Through My Lens: Moments That Made 2019

I haven’t always had a passion for photography; I got into it by necessity. I started by shooting local drift events which turned photography into a passion of mine and, eventually, a large part of my career. Photojournalism has taken me around the world and allowed me to capture thousands of moments with my camera. I am grateful every day to be able to do what I love for a living.

At the start of 2019, I challenged myself to do better than the year before. I wanted to create images that would tell a remarkable story or capture great moments.

I started 2019 by shooting the Twister Orange 2020 Ford Mustang GT500 before the car was shown to the public and have concluded the year by reshooting it. The collection of images I made from January to December covered a range of subject matter across the world, while remaining very Ford-centric.

2020 Ford Shelby GT500

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 500, 1/125 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

Its been a year since I first shot the 2020 Shelby GT500, and I continue to be amazed that it is the enthusiasts’ photo of choice to manipulate and create different renderings, test different colors, and use with memes. It’s refreshing to see what enthusiasts have been able to develop from my photos of the GT500.

During the shoot, I used my go-to setup: a Nikon D750 with a Sigma 50mm lens and a Breakthrough Photography X4 Polarizer. I had an incredible time constraint; the setting wasn’t ideal as there were tire tracks and footprints on the studio floor. My lighting consisted of fluorescent overhead lighting.

At the time I released the photos, just one image had been retouched with some help from some killer automotive photographers. Over the year, I routinely returned to these original images and used them to learn new editing techniques and refine my skills.

Before and after editing.

On The Block at Barrett-Jackon

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 2000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2

Lucky for me, Ford auctioned the 2020 Shelby GT500 at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, Arizona, to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation about a week after my first shoot with it. Studio shoots aren’t my thing, but Barrett-Jackson sure is.

In 2018, I shot the VIN 001 Bullitt Mustang on the block at Barrett-Jackson and felt that my images could have been better. I wanted to make sure that this time around with the GT500, I got pictures that would show the magnitude of the environment, but also show some significant element of the car so that without context, anyone would have an idea of what they were looking at.

On the block, there is practically no room to breathe. There are dozens of bidders, and in the case of a charity vehicle such as the 2020 GT500, the charity it benefits will usually bring dozens of people on stage. Of course, Ford had a decent amount of executives to add to the chaos.

Additionally, it’s paramount to be aware of your surroundings and not obstruct the bidder’s view, or get between the live TV camera crew and the car.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 450, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2

That said, I think I got it right with this image. I love that it shows a full auction audience and a large number of people on the block, all trying to get a shot with their phone: the camera crew, security team, and you can make out a few people from Ford.

Most of all, I love that you can see the Twister Orange paint color and the tri-bar of the headlight, one of its signature design elements. If Mustang fans look close enough, they will be able to recognize the front turn signal light, hood pins, and the body lines unique to the GT500.

2019 Grand Prix of Long Beach

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 100, 1/320 SEC @ ƒ/7.1

On a subconscious level, working with the GT500 in a studio sparked my fascination with light and how to better use it in natural settings, as well as artificially in a studio. With motorsports, lighting can be a challenge because of how the track is laid out, where the photo areas are, and the time of day you’re shooting.

This year at the 2019 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, I followed Ian Lacy Racing in partnership with G3 Racing, competing in SRO’s 2019 GT4 America and IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. The two new Ford Mustang GT4 entries were driven by Drew Staveley, lead instructor at the Ford Performance Racing School in Utah, and team owner Frank Gannett.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 100, 1/500 SEC @ ƒ/7.1

Sanctioned by SRO Motorsports Group, the series aims to be a real low-tech amateur sport car series. The class features a “balance of performance,” which means each car at each event is adjusted to have near-identical performance levels, the balance of performance, thus the driver’s skill is highlighted.

One of my goals while shooting was to literally highlight the team I was following, much like the series highlights driver skills.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 1000, 1/1600 SEC @ ƒ/5.6

Part of the course in Long Beach has large pedestrian bridges above the track that serve as an entry to the convention center where the race is held. At the time the GT4 class was running, the bridges created some interesting shadows to work with, though I found it pretty challenging. I had better luck highlighting my team at the corners immediately following this tunnel section of the track.

