For Steffen Jahn, embarking on a new project may not only mean tightening the straps on his camera bag, but making an excursion into an unfamiliar and challenging environment.
In our interview, he gives us his invaluable insight into the intrepid and blink-of-an-eye niche of photography in which he works.
From high-performance cars to aircrafts, Steffen Jahn’s work revolves around engines, steel, and rubber set in contrast against dramatic natural backdrops. His photography has taken him as far as the Mojave desert and as close to the edge of the racetrack as he dares.
Steffen has worked hard to successfully craft a career that is fuelled by a life-long passion, a position that can only generate spectacular images.
He talks to us about his start in the industry, what advice he would give on building an effective portfolio, as well as recounting some of the most memorable, and precarious, situations he’s been in.
Please tell us about yourself and talk us through the kind of work you do.
I’m a professional car photographer, based strategically in Stuttgart, Germany, the home of Mercedes and Porsche. Working freelance for more then 25 years for the major car brands like Porsche, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Audi—you get the idea.
Trying to balance advertising work to fuel the cost of my team and the studio as well as shooting editorial work to enjoy the freedom of being more creative, travelling is a big part of my business, sometimes the room menu in my hotel helps me figuring out in which city I’m right now.
What was your initial route into photography?
I started out the traditional way—doing an apprenticeship in one of Europe’s biggest car studios for 2 years helped me to get into the basics of the industry.
With many photographers, renting the studio for their productions, I learnt a lot as an assistant in their teams. These were the days of working literally day and night, and shooting straight through for more then 24 hours was not unusual.
One of the guest photographers, Dietmar Henneka, asked me to become his first assistant. After him, I was assisting for Daniel Hartz and Georg Fischer and started travelling the world.
In what ways did you look for clients when you were first starting out—and which of them turned out to be the most successful for you?
Luckily, the clients of the photographers started to give me jobs and their word of mouth got me new clients and projects. Presenting my work at agencies only succeeded in little business. Art Directors that were referring me to their colleagues were the most important part of creating new business.
Would you say you were met with any particular challenges at the beginning of your career?
In fact, I did have an easy start with Mercedes as my first client and many more to follow. The first years were pretty successful as the overhead was low—this changes the more professional you get with more expensive equipment, studio and crew.
The drama hit me with many of my colleagues after 9/11 when the advertising business crashed and jobs were going down the drain. Surviving these years were a tricky task indeed.
Was there a turning point at which you might say the larger, global companies started taking an interest in your work?
There is a constant move in the clientship nowadays, one year you are a busy man internationally—the next year is a local year.
There is no long term partnership with clients anymore, anything is based on short-term projects. And even if everyone is happy with your last work and praises your skills, vision and careful handling of the budget, this is no guarantee at all that you get the next project awarded.
You obviously have a passion for your subject matter and love what you do. Was working with these kinds of vehicles a direction you had always wanted to steer your career in, or is it something that developed on its own?
In fact, I was obsessed with cars as a little boy—there were always two Matchbox cars in my hands—as I couldn’t carry any more ;-) But I never had Lamborghini posters in my room nor did I get my hands dirty with oil and grease underneath a car.
But during my apprenticeship I found that merging cars and photography is a great way to maximise pleasure. And loving the subject you shoot helps a lot to create outstanding images that will be remembered.
Your shoots take you to some incredible places. Are there any of these adventures that stand out for you in particular?
My favourite shoot was for Mercedes on a airport in the Mojave desert. We rented the taxiway and a Boeing 727 for 24 hours to shoot the Benz in front of it. Directing a passenger jet on your set is quite a thing for a plane aficionado like me.
Another aviation-related shoot was on an airport in Florida where we were allowed to take images from a magnificent WWII Spitfire—and I got a free ride on a P-51 Mustang. You see—planes get my juices running even more then cars!
Working with these kinds of powerful machines in locations that can be home to eccentric animal species and potentially treacherous, have you every found yourself in any tricky situations?
Luckily, I have never been in serious danger—although I got lost in the arctic circle while a Ferrari FF was trying to find me in the endless snow, a rattle snake got a little bit too close to me while shooting a BMW concept car in the Valley of Fire and I got mugged in Paris.
But considering the time I spend hanging out of helicopters within the “deadmen’s curve”, leaning out of cars on racetracks chasing the champions and lying beside the street with crazy drivers performing a ‘Rockwell turn’ in front of me, I always try to cover myself.
Taking care of any safety procedures, wearing safety gear, harnesses and helmets is essential.
There are old photographers. There are bold photographers. But there are no old and bold photographers.
In some of the photos from behind the scenes, you can be seen behind the wheel as well as behind the camera. Is there much room for overlap between your recreational time and work?
Unluckily, there is absolutely no overlapping at all—on a shoot, you are so focused to get the maximum out of the given time, that there is no time at all to enjoy the cars other than in front of your lens.
Sometimes, you only get minutes to shoot on a certain location, racetracks are immensely busy so you only get tiny time slots. And a cool additional picture is more valuable then a hot lap. On top of that, most of the cars are non-driveable prototypes or insanely expensive. So I better keep my little sweaty fingers off.
What advice would you give to a photographer who would like to attract with the kinds of clients you do, but is early on in their career and just now starting to build up a body of work?
Instead of buying equipment, invest the money in making images, travel to cool locations, rent a sexy car, try to get a better postproduction.
Build a portfolio not with single images, but with consistent series on a subject, so that the clients can see that you are able to deliver several outstanding images on one subject.
What other general pieces of advice do you have for not only improving you skills, but also excelling at running a successful creative business?
Taking care of the money is the boring part of the business. But you need to track the costs of a project, after the job is finished you need to find out were all the precious money went.
Invest wisely—these days, equipment gets old rather quickly and the value decreases fast. Build good connections to postpro-houses that understand how your image needs to look. The biggest picture will die if the operator could not pull out the max.
What exciting new locale will you be flying off to next? Any interesting projects coming up?
We just shot the Chinese campaign for the 2016 Mercedes GLC in Shanghai, we travelled straight to Paris to drive from the airport to the studio for a Citroen DS brochure.
While still jetlagged, we moved to Madrid for a location shoot. To be honest—I’m pretty happy to sit in front of my fireplace with a bottle of Chardonnay having no pressing job at all at my neck.
All photographs © Steffen Jahn.