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How to Photograph Cars

For a while now, I have been asked to write an article about “Photographing Cars”. Well, here it is.

Visualization

The first thing to keep on mind when photographing cars is to “Take it Easy – The car won’t move (or if on a racetrack, it’ll come around again)”. Many photographers rush their shots and a rushed shot is often not a good shot. A great shot begins with some “pre-visualization”. Think about what you want to shoot and then think “How can I make it better”. Only after pre-visualization do you pick up your camera.

When pre-visualizing, remember that the rules of composition have to be considered. The first rule to consider is the “Rule of Thirds” – put the subject on an intersection of the third lines. Be sure to leave some empty space in the shot. Space around the main subject (which should be on one of the third lines) conveys the ambiance of the scene and, if working for a magazine, provides space for the editor to put in some words or at least gives them some framing space.  Empty space is especially valuable in the foreground or above the car. The car itself should be aligned on the top or bottom third line, or better yet on one of the intersection points of these third lines.

Another rule of composition -- use “Leading Lines”. Use the lines of the car as leading lines to take the viewer’s eye on a journey through the photograph.

 Lime Rock Park

Lime Rock Park

Use the “Photographers Circle” – take a look around. Look for the shot. Explore the possibilities. Many photographers are happy to shoot from the same spot as others. No, make your photograph unique. Look for the shot that others don’t have. This may mean don’t stay with the crowd. Will a different angle help? Always think -- How can my shot be something different? You don’t want a snapshot. It is art.

Some photographers “mine” photographers work that they like for ideas. A lot of car shots look similar the best ones are the ones out of the ordinary. Is there a photographer you like that can give you ideas?

But even in this pre-visualization step -- Don’t miss the decisive moment. Even with stationary cars these moments occur. Watch for the owner - Anything unusual about his clothes or face? If you are in a public place are other people looking at the car while you are trying to shoot it? Is there anything interesting about them? Do you want to incorporate people in the shot? Learn to anticipate and make it part of your pre-visualization.

Once these rules are considered, decide how you want the car portrayed. Figure out what angles work best for the particular car you are shooting. Take a head on shot, a ¾ shot from the front and rear, and then take a side and rear shot.  As you start to hone in on the car, decide what is the most interesting aspect of the car you are shooting, the most interesting detail, etc. Shoot these details. Every car has something that makes it unique. If you can find and photograph a signature element of the car -- great.  Perhaps, the flying lady on a Rolls-Royce, the side pipes on a Cobra, or the “hips” of a Porsche GT3 RS.

 Porsche GT3 RS

Porsche GT3 RS

Shutter Speed and Aperture

Now that your pre-visualization step is over, let’s get ready to take a photograph. Never forget that it is still photography and the basics still matter. Keep your camera’s ISO (once called film speed; now it is a measure of sensitivity to light) at the lowest. Unless you are photographing a moving car you are not dealing with motion and there is no need for a high shutter speed. Better yet, shoot from a tripod if you have the time and space. If the car is moving, use the lowest ISO you can use to get the f-stop/aperture combination you want

Speaking of shutter speed and f-stop/aperture, shoot in Manual or Aperture-priority mode whenever you can. This gives you better control over the depth of field and allows you to shoot for maximum sharpness. The old press photographer’s slogan is “f8 and Be There”. It still holds true today and f8 is usually a good place to set your f-stop/aperture to start the shoot. (Unless, your pre-visualization dictates that you use "bokeh" to get the shot you want.)

Consider shutter speed, if you want to capture:

  • Motion – shoot a little slower shutter speed and use a fill flash to exaggerate motion (no fill flash for auto races!)
  • Depth of Field – Maybe a higher shutter speed and a more open shutter will de-emphasize distractions in the background.
  • The general rule of 1 over the focal length of your lens still works. Example , when using a 200 mm lens try not to shoot slower than 1/200. But, if you have vibration stabilization you can shoot 1 – 2 stops lower. In other words, maybe at 1/80 sec (But if using a tripod, turn vibration stabilization “off”.)·  

Light

Consider the light. Light is an essential element of photography.  As a general rule natural lighting is best. Most photographers want to shoot on a bright day, but consider these types of lighting as well:

  • Overcast day --The soft-and-even light of an overcast day is ideal for recording bright colors and fine details – just be sure to minimize the amount of overpowering white sky in your picture.
  • In midday sunlight, shooting success hinges on flexibility.  For instance, in the morning, a subject may be engulfed in shadows, but in the afternoon, the same vehicle may be shining in sunlight.
  • Scrims (large diffusion panels)  can be useful to cut down on overpowering overhead light, but watch their reflection on the car. A large white area can be distracting. Also, the scrim has to be large enough to make a difference (a scrim with dimensions something like a 6 ft. x 6 ft. should work).

