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

  • John R

    Wow, imagine the level of paranoia the subject must feel if they notice the equipment. Plus the police haven’t paid him a visit. I’m impressed he has got this to work, especially in these ‘security mad’ days. Interesting images over varying lighting conditions. Although the flash makes these images I think I would have tried to use natural light and work with the direction of the sun or use reflectors. Interesting and dedicated work.

  • SpaceMan

    I don’t see the public attitudes towards photographers getting any better with projects like this.

  • Nathan Blaney

    Its only a matter of time before someone cuts him off, pulls him out of his car and beats the crap out of him.

  • fahrertuer

    Let’s hope he pisses off some cops first.
    Would be better for his health I think

  • bob cooley

    I see a number of issues with this, none of them having to do with privacy laws, but there’s also just good judgement, and this project show lack of it in a number of respects:

    1) Boxing someone’s car with 2 vehicles is not only going to make someone paranoid, it could lead to an altercation. Taking photos of them then disappearing is going to add to that paranoia.

    2) Likely at least 50% of these resulted in someone calling the cops, which is an incredible waste of time for law enforcement, who now have to follow up on reports of stalkers.

    3) Hitting someone with a studio strobe while they are behind the wheel of a car can inhibit their eyesight – We’ve all looked directly into strobes a few times in our life, would you want to be in busy traffic right afterwards?

    And the results aren’t very compelling.

    To me this falls into the category of “just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you should”…

  • bob cooley

    The main difference is when you are shooting people walking, its not dangerous to the subject or other pedestrians.

    If you fire a strobe into someone’s face while they are behind the wheel of a car, at a stoplight or not, it creates a safety issue for the subject and everyone around them. Your senses and vision are incredibly important when in traffic.

  • 11

    dude, I am a professional photographer, and I see this as a threat to safety of the drivers and passengers, let alone the privacy issues. Also, a car is a personal space, and shooting while one is inside the car is invasion of privacy.

    If I see someone shooting me like this, I’d definitely report the two vehicles to police. period.

  • Eric Spiegel

    I find this project interesting. I like how it points out how we tend to connect our identities with our cars and also how car-dependent our culture can be.

  • Heather


  • Bren

    I’d probably run out and grab his camera if I saw him do that to me….

  • CopMan

    That’s a lot of trouble to go through only to end up with lame images.

  • harumph

    These might be more interesting if they were framed tighter on the subjects.

  • ga1n

    The rule of public property can’t apply here. I agree with bob cooley , this is a serious safety issue.

    The strobe being used on the unwitting subjects are not discrete. In over 50% of these shoots, the subjects are obviously peeved by the strobe from the 2nd car and being boxed in.

    So what does this series achieve when it’s not capturing a candid look into people in their cars, but rather people annoyed in their cars?

    I like think the concept can work if done differently – just use models and pre-plan the shots. And the shots can be done with more creative touches as well with more willing participants and a good plan–rather than this stalk and box method.

  • delayedflight

    Did anyone notice the bullet hole in the bumper of the two black guys’ car?

  • NickC

    This annoys the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I love street photography and I’m a huge advocate of being free to document day to day life but this is dangerous even when at a stop light. This and street photographers who think that popping a flash in someones face as they go about their own business just completely confuse me, to me street photography should be candid and at least verging on photo-journalistic, adding flash is sure way to take away any candid aspects and if it was done to me would more likely than not result in the photographer picking up the bits of their camera off the floor.

    Public spaces or not, and whether you care about respecting peoples privacy or not, at least respect them as people. Popping a flash in someones face isn’t respect when they haven’t agreed to it.

    Tired rant over. Nick out

  • herzco

    Another commenter said it best: Just because he can do this does not mean that he should. Not to mention the danger AND invasion of privacy. And weren’t those Lorca Di Corcia images taken ten or more years ago? Lame.

  • guest

    lol seeing as my place of work is 30 miles away and the public transit system is poor and unreliable, I kind of have to use a car.

    when you have the option of reaching a destination in 20 minutes with a car, vs 2 hours with public transportation or 5 hours of walking, I choose the car.

  • guest

    are you the sort of douchebag who goes up in people’s faces, puts a flash a foot away from their eyes, and takes like ten pictures before walking away without saying a word? because that’s happened to me before.

    you can be a street photographer and NOT be an a-hole, but the two usually come hand in hand. let me guess, you harass homeless people by taking ‘deep introspective’ portraits of the misery in their faces?

  • guest

    nahh nevermind, judging by your photos you don’t seem like THAT type of street photographer lol.

  • Agus

    “I never ask for permission to take someone’s portrait, never get a model release and I generally only take one photograph per person.”

    Oh wow.

  • Mark

    I tried this once and was accosted by an angry taxi driver who pulled over and started waving a pistol in my face because he though I was a government agent. Be careful if you do this (especially at night, you might blind someone and cause an accident).

