Carl Lyttle is an award winning photographer best known for his automotive and advertising work. Shooting in locations around the world, Carl has worked for clients including Nissan, General Motors, Subaru, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Landrover and Lexus. As an early adopter of digital cameras and CGI, Carl co-founded the ground breaking CGI House This Little Fish and the globally recognised CG asset source Moofe. Carl also has his own production company, with a dedicated and highly skilled team based in London. We spoke to Carl about what spurred him on to be where he is today, the mindset that got him there and embracing new technology.
You initially started out photographing Irish punk bands in Belfast in the 1970s. What made you decide to go and study?
I was working at a photographers doing a sort of apprenticeship which I loved working at, but I’m quite ambitious and i wanted to be a mainstream advertising photographer and experience the art college process, and with the daily background of the troubles in Northern Ireland, I got fed up with the unnecessary political divides and decided I wanted to experience life away from Belfast.
How has your style evolved since you started?
It’s changed totally over the years, which is only natural as you evolve as a creative, and get influenced by different creative styles and also try to be current at all times.
How have your specialisms changed over time?
I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon when it comes to my skill sets, and I always try to stay on top of new technology and weave it into my commercial commissions and productions. I was one of the first photographers to go fully digital, then the same with CGI in photography and more recently immersive technologies like VR and AR.
What has helped you become the photographer you are today?
That’s easy. Being obsessed with photography and the process of taking a picture. It’s very easy to get seduced by the commercial spoils of photography, which is all great, but the minute you lose that desire to take your own pictures then I think you begin to lose a lot of your photographic heartbeat. I make sure I do at least one major personal project a year and produce a little book that I give to my clients every year at Christmas. This keeps me enticed as a photographer and also allows me to play around with new styles and photography trends.
You’re known for embracing CGI very early on and you’ve set up your own CGI/Retouch team. How important has it been for the industry?
I’m known as an automotive specialist, and have been for about 20 years. Having the ability to produce CGI car productions from start to finish has helped me stay on the radar of advertising agencies and manufacturers. So in terms of its importance in the industry, I think it has shaped and evolved how any product photographer, from cars to tabletop photography, approaches the industry. The key in my view is that it is a hugely important tool to have in your arsenal, but that’s all it is and if it’s used in a realistic way within your photography process then it’s a great asset, both creatively and commercially.
Tell us about a particularly memorable commission
Unfortunately the industry today doesn’t throw up as many opportunities as it used to for funny shoot stories. Nowadays, clients want things quicker and cheaper and to a certain extent the process of long location shoots and big productions are a thing of the past. I’ve had some amazing commissions over the years and been privileged to work with some of the best art directors and creatives there are. In terms of funny stories, probably my most memorable series of shoots was back in the late nineties. I produced a calendar for Ford, and the brief was a set of landscapes that I could select from America. So we spent five weeks over two trips on a photographic road trip just shooting desert locations and bizarre locations. That was a lot of fun and probably my most memorable shoot with the most stories. More recently I’ve been doing a lot more combined stills and video shoots, and these are a lot of fun. Very different as the pressures are greater, but I enjoy working with big crews and Russian arms.
How do you stay inspired as a photographer?
I think that’s easy. Absorb as much imagery from other creative sources and films as possible, and this will subliminally impact on how a photographer’s inspiration is collected, and will, I believe, subconsciously shape how a photographer thinks creatively. The main thing is to never lose that passion and that excitement a photographer gets pushing the shutter button on a camera.
What piece of kit could you not do without?
I’m not that precious about kit, or perhaps I should say sentimental about kit. I’m a great believer in the right camera or kit for the job, and that changes a lot depending on the brief. Fundamentally my core camera is currently a phase one IQ4 which I recently migrated to after years with a Hasselblad.
How important are drones for your work?
They are really very important for a number of reasons. From a video point of view they have become almost expected by the clients as a viewpoint or emotive scene setter, but I also use them for some personal stills work from a higher viewpoint. We also put them up to see distant weather activity. This allows us to see way into the distance and plan the next couple of hours of shooting that we otherwise wouldn’t have had sight of from ground level.
What are your top tips for working on location?
Always do a detailed technical scouting and plan your shoot times and lighting sweet spot for each location. The other main thing is to have a good producer that you can trust. This will afford you, as the photographer, the right mindset when you’re on location shooting, and you can concentrate on just the photography. Finally, have a solid and experienced assistant that you trust with your life.
As well as being a photographer you’re also the owner of a Production Company. Are there any challenges?
The challenges from a production company are primarily that I am responsible for everything that happens from the minute that the shoot is confirmed, to delivering the finished imagery to the client. That is often a two or three month process that needs careful planning and a solid timeline of what, when, where and how. I do find it exciting to create the process from start to finish, and there is a big satisfaction to delivering a great set of images or films to a client that started out as a visual or a storyboard.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’m not really sure. I’ve been blessed as a photographer over the years, and even when things are bad, or commissions are few and far between, it still shapes you as a photographer. You need the good and the bad to truly understand the process and the industry. The one thing I would probably advise myself to do when I was younger would be to understand business and accounting processes. They’re critical foundations to a photography business and it took me a while to understand that.
Social media — love it or hate it? Do you find it brings in much new business?
Both! It’s a necessary evil. I love that it gives us endless content to be inspired by, but I hate how it has devalued photography and the skills that photographers have. I also hate how it dictates how a lot of photography students view it and lose perspective on the real emotive foundations of photography as an art form and a traditional process.
Have you ever had to make an insurance claim?
I’ve had a couple of disasters with lost cameras, or floods in my old studio, but the biggest claim was when we got turned over on a video shoot in Barcelona. We had a production base with lots of camera vans and stylists, make up artists and even security in central Barcelona and we were doing camera platform car to car filming. On one of the car to car film sessions the base camp crew got inundated with a gang of people pretending to be friendly, but distracting everyone on the set in a premeditated plan, whilst the rest of the gang broke into the camera vans and stole cameras, computers and all the current SD cards that were cued for back up. As a result we not only lost the kit, but had to reshoot the stolen scenes again at my expense.
Thankfully I was fully covered by my insurance policy. I’ve been with Williamson Carson all of my professional career, and I can’t even imagine not being insured by them. They are brilliant, and understand everything about the photographic and film industry, and as a result always fight for the photographer and understand the stress that theft or production disasters can produce.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been concentrating a lot recently on my CGI content library. We are moving heavily into the VR space and developing some very cool new processes, so there’s lots of R&D involved. So that’s my focus for the next couple of months.