Staveley laid down a weekend-best 126:915 lap time in the No. 12 Ford Mustang GT4 in the 35-minute session before qualifying for the Pirelli GT4 America Sprint round on the streets of Long Beach. Garnett took a massive hit in the No. 24 car at Long Beach, which prohibited him from finishing the race.

Horsepower Wars: $10K Drag Shootout – Season 2

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 2000, 1/1000 SEC @ ƒ/2

The most artificial lighting I used in 2019 was during season two production of Horsepower Wars: $10K Drag Shootout, a web series created by Power Automedia. The Dream Team built a 2001 Ford Mustang on the show while the returning champions from season one, Team Bigun, built a Ford Granada.

During filming, I was able to use light and smoke for the team photos and individual headshots. I quickly learned how much smoke is too much smoke in a photo.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 2000, 1/320 SEC @ ƒ/2.2

Teams had the option of wrapping their cars after production had finished. The Dream Team opted to do so and wanted to incorporate one of my photos into the design – which I thought was the coolest thing ever.

Much to my disappointment, no one ever got to see the car wrapped or my image on it, because it was destroyed in a fire while being transported with the other vehicles to the location of the race, where the season finale would be filmed.

Nikon D750, 35.0mm f/1.8 | ISO 2000, 1/320 SEC @ ƒ/2

After the fire, all the cars came back to PAM headquarters, which gave me the opportunity to retake some creative beauty shots utilizing more artificial light and a smoke machine.

Car Feature: 1964 “PerTronix” Mustang

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 110, 1/10 SEC @ ƒ/13

After Horsepower Wars, I felt more comfortable using artificial lighting, but my preference has always been using natural light. When I was asked to shoot a car feature for Ford Muscle, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to become more familiar with using light reflectors to bounce light where I needed it.

My subject was a 1965 Ford Mustang that was used as a test vehicle for PerTronix. The car owner wanted to shoot the car relatively close to where he lived and suggested a location.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 250, 1/4000 SEC @ ƒ/2.2

Not familiar with the area, I went to the shoot location early and saw that it was an empty dirt lot behind a run-down liquor store. I knew it wouldn’t be the best background, so I drove around the area to see if I could find something close that would fit the car and make the images a little nicer.

As luck would have it, I did. The new location worked out perfectly! I didn’t have to worry about moving the car for traffic or getting asked to leave, plus the lighting was perfect. Thankfully my assistant was super knowledgeable about how to bounce light and managed not to cast a reflection in the paint.

Holley Intergalactic Ford Fest

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 320, 1/4000 SEC @ ƒ/4.8

Whenever I go to any sort of drag racing event, I see photographers standing or sitting in perhaps the most dangerous place to be on track, and they don’t move the entire length of the event.

My coverage of Holley’s Intergalactic Ford Fest was focused on NMRA’s drag racing portion of the event. My goal was to get all sorts of different angles and utilize the light to present a different look than everyone’s standard front three-quarter shot.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 100, 1/80SEC @ ƒ/5.6

I went into the stands and on the tower, and looked for places that I thought would make for an exciting photo where there weren’t many, if any, other photographers.

While shooting from weird places, a few photographers took notice and asked why I wasn’t standing next to the cars as they took off. Aside from wanting to get a different style of images, one thing I have learned shooting motorsports is that anything can happen at any time, and no picture is worth putting your life at risk. I have always felt drag racing, in general, is entirely too casual with its rules for photographers.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 100, 1/80 SEC @ ƒ/13

2019 Formula Drift: Irwindale

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 900, 1/1000 SEC @ ƒ/5

Every year I look forward to the first and final rounds of the Formula Drift season, but I have to admit, this year, my focus was on the final round at Irwindale.

The final round always feels so much more relaxed than the first event held in Long Beach, most likely because it is held at Irwindale Raceway, a dedicated motorsport facility that is easy to get in and out of. But the “house of drift” has minimal places to shoot from.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 220, 1/200 SEC @ ƒ/11

A majority of my images from the 2018 event looked like I had taken them at the worst possible time. To me, they felt bland, boring, and looked about the same as what every other photographer got. My goal for 2019 was to use the light in my favor and force a unique perspective.