  • guest

    Just a couple hypothetical questions:

    1. Let’s say on some random off-chance, you discover your photo on a blog or online portfolio. If you don’t want it there, is there nothing you can do about it?

    2. What happens if the image gets published and the street photographer somehow profits from it? Do you have any authority to prevent it from being published, or are you really not in any control of the situation?

  • David Tribby

    PetaPixel – Please stop reporting intrusive Garbage like this….!

  • njphotographer

    Lorca DiCorcia’s series, called “Heads”, is clearly an influence as the article points out. Except Lorca DiCorcia did it better. These don’t do anything for me except make me angry about the lack of concern for the safety and privacy of his subjects. Also: judging by how cavalier he seems to be about not getting permission or releases, this guy probably didn’t hear about the whirlwind of legal trouble “Heads” got Lorca DiCorcia into.

  • Lee

    Sounds like most of the paranoid people the commenters here are so concerned about is themselves! – the photographer said that he generally takes ONE image of the subject, I’m not sure the driver could be annoyed with the strobe, somehow BEFORE the photo was shot. Your average person is not going to recognize a strobe, let alone assess, judge, and recognize the difference between an a SLR out the window and say the rigged up Google Maps cars that scour cities (yes, I know Google cars are branded, and likely Castillo’s isn’t). If I saw a supported camera out a window, I would be interested in what was happening, not up in arms about whether my image was being “stolen”.

    This is LA. People are annoyed cause they’re stuck in their cars.

    Being surrounded by media is not a new thing. And as far private space, this work, along with all other street work is as editorial as journalism. This capture is in public space, where any person at any time could have seem the subject. Rights to privacy revoked.

    And fear of being boxed in? If you’ve ever driven in LA, you would get over that fear quickly. We’re all boxed in. All the time. The photographer wouldn’t have had to do it actively…

  • Flamingo

    Agreed. I’m sure this guy knows how to use strobes and knows how to use them safely… I mean look at his website. Plus, most images appear to be taken in bumper to bumper traffic.

    I feel that a majority of people here are more concerned with the “how he did it” rather than “what does the image tell us”

    Grinds my gears

  • Lee

    Yes. It would be a good idea to consider the title of the series, and consider its meaning from the lens of cultural art before shouting about gear, tech and the breach of privacy. All these people are staring off into space, not engaged in the act of driving, thereby causing all the safety concerns everyone else is talking about.

  • Angelo Lorenzo

    I think many of these comments are over reaction. Lee, another commenter, sums up the situation quite nicely. My other point to add to his would simply be this: with the exception of some of the photos taken in twilight, you would hardly notice a strobe in daylight. It may be a slight distraction, but hardly blinding.

    As for the question of a model release. In the US you are allowed to take photos of anyone in public as long as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, like a restroom. You’re also allowed to sell these photographs as a work of art. You are prohibited to sell them as commercial photography; stock photography, basically.

    My one actual complaint is the lack of an artist statement or description of intent. I missed the gallery opening, so perhaps there was one but I don’t see it in this article or on Jon’s site. You could argue that traffic is the great equalizer: young, old, rich, poor. I just wish there was also the inclusion of some more beat up cars; most of what is included is fairly well kept. California, being a warm dry climate lends itself to people driving their cars years until the engine craps. It can lead to some interesting junkers.

  • Jonny P

    Actually you have no right to privacy in a private vehicle, as long as it is on public streets. No privacy is to be expected while driving in your car, just as if you were riding public bus or railway. (Unless there were signs prohibiting it)

    While in a house, or other private property, you do have an expectation of privacy, as long as you close your curtains, drapes, blinds or shutters. If you left your windows uncovered, and it was visible from a public street, or other public property, you do no longer have an expectation of privacy.

    Please consult your lawyer, if you believe your privacy has been invaded or compromised.


  • Albi Kl

    A friend of mine holds a similar mindset to yourself, always afraid of what people’s reactions will be on the street. What I have found is that most people honestly do not care and some when they see a “pro” camera will practically jump in front begging to get their shot taken.

  • Albi Kl

    Bob, the extent to which you’ve misconstrued and twisted the facts would excuse one for thinking you held a grudge against the photographer. When I pull up behind a group of cars at a light I certainly do not consider myself boxed in and looking to start and altercation. Do you?

    The claim that “at least 50%” resulted in calls to police is a baseless assumption rooted in your own prejudices. If that were the case we likely would have heard the story on the news first before Petapixel. The point is you’re trying to find fault where there is none.

    Photography is art and art is subjective. If you don’t find a piece compelling simply move along and allow those who do to appreciate the work.

  • Albi Kl

    It’s nice to see a discerning and balanced response in this sea of bias and malcontent. In regard to an artistic statement, sometimes the work can speak for itself where the audience is free to make their own interpretation. I believe this is one of those cases.

  • Albi Kl

    Like Bob, you have distorted the definition of boxed in. Boxed in implies intentionally surrounding while blocking off a route of escape. If you read the article you should know that this did not occur.

