Profile: Nathan Duff and Retromotive magazine
While publishing has undergone major changes in the digital age, one pro photographer has gone retro with his stylish new car magazine.
Professional freelance photographer Nathan Duff has long held a love for cars: Classic cars in particular. Notably, his first paid job as a freelance photographer was for Australian Classic Car magazine, a gig which led to regular photo shoots, and a lot more cars.
Speaking to AP from his base in south-east Queensland, the 40-year-old told us he enjoyed working for the aforementioned motoring publication for some years before it shut its doors. This highlighted the difficult task left to local motoring enthusiasts for sourcing a regular read about their beloved passion.
Duff was on the lookout for a challenging new project, saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the classic car magazine market and keep working in a field he had a passion for – next thing, Retromotive Magazine was born.
Prior to becoming an independent publisher, Nathan Duff had established himself as a freelance photographer, and says he will shoot “whatever anybody will pay me to do”. His work has been largely for corporate clients, and encompasses events, PR shoots for car companies, and photographic work for other magazines.
“90 percent of my work is around transportation, so anything that’s got wheels I’ll do,” he says.
Notably, as well as cars Duff has shot trucks, bikes, caravans, motorhomes and more.
While back in high school Duff had thoughts of becoming a journalist and completed an elective course that involved producing a school magazine. He told AP he got to shoot photos for the story, interview people and then lay out the magazine. While he didn’t continue on and do a journalism degree, the experience has proven invaluable in later life.
While his journalism idea may have fallen by the wayside, Duff’s photography ambitions soon ramped up.
“I’d just give myself projects. I’d go out and shoot landscapes like I guess every photographer does, and I remember there used to be a competition in Australian Traveller magazine, and they used to have a ‘your photo’ competition with a double page spread and the winning image would always be a landscape.
I think the prize was a Canon 400D and twin lens kit or something like that. I thought it was awesome and thought ‘I’m gonna win that’. So I got up at the crack of dawn every single weekend and I had a full time job then. I must have sent in, I don’t know, one [photograph] in every weekend … I’m pretty sure the editor got sick of me and made me a winner just to piss off!”
Like many aspiring photographers the experience of seeing himself in print proved life changing for Duff.
“I went to the newsagency and seeing my photo in there just made me want to be in magazines after that. I won the camera, sold that and the camera I was using and bought a Canon 5D and went on from there,” he explains.
Not too long after that, Duff started shooting cars. A friend from another high school was writing a feature for a classic car magazine and asked Duff to go along and take the photos.
“The first thing I shot was an old VW Kombi ute and ironically it was down in Nimbin in Northern NSW. I went down and shot that, the magazine really liked it and it went from there. I sort of got the bug and started pitching to other magazines, working harder and that was the way it started.”
In deciding to produce his own magazine – which is set to release its third edition – Duff wanted to do it on his own terms. He wanted a high-quality coffee table style publication and while not a fan of the description ‘timeless’, his aim was to produce a magazine that wouldn’t date, one a reader could pick up anytime anywhere and be taken on a ride with the stories of the cars and their owners. And perhaps a reflection of the eras of the cars featured within Retromotive Magazine it is available in print-only format.
While his magazine is produced in Australia, Duff says it has an international reach and influence. He has a New York-based columnist, a regular Melbourne writer, and the pages showcase cars and owners from around the world.
Duff says he has found taking on the role as an independent publisher has been a steep learning curve.
“I don’t have the answer yet, I’ve worked for magazines for years and I’d never worked on the back end of them … It’s one of those things where you [think] how hard could it be?”
Duff says taking on the job of producing a magazine from go to whoa has proven to be quite a task. He sources the feature cars, organises the shoots, processes the photos and writes a large portion of the articles. The magazine layout and production too has proven challenging.