Consequently, I was able to use it to highlight drivers’ faces as they transitioned off the first bank and through the inner clipping zone.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 100, 1/200 SEC @ ƒ/11

One of Irwindales’ unique photo locations to shoot drifting is atop the grandstands. Team spotters frequently use the area because you can see the entire course from above. With a zoom lens, you can get a lot of shots that have a different look and feel.

The SEMA Show 2019

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 64, 1.3 SEC @ ƒ/10

With my year-long focus on light, I played around with this idea of “still motion” while I was at the 2019 SEMA Show. The annual show attracts thousands of people, there is no room to walk, and getting photos of cars without someone walking through is impossible.

I wanted to incorporate the motion of people walking by in my photos rather than wait for a break in the crowd.

To get the look I wanted, I needed to use a tripod. Oddly enough, after setting up my shot, most people at the show avoided walking between the camera and the car, so I had to hit the shutter and turn around so that no one would realize I was taking a photo and would just keep walking.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 110, 1/160 SEC @ ƒ/5.3

My favorite part of covering the 2019 SEMA Show was hearing all the buzz surrounding an upcoming car show held in Saudi Arabia, and of course, shooting Ford Out Front, featuring Vaughn Gittin, Chelsea Denofa, and Ken Block among others.

Global Auto Salon – Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

After SEMA, I attended the Global Auto Salon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While there, I got to experience a local Cars & Coffee event. What resonated most with me was how true it is that cars are a universal language.

The event had the same cars you would see in the States: it wasn’t hard for me to find the Mustang club in attendance, security tried to break up the show, and people would start rev wars from across the parking lot. While I was on the complete opposite side of the world, I felt right at home.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 100, 1/1600 SEC @ ƒ/3.2

What I love about this photo is that aside from the license plates, you really would have no idea this wasn’t somewhere in the States. To me, it reflects the universal car language that all enthusiasts speak.

In Saudi Arabia, most things start pretty late in the day and go all hours of the night, because in the summer months, it is too hot during the day to do anything. The Global Auto Salon – Riyadh was no exception to this.

Nikon D750, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 | ISO 2000, 1/160 SEC @ ƒ/5.3

Everything I shot was at night and handheld. There were lights around, but they weren’t always ideal for pictures which really forced me to get creative.

Part of the event included a huge open area for various demonstrations to take place, including one featuring Vaughn Gittin Jr. I was able to put my GoPro on his car and capture one of his sessions. During that session, Lauren Heely jumped his Jeep over Vaugn  Vaughn’s tandem driver.

Ford Press Events

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 100, 1/2000 SEC @ ƒ/2.8

In 2019 Ford invited me to the debut of the 2020 Ford Explorer, Mustang Mach-E, and to drive the 2020 Shelby GT350 and GT350R, 2020 High-Performance Pack Ecoboost, and the 2020 Shelby GT500.

While each Ford press trip is always an incredible experience, my favorite moments included shooting Stangmode’s car alongside every new variant of the Mustang, and driving the HPP EcoBoost on the Pacific Coast Highway north of San Fransisco.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 100, 1/1600 SEC @ ƒ/2.5

My year concluded behind the wheel of the car that started it all, the 2020 Ford Shelby GT500. I was able to utilize everything I had learned up until this point for my final shoot with the car. My favorite part of the shoot was being able to drive the GT500 on the streets of Las Vegas, and on the track and drag strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Looking back at the images I captured in 2019 has been an enjoyable experience and given me an incredible feeling of serenity and appreciation for the beauty of the things that surround me every day.

Nikon D750, 50.0mm f/1.4 | ISO 125, 1/1600 SEC @ ƒ/2.5

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About the author

Nicole Ellan James

As an automotive journalist and avid car enthusiast, Nicole Ellan James has a passion for automotive that is reflected in every aspect of her lifestyle. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @nicoleeellan
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