How to Photograph Cars
How do you photograph a car when glossy finishes and reflections are a constant frustration?
First step: drive your vehicle, whether it’s a luxury car or a classic model, out of your garage or your driveway into a more exotic location. Whether you’re trying to sell your car or just show it off a good background is essential.
Now consider the angles and the light. The more thought and effort you put into your photoshoot the better your images will be.
Use the “classic car photography pose” as your first shot
Pose your car at a three-quarters, 45° angle view of the front and side with the front wheels turned out, giving you a chance to show those spectacular alloys to the camera. Best to use a long lens, preferably in the 100 mm to 200 mm range so the background will not distract the eye of the view from the car.=
Best to use a long lens, preferably in the 100mm to 200mm range so thebackground will not distract the eye of the viewer from the car. “Open” the lens up to a “wide” aperture (f1.8, f2.0 etc.) – this will help isolate the car from the background.
Shoot in an exotic location
Of course your exotic location will depend on what kind of a car you’re photographing. A 4×4 SUV? Drive it to the mountains or a dusty country road while a luxury town car or muscle car will look better at a race track or in a cityscape.
Once you get your initial “classic car photography pose” maybe lying on the ground or using a stepladder is a great way to get different shots.
Photograph in “Golden Light” or on an overcast but bright day
How often do we hear, “Let’s do the photo at noon when we will have the most light?” Wrong!\
Avoid bright sunlight, from about 10AM to 4PM when the light is at its most harsh and unflattering to that beautiful paint job.
Aim for the “Golden Hour” (link) or “Magic Hour,” considered the hour before and after sunrise and sunset. At these times the sun is at its lowest in the sky and thus is at its most red and its softest, warmer and less harsh than at other times of the day.
Second choice is to photograph on an overcast but bright day when the clouds will block direct sunlight and you won’t have that streaky, unflattering light.
Photograph the interior
Don’t forget the interior details. That 7-speed dual clutch transmission gearshift, that hand-stitched leather upholstery provide some of the best photographs.
However. it’s almost impossible to use a tripod inside a car so it’ll be necessary to “bounce the flash” for the interior so you don’t get that unnatural, washed-out, hard light look.
Now you’ll want to shoot the steering wheel and the dashboard with the rearview camera with the distant mountains seen through the windshield to give the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat.
Photograph any special features
Don’t limit yourself. Take a wide variety of pictures. Concentrate on any modifications – that custom paint job, hood stripes, panoramic moonroof. Get close and isolate the leather steering wheel, the fenders, the headlights and any detail that catches your eye. When you think you’re finished take a few walks around the car. What calls out to you? Those throaty double exhaust pipes? The custom tail lights? Shoot them. And don’t forget those under the hood modifications!
Tip: You’re going to want at least six or seven really good shots so make up a checklist of your preferred shots before you set off. While it’s important to have a checklist of preferred shots before you begin, it’s much easier to overshoot and edit the number down when you get home than go back for a reshoot because you forgot to photograph those modifications under the hood!
Remember a car, especially a black one, is like a giant mirror!
Reflections of buildings, trees, you and your camera can create hotspots that can quickly spoil those beautiful lines you’re working so hard to capture. So, aim to have an ocean or the sky reflecting in the front and side, the windshield and the side windows of the car.
Tip: Using a polarizing filter will cut down on reflections. Experiment, but they’re cheap and always good to have one in the camera bag anyway as they can be helpful in many kinds of photography.
Pan for motion blur
A technique often used in car photography is “panning the camera”–blurring the background while keeping the car sharp to show movement and speed and drama and make it interesting to the eye.
It may take a little patience and practice to get the technique down but well worth the effort! Use a wide-angle lens (28mm), set your shutter speed to 1/125s, stand on a corner, open the shutter as the car approaches the bend and pivot your body in one smooth action on the same arc as the car, keeping the car in the middle of the frame as you rotate.
Take driving shots
Rather than “panning the camera” shoot your car from a moving car, conveying that gorgeous sense of movement which you’re trying so hard to achieve.
(Be sure to have your camera strapped to your body and, even more importantly, make sure that you’re very well anchored and secured before starting.)
Have friends drive the “target car” and the “camera car” on country, low-traffic roads. You will sit in the passenger seat shooting out the window. Both cars should travel at the same speed. 40 mph is the max. The distance between your cars will depend on the focal length of the lens you’re using. Set your shutter speed to 1/60s and use “continuous shooting mode.”
Don’t be disappointed if the first images are not usable. With practice and experience you will find you’ll get some terrific shots!
Tip: while on the road be sure to use the speakers on your smartphones to communicate preferred speed and distance between the two cars.
Photography is about patience and practice. When shooting cars, as is true in all forms of photography, the more you shoot the fewer mistakes you will make! Think about what you’re doing. Keep in mind the skills and techniques you’ve learned in reading this. Pay close attention to location, background, lighting, camera settings, and so forth. Thinking out even a couple of the many aspects that go into a good photo can make a world of difference.
Edward Weston said, “If I have any ‘message’ worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no shortcuts in photography.”
Now get out there, experiment and have fun and you’ll be very surprised how quickly your images improve!
Tip: Don’t forget to turn on the headlights while shooting, since that usually makes for a stronger image. If it’s during the day, use the brights.
Another tip: Bring a few polishing cloths and liquid spray.