“I’d never used InDesign before, I’d [only] worked for magazines as a photographer and the learning curve’s been massive. I’ve had to learn InDesign, learn about printing, paper stocks, all of the things you never consider when you just get a call to go and shoot something. You go and shoot it, hand it in and the job’s over… [now] I organise the printing, I do all the distribution and I do the website and try and take care of the social media.”
He is quick though to credit other car magazine publishers in Australia for providing the inspiration to start Retromotive Magazine.
“There are a couple of guys who’ve been doing it for a couple of years; the first one that springs to mind is Luke Ray who started Fuel magazine. He must’ve started that at least five or six years ago, and he was producing that himself and I think he was well ahead of the curve in what he was doing.”
While he has no illusions of the challenge he faces in producing a high-quality niche magazine people will like and continue to buy, Duff takes a cue from the local automotive industry which has seen the likes of Holden and Ford produce long model runs that saw ever dwindling sales as imported cars with fresh designs began to thrive.
Shooting from the hip
Duff says he now approaches a photo shoot differently from when he was working freelance and often given little in the way of a brief.
“There’s nothing worse than having someone say ‘just go and shoot the shit out of it’,” he laughs.
“I’d so much rather do a good job on a dozen photos that tell a really good story for an article that works toward a brief than just handing in 50 or 60 photos.”
The highly experienced photographer now finds he has to think more about page layout and design to achieve the best possible result.
“Particularly after I’d finished laying out the first magazine in InDesign I [realised] none of the photos worked for the way I wanted it to look … so once you’re working a lot tighter with what you know the end product is going to be like it’s easier to do and easier to get a better result.”
As well as getting the magazine completed, Duff also has to ensure he keeps his photography business rolling.
“My photography work still has to pay the bills, so I can’t spend the whole day doing social media posts and things like that,” he explains.
“I never set out to be a one-man-band type thing, but it’s just the way it’s sort of turned out because ultimately, to a certain extent you need to be responsible for your own success with things. It started off as a project and it’s turned into what it is now. It’s challenging but I think you definitely need something to challenge you … it’s good to feel a bit of pressure and challenge and it encourages a bit of lateral thinking. You learn by trial of fire sometimes.”
As Duff explains, there’s no better satisfaction than having positive feedback on what he’s produced.
“Once I can get the magazine in front of people they love it. They love the high visual element of it, they love the clean sort of layout, design.”
Telling a story
While he publishes a classic car magazine that one might expect would be read largely by passionate technically savvy car nuts, Duff doesn’t profess to be an automotive expert himself.
“I love cars [but] I’m no car expert by any stretch of the imagination. So going into it I thought I can’t compete with people that have encyclopaedic car knowledge … but I’m good at telling stories, and people with classic cars always have really good stories,” he told AP.
“That’s what a lot of people are starting to respond to and I’m finding it really positive.”
He’s also finding that focusing on peoples’ stories is really engaging his readers and helping to ensure Retromotive Magazine will stay fresh and interesting.
Duff explains that the photos he takes for the magazine in a way relate the journey the cars and their owners have made in getting to where they are. The human aspect is an important part of his image selection.
“I really like the human interaction with the car, or I like to do a nice solid portrait of the person because their story is just as important as the car’s and I want to do my best to illustrate them as well.”
He says there are no restrictions on the sort of vehicles he will cover for the magazine, as long as there’s an interesting story around them.
“It doesn’t really matter if they’ve been restored, or if they’re original or they’ve been modified. As long as the story’s interesting, either about the car, whether it’s been done a particular way or why the person likes it a particular way.”
Clearly, the magazine’s style is striking a chord with readers.
The publisher is especially pleased about positive feedback he’s received from friends he says aren’t “car people”. And for an Australian publication, Retromotive Magazine has also received healthy interest from overseas readers. Duff says the shipping costs involved in regularly getting the magazine to other countries have so far proven quite prohibitive.
“I’ve had people from Europe, in Belgium, the US, New Zealand; a whole bunch of people have been in touch asking to get the magazine,” he says.
