aid in the imagery created, and that artists could use CGI based products to create their own vision. It won’t be easy, but those that stay with the times will reap the rewards of the working with high barrier to entry techniques.

I also started thinking about my own job as a computer programmer. I realized that I work with a team of people to create a successful product, and there’s nothing that says that my imagery couldn’t be the same. So while the days of creating an image as a individual effort might be replaced by collaborative effort, the result is still the same – capturing the vision from your minds eye and turning it into a reality for the world to see. This is the heart of what Photography and art are all about, so this is simply a new medium and process for accomplishing that goal.

But is Clint still a Photographer?

LakeBoatWith all of this discussion I started to wonder if Clint was even taking pictures anymore, and of course the answer was yes!  He’s still very proud to be a founding member of Canon’s Explorer of Light program, and Canon still sponsors him. He’s currently shooting with a Canon 1Ds Mark III & 1D Mark III and loves his favorite lenses – the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. His son shoots with a 5D Mark II and recently shot a video film called Walden that features Clint (as the boss who fires McAlister - 6:56), so his legacy is sure to continue.

Clint is also still excited about new developments in the industry so much so that he was quick to send me a mail when he read onOne’s blog about their new DSLR Camera Remote for the iPhone. With technologies like this and Live View we can more easily accomplish some of the killer transportation shots he once created with crude setups, but he’s happy to see people follow in his footsteps. Nobody can take away his contributions to transportation imagery, and his current work will continue to push that industry in new directions. I look forward to seeing the evolution of his work, and I’m looking forward to taking pictures of my car using “old fashion” techniques that Clint invented.

Of course, I couldn’t help but ask Clint if it was still possible to get that cool “Kills Bugs Fast” poster that’s missing from my wall. He said he’d be happy to make an 11x14 matted and signed copy for my blog readers for $350, a 16x20 for $500, or even larger versions upon request by contacting him at In fact, he’s willing to make prints for many of his killer photos found on his web site.

It has been a true pleasure for me to talk with this industry icon, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this article as much as I have. Feel free to post comments as I’m sure that Clint will be reading them.

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Kenneth Hiew said...

Thanks Ron.. great writeup and post an interview..

Anonymous said...


Modern automotive photography started in the early 60's with people like Mickey McGuire, Vern Hammarlund, Jimmy Northmore, Dennis Grippentrog, Guy Morrision,and Warren Winstanley. These 6 men single hand-idly transformed Automotive Advertising and from illustration studios to photography in a matter of less than 5 years. The modern lightbox came from these pioneers, they just didn't publish or promote their tricks. They are the founding fathers of automotive photography. Read "The Car and the Camera" to learn more.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I was part of that scene in Detroit in the 50's and this guy Clint ia just a pr dream.