Sometimes, you can be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills. Other times, the technology or market changes so radically, that you have to adapt to new challenges and look for new opportunities. Photographer Brad Miller has experienced both scenarios. Brad was born in Rochester, New York in 1947, and comes from a family of photographers – his father Ardean Miller was a pioneer in colour photography, working for Eastman Kodak, before becoming a highly successful freelancer – his clients included major airlines and Airstream travel trailers. Brad’s brothers Bruce and Randy are also professional photographers.
Brad studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, and spent part of his course as an intern at a company that specialised in automobile photography. “I worked with one of the best automobile photographers - Micky McGuire - and the work was very specialised – it was always 8x10, so it was complex, very specialised and you needed assistants. I found it very interesting,” recalls Brad.
Brad joined the company after graduation, marking the start of a long and distinguished career in automobile photography. By 1972, Brad was married, doing lots of automobile shoots, but itching to work abroad. “I didn’t want to live in Detroit, where all the automobile photographers lived. I decided to live in Europe, because when we were at school, Dad had to go to Europe for a series of Airstream shoots. So, the family took the year off and went around Europe with him. It was a great way to be exposed to Europe.”
Brad and his wife travelled around Europe in an old VW camper van, with Brad initially earning a living by taking photographs for Kodak calendars. Then, he was asked by a US company to assist on an automobile shoot in Dusseldorf. Following the shoot, the company hired Brad as the car photographer for its European operations, which were based in England. Brad moved to the UK in the mid-1970s, living in rural England, and commuting to continental Europe for many shoots. He also lived and worked in Paris for around six months.
“The key to my success was my ability to shoot in large format,” recalls Brad, “at the time, automotive photography in Europe was with 35mm Kodachrome. I had instant success in France and Germany by shooting in large format – you could see every detail of the car. My success was down to being very specialised – very few people could do what I did.” Technical prowess undoubtedly helped, but so did Brad’s eye for a great shot. “There were a lot of techniques for putting shape in a car that were only known to automobile photographers,” he says.
Brad is credited with transforming automobile photography by the way he used natural light to enhance the look of a car, a process known as “liquid light.” Brad is modest about taking credit for creating the process, but at the very least, he popularised the technique and influenced many other car photographers.
Brad explains what liquid light is, “What happens before sunrise and sunset is there’s a natural gradient in the sky from light to dark. We would never shoot cars in the sun or in middle of the day – it would always be early morning. Somebody coined the phrase liquid light, because it was almost like pouring liquid over an object - the resulting reflection is smooth and gradient. I can’t honestly say that liquid light is something I created, but it’s something that I used in marketing and people latched onto it.”
Another reason for Brad’s success was his keen attention to detail, especially when setting up a shot. He coined the phrase “pre-touching” to describe the process of getting all the elements in a frame precisely arranged before pressing the shutter. “We were perfectionists in that we always strove not to have any retouching. We would physically remove traffic signs - anything we didn’t want in the picture. Our goal was that you could go from the transparency to the separations without any retouching.”
Nowadays, software like Photoshop makes it very easy to retouch images. Brad is a big fan of Photoshop, but notes that, “There’s a difference between taking a picture and making a picture. I suppose you could say that many people now take pictures and then make them in Photoshop, whereas we would do it at the front-end. But even in film, you’d use post-shot techniques like push process to improve contrast. I think Photoshop has made some photographers a little sloppy, but it’s an amazing tool, and if you can get the right end result for the client, that’s great.”
From the mid 70s to the early 90s, Brad was a much in-demand automobile photographer, travelling extensively around Europe and working with many major car manufacturers - his biggest client was Mercedes Benz. His work was being extensively used for marketing, advertising, posters and catalogues. But in the early 90s, the market began to change – digital was beginning to have an impact on professional photography.
Brad is no Luddite – he quickly embraced digital cameras, and today, shoots almost exclusively in digital – but at the time, he couldn’t see how the technology could ever match film for quality, “I was very sceptical that digital would ever meet my expectations.” But the technology improved exponentially, along with developments in computer software. It meant that many of the techniques that had taken Brad years to refine could now be achieved with the right kit and software. “A lot of automobile work is now done in computers, where they can create backgrounds and reflections and then add them to the car,” says Brad, “I didn’t go down that avenue, because it was moving away from the purity of an 8x10.”
By now, Brad had moved back to the US, but with the work drying up, he knew he had to diversify. “I was at a loss of what to do, so I experimented with different things. I did some fashion work and Vanity Fair got interested in it. I then moved into other genres.” The breadth of Brad’s portfolio today is a testament to his versatility as a photographer, and includes model, landscape, architecture, nature, flora and boating.
Brad is now semi-retired from photography, although he still does the occasional automobile shoot. He is devoting a lot of time to developing his library of stock images. “In hindsight, I wished I had started the variety of work earlier and built up more stock. I would advise that for any photographer,” he says.
What other advice does Brad have for young, up-and-coming photographers? “People want to do things like National Geographic, but there’s so much competition. I would say if you can specialise in something that no one else is doing, go for it. My son, for example, is a biomedical photographer. You also need to market yourself – when I was starting out, I created my own logo and that helped me get noticed.”
The world of professional photography is very different from when Brad started out, not least in the way technology has opened up photography to so many more people. “People who wouldn’t have picked up a complicated camera are now taking pictures, because it’s all automated,” notes Brad, “it has made it more difficult to break into professional photography. With so many photographers out there, it’s very hard to pick something that no one else is doing. But it is a great profession. I loved the freedom of working pretty much when I wanted. And photography is a wonderful way to express yourself.”www.bradmiller.com