One camera, one lens
In starting his magazine, Duff says he took it on as another project and gave himself a couple of strict guidelines to ensure he achieved the right result. One was to only use one camera, one lens. Duff admits he’s only strayed from the rule once and is glad as the look of the magazine is exactly what he’d envisioned. The other rule is to only shoot using natural light. He tells AP he shoots with a full frame Canon 5DSR, and before he leaves for an assignment he’ll settle on one of two lenses – either a 50mm f1.2 or 24-70 f2.8 Canon L series. He enjoys the creative freedom this minimalist approach affords him.
“I don’t have to worry about setting up lights, stands, tripods … all these other bits and pieces. I just go and shoot the car and the person and just enjoy the whole experience.
“Part of the challenge, and a really good learning experience, is sometimes the people and the car aren’t available at the perfect time so you’ve got to think a little differently about where you are and how to position the car to get a good result. Picking the perfect time of day is obviously optimal but it’s a really good skill to have to be able to go and shoot something when things aren’t optimal and still get a good result. I think that may be where some people might fall down when they move from really good amateurs to the professional realm.
“At the end of the day the photos still have to be really good, but it’s also about the story you’re trying to tell, and if that has to be in the blazing hot sun, so be it.”
While Duff shoots with minimal kit, he stresses the importance of using a circular polariser to cut down ugly reflections from shiny car panels and glass.
“It’s a really handy tool. If you take some shots of cars with and without them the difference is really quite surprising.”
To ensure he also gets a good image of feature cars without too much loss of detail – “cars are quite long and you can get a lot of drop off at the back ” – Duff generally shoots with the 50mm f1.2 lens at an aperture of around f4.5 to f5. For shooting close ups of car detail or portraits he says he might occasionally open the lens up to make the subject pop.
Overall, the images Duff prints in his magazine aren’t too different from what he’d shot. Generally they’ve have had little manipulation, apart perhaps from the application of a custom preset.
“Initially when I first started I was trying to go for that old ‘filmy’ look, and I’ve sort of moved away from that because having control from go to whoa I’ve noticed that sometimes that heavily processed look isn’t great in terms of printing.”
Duff explains he starts out processing his images in Lightroom where he selects his favourites and applies a preset. If any images occasionally need touching up in any way they are exported to Photoshop for further work.
For anyone thinking about trying automotive photography, Duff has some sage advice.
“Just get a car and practice. It doesn’t matter what car it is. There are plenty of events that generally happen on weekends that have cool cars there. Talk to people at car events. Those people just love talking about their cars.”
He says having conversations with car owners won’t always result in the opportunity of a shoot, but sometimes it will. Persistence often pays.
While different car types and shapes don’t generally present many problems for the photographer, paint colour does.
“Black’s a pain in the arse,” he laughs.
“It’s not a great colour to shoot, it absorbs a lot of light, it’s hard to get the body lines of the car to show up naturally. That’s the sort of car where conditions really do have to be optimal … low light, the sun behind you shining on to the car. The sun has to be essentially almost down to get the right sort of effect for [shooting] a black car.”
While he says there are techniques that can be used to bring out the best in a black vehicle, such as light painting, it doesn’t work for what Duff is trying to present within his magazine. His uncompromising efforts are clearly paying off though, as Retromotive Magazine’s readership is looking healthy after only its first two editions.
“I’m certainly keen to sort of grow this and sort of figure it out and see where it goes. I think there’s a really strong classic car culture that’s really starting to develop in Australia. There’s more events, people are getting out more on weekends for cars and coffee and any day of the week you can usually find a car event on somewhere. The values [of classic cars] are really starting to skyrocket and people are really starting to show interest.”
For now, Duff’s work time is currently divided up with about 90 per cent spent on his photography business and the rest on producing Retromotive Magazine. Ideally, he hopes to get it to the stage where his time is divided evenly. No doubt he’ll keep the wheels turning in the right direction. ❂
Check out Retromotive Magazine at: www.retromotive.com.au.