An Aotearoa Discovery road trip

Duncan Innes shares with Adrian Hatwell his experience exploring Kiwi landscapes for Land Rover New Zealand’s Facebook page

I don’t know if such a thing as a ‘dream job’ really exists, but when I hear work on a major commercial assignment described as “almost like a holiday”, I can see myself becoming a believer. Flash cars, beautiful locations, and plenty of time to yourself — for one precious week, Auckland photographer Duncan Innes was living that dream at the behest of Land Rover New Zealand.

As briefs go, they don’t come much more appealing. The client wanted a photographer to get behind the wheel of the Land Rover Discovery Sport — a new premium SUV — and embark on a scenic road trip through some of Aotearoa’s most picturesque spots. Along the way Innes would shoot the car within various landscapes, creating distinctly local imagery to be used on the Land Rover New Zealand Facebook page.

The only rub — it had to be shot quickly.

“I had to drive to Mount Cook and back in a week,” the photographer explained. “The time frame was quite tight, but we managed to make it work.”

The pictures were for use in Land Rover’s ‘Pinpoint’ Facebook competition. Fans would try to guess where in the country Innes had parked up and shot the car for a chance to win some exciting prizes, like a coast-to-coast helicopter trip in the South Island. The agency had a handful of iconic pit stops marked out — Central Plateau, Kaikoura, Lake Tekapo — and Innes had to hit them all before the new car was needed back in Auckland for promotional duty the following week.

Once the planning was sorted and Innes was handed the keys, it was just him, his camera, a nice car, and thousands of kilometres of open road.

“I had the music up, cruising nice roads in an $80,000 car — it was pretty cool,” Innes says with a grin. “It was amazing to have that time by myself, all that freedom.”

Making the job even more exceptional was the fact that Innes had never worked with the brand or its agency before. Having seen the photographer’s portfolio, the client was drawn to his moody landscape work, hoping he could bring that natural edge to this locally focused campaign. To iron out any teething problems, the creative team agreed to a trial run ahead of the full road trip. Innes would do a quick day trip to the Coromandel to get acquainted with the Discovery Sport, demonstrate his approach to the brief, and get a feel for the time needed per location.

“It was a really good idea, because it put [the client’s] mind at ease, and I was happy I had achieved what they wanted in the day,” he explains. “It was a really valuable experience, it helped streamline the process down the track.”

Having proven his mettle, the photographer was away on his week-long adventure. While he had a list of spots the client wanted him to hit — a list he was able to influence to include some destinations he’d been meaning to visit — where and how he handled the shoot was largely up to him. The key caveat was that the location had to be identifiable in the image, but not too easily: the idea was to have viewers engage with the image, and try to puzzle out the answer. This required a little lateral thinking, finding ways to shoot iconic scenes in obfuscated ways (like rear-view mirror reflections), or creatively avoiding overly familiar features.

It was a challenge, but Innes enjoyed the amount of exploration time the process allowed him.

“When I’m on a road trip with my family there’s no way I can get time to stop and take pictures as much as I did. I like to go down all the little roads I see, and discover what’s there. I can’t do that with my wife and child in the car.”

One of the highlights of the trip was exploring the rugged coastline of Raglan. Known as a world-renowned surfing destination, Manu Bay was on the list of hot spots to hit, so Innes took the Discovery Sport for a drive through the bush to find a vantage point overlooking the rolling hills and pounding surf. But while the scenery was predictably gorgeous, the weather was a far less reliable element.

“I came out onto the ridgeline and it was so misty I couldn’t even see the sea, I could only hear it,” the photographer recalled. “So I stopped the car and just listened to the sea crashing on the cliffs below. It was very quiet. Then for half an hour the mist just lifted, I got my shots, and the mist came in again.

“It was amazing, a real lucky moment with a nice moodiness to it.”

Tightly scheduled as he was, waiting around for weather to improve was hardly ever an option, but luckily perfect blue skies were not what the brief demanded. Instead Innes was to capture the car in real environmental situations, so a bit of rain was no problem. In fact, unlike the studio-perfect shots you’ll see dropped into most auto campaigns, many of the Facebook images show the car with dirty tyres and mud-splattered panels.

“It made it real and actually fitted with the brief better — it was more like me taking it on an adventure. The client liked it because it was more engaging for the viewers, they could really see themselves in there.”

It also provided the client with some authentic local shots, as opposed to using imagery supplied by its international counterparts, which often features cars driving on the other side of the road, amidst obviously foreign backdrops. And if the hundreds of comments and thousands of ‘likes’ racked up on Land Rover New Zealand’s Facebook page are anything to go by, the audience definitely enjoyed the local flavour.

While there’s no denying the authenticity of the road-trip images, Innes does admit to a certain amount of visual trickery. After all, he was running solo on this trip, so who is driving the car when he’s taking photos? For some shots the photographer employed a time-lapse set-up, returning to the vehicle to drive up and down the road while his camera automatically fired off frames. In other situations he simply parked the car, arranged the shot to obscure the empty driver’s seat, and added motion blur in post-production to make it seem like the stationary vehicle was rolling down the road.

With him on the voyage was the trusty Canon 5D and a host of classic landscape lenses, along with a few less-conventional gear picks. Innes had his first experience with a GoPro during this assignment — shooting through the windscreen, with the camera gripped in his mouth (of course), he captured some interesting point-of-view footage that he then sped up for effect. He also utilized a 17mm tilt-shift lens in order to create shots of the interior looking out onto the landscape. The camera movement allowed for sharp focus on both the details inside the car (including repeating Land Rover logos, which the client loved), and on the wilderness beyond the bonnet.

The resulting images were a hit on Facebook, and the photographer enjoyed being able to jump onto his browser and see viewers react to his work. As well as guessing where the Discovery Sport was parked, the Facebook fans were asked to share their own personal stories and experiences with the place in question, leading the Pinpoint campaign to generate a lot of very interesting engagement. So it’s not surprising this sort of social media shoot is something Innes is running into more frequently these days.

“It’s often a campaign for print and they’ll run a separate campaign for social media, but more and more it’s stuff that’s just for social media. There’s quite a high turnaround, and maybe the budgets aren’t as big as an advertising campaign, but I get asked for social media shoots more and more by clients, and for websites too.”

Looking to the future, Innes says he’s excited to work with more clients who have an appreciation of his own personal style. In his three years as a freelancer, his biggest challenge has been trying to stay true to his developing artistic vision while still pleasing commercial clients.

“When you start out you just say yes to everything, whatever comes your way to help pay the mortgage. I’m getting a bit more specific about the jobs I take, it kind of gets to that point where you can be a bit picky.”

And while it can’t be fast cars, scenic views, and highway freedom every day, fortune will always favour those willing to gleefully seize dream opportunities when they do come careening along.

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 212 July-August 2016