Portraits of Strangers in Cars Illuminated by Off-Camera Lighting

Shooting portraits of strangers in cars isn’t uncommon, but have you ever tried using off-camera lighting to illuminate their faces? That’s what photographer Jonathan Castillo is doing for his ongoing series called Car Culture.

Castillo, an undergraduate BFA student at CSU Long Beach, shoots candid, artificially-lit photos of people driving around on the roads of Los Angeles. While the photos are captured from a car directly in front of the subjects, Castillo lights the scenes using a second specially-rigged vehicle driving to the side.

The special lighting gives the photographs a cinematic look, as if they’re stills taken from various Hollywood movies:

Here’s what Castillo tells us about his method:

I never ask for permission to take someone’s portrait, never get a model release and I generally only take one photograph per person. I use two cars rigged with camera and lighting equipment and need a small team of friends to drive, adjust lighting and monitor a tethered laptop as part of my process.

Basically, my car has a camera (Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm/f2.8L or a Canon 50mm/f1.4) mounted on a tripod that is secured in the back of my car and is positioned to look out the back window. The window on my car luckily flips open so that I don’t have to shoot through the glass of the rear window. I have the camera tethered to my Macbook Pro which sits with a friend in the front passenger seat who monitors image capture, checks focus and exposure for me as I drive. When I get to a stop light and someone pulls up behind me, I frame the shot by looking through my rearview mirror and edge my car to the left or the right if the subject’s car is not lined up properly for the shot. I use a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera, which in turn triggers the strobe in my girlfriend Briana’s Jeep.

She drives the lighting car, which she positions so that the light rigged in the back is pointing in the drivers side window of whoever we are photographing. I use a Speedotron digital explorer attached to one head with a gridded 7” reflector. The light is superclamped to a light stand in the back of her Jeep and sandbagged down to prevent it from moving around. She always drives my lighting car and usually has as 2nd person with her to adjust power settings on the pack and keep her company all day while we do these shoots. We coordinate with walkie-talkies and just drive all over the LA area looking for traffic or red lights so I can get my shots, I’m probably the only person in the world who gets excited when he sees a red light ahead of him and never tries to rush through a yellow light.

Castillo tells us that he was originally inspired by the work of Phillip Lorca Di Corcia, who did something similar with pedestrians walking around in NYC.

Here’s a couple of photographs showing the two rigs/vehicles Castillo uses:

You can find more photographs from this project over on Castillo’s website. He has published 25 of these images so far.

Image credits: Photographs by Jonathan Castillo and used with permission

  • Lee

    Good argument there, I think – yes – do we see any of these subjects staring into the firing strobe? No. The traffic light flashes are likely way brighter than these, given that they are much farther away.

  • Lee

    Alright, there’s a couple looking *in the direction* of the strobe – nonetheless, I don’t think relative the ambient it would be a safety issue at a stop light…….

  • junyo

    Actually, the reason why newspapers typically don’t need photo releases is because in the specific case of images created for journalistic purposes the public’s right to know regarding some newsworthy event or person it’s a deemed to override the individual’s right to privacy. And it extends even to private property, which is why paparazzi can rent a helicopter to spot on a wedding on private property. Completely different legal principal, with well established case law. Try again.

  • Common Sense

    Police use much brighter strobes for people driving at obviously dangerous and reckless speeds-no problems there, public space is public space, cars are in the public space and open criteria for any photographer, and what the public thinks of photographers?! every F#$&^@$ person thinks they’re a photographer at this point, including–it appears–the majority of hacks criticizing this from a unrealistic and hypersensitive “safety” or “legal” standpoint which lacks any base….You must all take the most boring, cookie-cutter photos….

    Think people-you’re not doing a good job so far…. This may not be the best work, but it’s good and it’s creative, and inventive. It explores a honesty which we all express when we get on the blinders of the car and if you can’t see beauty and merit in the simple honesty of the subject matter than I feel sorry for you.

  • Mind Sculpt

    ITT: a bunch people who’ve never actually been to Los Angeles

  • ProPhotog


  • APR

    The lighting is subtle i think the sun reflecting off a building would have a better chance of blinding someone than Jon’s lighting setup would.

  • APR

    Right!!!!! Keep the head-shots and senior portraits coming, keep it nice and safe while people like Jon swing for the fence. Sure you will always get on first, and they will strike out a lot, but you will never hit home run.

  • APR

    The post above is mine, I was not logged in and did not want to appear to be hiding behind “Guest”.

  • matt jones

    if industry doesn’t self regulate then the government steps in with a heavy hand. This is just going to encourage more governments to get tough on street photography. Not clever.

  • Albi Kl

    It is a curious thing how people revel in the failings and misfortunes of others. To actively seek out fault and explicitly make negative statements that an individuals actions were morally questionable. Others have studied this phenomenon:

    “Blaming is also a way of devaluing others. The end result is that the blamer feels superior. Others are seen as less worthwhile making the blamer “perfect”. Off-loading blame means putting the other person down by emphasizing his or her flaws.”

    Brown, N.W. (2006), Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People – The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern

    It is the reason why the hardships that befall celebrities make headlines while their philanthropic efforts are rarely spoken of. The absurdity of it is mirrored here where the discussion has centred almost entirely on what the photographer done wrong. Simple acts such as stopping at a red light, as a law abiding citizen is wont to do, had become boxing in other drivers among other accusations (some with merit, others without).

    As a little thought experiment to any who may read this ask yourself what consumes your mind when you first see an article or a work. Do you find faults and conjure accusations to level at the author or the merit of the work at the expense of its cost? And when you comment is the balance shifted to the faults or the merits?

  • bob cooley

    This post totally made me laugh. The amount of effort put into this reply, including researching, and including a Non sequitur pasted quote is really amusing.

    As a little thought experiment to yourself, how much do you think your hubris would weigh if put on a scale? Get over yourself.

  • Albi Kl

    Bob, the response was intended as a more balanced post among all the sensationalism as opposed to being solely directed at yourself. Stating facts is not an example of hubris.

  • Geronimo188

    Art is supposed to generate conversation so it’s good to see people debating– because thats the point.

    Here is an observation to the people who are being negative and more worried about the “how’s”— this is atypically thinking of do-little personalities. Always worried about the “how’s” instead of following through with an idea and testing, practicing, implemented it, and then afterward analyzing the results.

    From a creative standpoint I personally think the concept is rather of mediocre. Being from Southern California I live this perspective 24/7 so it’s impact is minimal. However, I still find it visually interesting when put into a series and I commend the photographer on their detected work.

  • Philip Han

    Did you even take a look at my pictures? Do I look anywhere near them?

    Some people even posed for me, I am non invasive. I have rarely had anybody yell at me or shy away unless I am the one walking towards them to frame the shot, I usually predict where they’ll be and prepare beforehand.

  • Philip Han

    I just saw this comment now, thank you very much.

  • nullhogarth

    This work is a transgression into private lives that should not be publicized, except to condemn it.