Through My Lens: Shooting the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Someone told me this story about a photographer’s first big assignment for a fashion magazine. Going into it, the only information he had been given was a date, time, and location – he was unaware of who he would be shooting and what the site was like. Shortly after he arrived for the shoot, the photographer found himself alone in a room with Marilyn Monroe, who was dressed in nothing but the finest silk sheets.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to go into a shoot without any information about the lighting, space, or what you would be photographing.

Shortly after hearing this story, I found myself in this very situation with something as iconic as Marilyn Monroe: The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, before its official release.

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

From its release to present, my photos of the Twister Orange 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 have spread across the internet and made their way around social media. In a way, it’s almost funny because the shots aren’t anything spectacular.

About a week before the Detroit Auto Show began, Ford invited me to the 2020 Explorer reveal event at the Ford Field in Detroit. A few hours after I agreed to the trip, Ford had my flights booked, a hotel ready, and asked if I wanted to do a studio shoot with the GT500 while I was there.

Of course, I said yes and proceeded to ask questions about what a “studio shoot” meant to them, how much time I would have, and if it would be pre-lit or if I needed to bring anything.

The answer I received too many of these questions was to the effect of “it’s a studio.”

Without any idea of what to expect, I went to Detroit armed with my camera, prepared to shoot my very own icon.

The Studio

The studio was in a nondescript building near the airport. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a 1967 Shelby GT500 with the 2020 Shelby hidden under a black sheet. I also received news that I would have less than 60 minutes to shoot the car.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

Ford had set up tables and chairs extremely close to the vehicles. The entire area was surrounded by a blue curtain which served to block people in the area from seeing the car, as well as obstruct our view of the other projects within the building.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 500, 1/60 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

I was joined by a select few other journalists armed with their wide-angle camera phones, meanwhile I used a Nikon D750 with a Sigma 50 mm lens and a Breakthrough Photography X4 Polarizer.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

Given the time constraints, I embraced the tire tracks and footprints on the studio floor and aimed for a behind the scenes kind of feel. I felt these elements would give the photos more personality and context instead of the car just floating on white.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/200 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

You also may have noticed there aren’t any lights or strobes set up in the background of the images. All I had to work with was fluorescent overhead lighting.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/200 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

Of the images I captured, the pictures above are the best examples I have to depict the environment.

My Shot List

Going into the shoot, I had a general idea of what the story would look like which gave me my own mental shot list. I wanted to get the traditional front 3/4 angle, rear 3/4 angle, as well as capture the details and other shots to showcase the body lines.

For me, it’s harder to come by a studio large enough to drive a car into than it is to find an industrial building or parking garage for use as a background. With a studio, you are starting from zero. There isn’t any sunlight to act as the primary light source with the option to then fill in and highlight what you need to with strobes, so lighting a studio can be a bit of an art form.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 500, 1/160 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

One thing I dislike about the studio setting is that you really can’t walk around the vehicle to shoot all sides of it, you’re limited with shots unless you move the car.

It was challenging to get a photo of the rear end. I didn’t have enough space between the wall and car to back up and get a good view, moving the car was out of the question, and the Ford guys looked pretty on edge any time I remotely pointed the camera towards the curtain.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/400 SEC @ ƒ/1.4

White walls have a tendency to bounce light everywhere and make it hard to tell the direction of where the light is coming from. In this case, I had light direction, but it created some weird double shadows.

To overcome this, I had to get creative and really look for angles that allowed me to use the light to my advantage and  enhance the body lines.

The other major challenge I faced with this shoot was controlling all the reflections. I always have a circular polarizer on my lens to reduce and remove reflections, and this time was no different. Of course, it did not work as well as it does outside, but it did make a huge difference with other peoples reflections and hot spots from the lights.

Limited Retouching

I had limited time from when I shot the images to when the embargo lifted. I had to balance editing photos and writing the story with an entire day lost to traveling home, and I needed sleep because I didn’t have much of it during the 21 hours I was physically in Detroit.

With this in mind, just one image was retouched. It has become pretty standard for a final image to have been constructed from multiple frames. Often this method is done to highlight different features and minimize distractions.

In this case, a single image was used, and I got some help retouching from some friends who are killer automotive photographers.

The Ensuing Viral Chaos

I’ll be open about it: I didn’t look at the GT500 media assets Ford provided me with before I published my story. My thoughts were: “I don’t need to use any of the Ford photos, I have my own.”

I knew Twister Orange was a new color for the 2020 Mustang, but what I was unaware of at the time was that a photo of the car in twister orange was not included in the assets. I also could not find any images from any of the other journalists with me during my shoot.

My photos spread like wildfire among enthusiasts and much to my surprise, it wasn’t the retouched image that went viral.

I geeked out when I saw some of the larger Mustang pages on Instagram had shared my image. Being a mustang enthusiast myself, I have followed some of these pages for years.

And then my image became the enthusiasts’ photo of choice to create different renderings, add different colors, and it became popular to use with memes.

Some people have asked me what it is like to see my image blow up without getting the proper credit, or credit given to someone else. I feel like I have contributed something great to the Mustang community. Ford is well aware of which images are mine, so I’m not worried about it.

I know some photographers who would fire off a “cease and desist” letter the second an image was shared without their consent, but I am thrilled to see it used everywhere.

Though proper attribution is always lovely, I think it is so refreshing to see what enthusiasts have been able to create from my photos of the GT500.

Making History at Barrett-Jackson

Nikon D750, 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8 | ISO 125, 1/800 SEC @ ƒ/2.8

It had already been an incredible experience to shoot the car in Detroit and then to see my photos get shared throughout the Mustang community was amazing. I was incredibly thrilled to be in Scottsdale, Arizona to see the car cross the Barrett-Jackson block.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

This definitely wasn’t my first time on stage, and it wasn’t my first time with Ford on stage either. Last year I was on the block with the first 2018 Bullitt Mustang, but you couldn’t see the car with how many people were around it. I felt a bit of pressure from myself wanting to capture a better image.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 2000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

Ford was auctioning the car to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Before it went on stage, Barrett-Jackson had put the car off to the side of the staging lanes and fenced it off with security around it. The only people able to be inside the fence with the car are the ones able to go on stage with it. Typically this includes representatives from the charity.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 1600, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

Barrett-Jackson has televised portions of the event, the sale of the GT500 was during “prime time.” To help get the car and charity more attention Edsel Ford II and Aaron Shelby drove the car on stage.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 450, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

Shooting on the block with a significant car is an incredible experience. There is hardly any room to breath as bidders go up to be seen with the car, the charities usually bring dozens of people to be on stage with the car, and of course if it’s an automaker such as ford, you will have a large amount of Ford executives with it.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 640, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

With so much going on in such a short time frame, it’s paramount to be aware of where you are on the block, should you be able to be up there. You can’t get in front of the vehicle as it would potentially obstruct the bidders view of it, you cant get in the way of the Velocity camera crew or between them and the car, and usually if a member of the press, you are stuck to a small area.

Craig Jackson, CEO of Barrett-Jackson and an avid Shelby enthusiast, went down to the front row and made the winning $1.1 million bid on the car. Consequently when Ford begins production, Jackson will be able to choose any color and any options he wants to include on VIN 001.

Nikon D750, 50.0 mm f/1.4 | ISO 2000, 1/250 SEC @ ƒ/2.0

From my exclusive first look at the GT500 in Detroit to being on stage as it sold for a million dollars, the entire experience has been incredible. I feel like photographing the car is myself contributing something bigger then myself to the Mustang community, to Ford, and to automotive history.

Photo gallery


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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