    It is impossible to determine whether these people were upset about the strobe or not as their dismay (if it even occurred) would only arise moments after these photos were taken.

    It is baffling why people will twist a story with the sole intent of vilifying a person they have never met. Looking through the majority of the comments here that is all people are interested in over a discussion of artistic merit.

  • Albi Kl

    Laws differ from one jurisdiction to another but within a number of western countries:

    1. There are no criminal laws against your photo being taken. You can attempt to have the matter dealt with in a civil court by claiming harassment but it would be difficult if your only grievance is that you happened to come across it online.

    2. A model release is required if the image is used to sell a product (such as advertising) or sold as a stock photo. Beyond that a person’s permission is not required.

    Ensure you properly research your local laws before taking a person’s picture or using that picture in any way.

  • ga1n

    And how did the drivers and occupants feel in these situations? Have you asked them if they thought they were boxed in?

    Me pointing this out is not me “vilifying” the photog… it’s me pointing out that I wouldn’t appreciate having this done to me. It’s empathy for the subjects who had no part of this.. no choice.

    What is anyone twisting here? It’s just my opinion

  • Albi Kl

    Precisely as I said, it is impossible to determine how the people felt. As such no one can rightly say that they were upset.

    To suggest that having a car pull up behind the photographer implies that he has somehow boxed them in, vilifies him. Is he not allowed to stop at red lights? What should he have done differently so that he was not allegedly boxing in the cars that pulled up behind him?

  • ga1n

    You’re really missing my point..

    It’s irrelevant to argue if these people were truly upset. whatever your standpoint.. if these drivers had an accident as a result of the unexpected strobes the photog’s at fault.

    If you consider criticism of the technique as “vilifying” you have awfully thin skin.

  • Marcin B

    I like the concept but those pictures are sad – I see people laughing, singing while driving.

  • Albi Kl

    I understand what you mean and certainly anything that would risk an accident is to be frowned upon.

    The question remains though what would he have done differently so one would not consider him to have boxed in other drivers and further in what way could firing a strobe among stationary vehicles lead to an accident?

  • ga1n

    Use your common sense.. why not check with the city, get a permit and cover all the safety and legal angles. No one needs to explain this to you.

    (And in my first post, I already posited my opinion that it would be better with models and pre-planned.)

    Do you need to keep going on.. seriously?

  • Albi Kl

    That is not what I asked. What should be different so that yourself and others don’t label him as having boxed in other drivers when he was legally stopped at a red light?

    And the other accusation levelled at him, how could firing a strobe among vehicles which are not moving cause an accident?

  • James

    Nose-pickers be warned!

  • Brian Smith

    Brilliant series of photographs by one of my favorite young photographers – Jonathan Castillo! I first saw this series a year ago and I love how it has come together. Castillo’s photographs provide an insightful glimpse at what Angeleno’s value most – their cars. Bravo Jonathan!

  • APR

    Good lord it sounds like a creative bunch here. Reading these weak complaints I can imagine a lot of boring, watered down bodies of work being represented here. Scared photography is mediocre at best. I like this series a lot myself. Deconstruct the lighting setup and think a little. Is that strobe actually blinding compared to the ambient light? I’m not sure how a photo taken in stopped traffic could blind someone causing a fatal accident, seems to be a bit dramatic of a therory. What about the flashes the city uses to photograph your face and plates when you run a red light? I have not heard of any accidents caused by them, and you know people are always ready to sue the city.

  • Guest

    I like this series, congratulations Jon it looks amazing. Good lord it sounds like a creative bunch here. Reading these weak complaints I can imagine a lot of boring, watered down bodies of work being represented here. Scared photography is mediocre at best. Deconstruct the lighting setup and think a little. Is that strobe actually blinding compared to the ambient light? I’m not sure how a photo taken in stopped traffic could blind someone causing a fatal accident, seems to be a bit dramatic of a therory. What about the flashes the city uses to photograph your face and plates when you run a red light? I have not heard of any accidents caused by them, and you know people are always ready to sue the city.

  • APR

    oops on the double post I was not logged in so I can not delete.

  • junyo

    I’d like to see a legal citation for this.

  • Esteban Ramirez

    He already had an altercation, the guy just yelled at Jon, nothing big, he asked him to delete the image, and then drove away… the photographer didn’t delete anything.

  • bob cooley

    Its simple, because when you look into a studio-strength strobe in mid-flash, which is clearly shown in the photos of the rig (and is indicated by the amount of light on the subjects, or even a strong battery strobe, you WILL have a blind spot in your vision for several minutes afterwards. Having a blind-spot in your vision is not conducive to safe driving. The accident won’t occur at the stoplight, but it makes the likelihood of there being an accident in the following several minutes of traffic much higher.

  • Lee

    This is true, if not, every person appearing accidentally in a newspaper would need a model release – not possible. If you appear in public, you can be photo’d in public, and printed in pubic, as long as it’s not for commercial purposes.