Most photographers do not consider reflectors. But they are an essential tool for photographing static cars. They can enhance the natural light shot by highlighting elements of the car.  But careful positioning is essential because you will want to hide the reflection of the reflector! Try hiding the reflection in a wheel well or on a tire (something non-reflective).

 Car Show

Car Show

Another often overlooked tool is off camera lighting (flashes and strobes). They allow the photographer to use the exposure you desired. Proper use of fill flash can makes a car stand out from the background.

 Interior shot at car show

Interior shot at car show

Here’s “quick and dirty method” way to deploy your fill flash. First, select an exposure for the sky that is not above your cameras sync speed (i.e., not above 1/125 or 1/250 sec.; but read your camera manual to know for sure). Second, set the flash or strobe on full power if there is strong sunlight. (Don’t forget to use a diffuser if using a wide angle lens to spread the light from the flash or strobe.)  Finally, hold the flash or strobe to one side of the camera and use a sync cord to give you more distance from the camera.  If the flash or strobe is too strong – change the aperture, dial down the flash, or take a step backwards (use and apply the inverse square law). If the car has reflective license plates take one step to one side or the other to avoid the glare.

Lens Choice

Another part of shooting is to choose the lens needed to get the photography you visualized and prepared for.   Here are some quick rules:

 Wide Angle lens

Wide Angle lens

Wide angle lens exaggerate a car’s features. What kind of look at you trying to achieve? Wide angle lens often can yield a “tough look”. Use this lens type to get close to the vehicle and exaggerate the perspective.  How wide does the lens need to be? A 28-mm lens on a full frame camera is often enough unless there is a desire for extreme exaggeration.  A normal to longer focal length will do the opposite (yield a flatter, more elegant look to the vehicle).

 "Normal" lens

"Normal" lens

 400 mm f2.8 lens

400 mm f2.8 lens

Other Elements of the Scene

At most car shows there are people everywhere. Here is where patience comes in -- Wait for them to move. In most cases people distract from the main subject of the photograph. If they don’t move, look for another scene.  Most showgoers gather near the "main stage" area. But great picture subjects exist on the fringes. Be sure to clear away litter in the scene or put elements into the scene that will enhance the photograph (but if it is not your car, don’t touch the car without the owner’s permission). Watch out for poles, particularly telephone poles, fire hydrants, and electrical lines, and shoot around them. Even the sky can be a distraction and it can cause color shifts if the sun is too bright.

Try to find an attractive place to photograph the car. With an expensive car, try shooting at a country estate. With a race car, a pit shot may work nicely. At a car show, you may not have many options, but if the adjacent car takes away from the shot be creative.

Try not to take eye-level shots. Shots taken from eye level are often boring. Car shots look their best when the view is from the same height as the driver or lower. To get the shot you may have to kneel, lay down, or stand on something. When laying down and using a telephoto lens, the car will look more aggressive and purposeful.

Details

Don’t forget the details. Details often make for creative shots that catch the eye of the viewer. Some ideas:

  • Get closer (exclude other details)
  • Crop the shot really tightly (either in camera or in post processing
  • Try shooting a tail light, an emblem, a curve of the bodywork, a quarter of the front grill with a headlight, etc.
  • Learn to tell a story with one shot
  • Having worked with the car, you should know its main design features. Have a good look around, working handheld, to try and exploit any details such as bodywork shapes and lines, manufacturers badges, wheel structures and grills.
  • It’s also important to remember that there are many interesting interior details worth shooting. The manufacturer’s logo will appear many times within the car’s interior, and there will hopefully be a few nice design features that may be worth considering. Make sure there is enough light available for the shoot, especially if you’ve been shooting on location in the evening light. You may want to wait until you can effectively light the interior, as it would be a shame to miss out on the details especially if you have a chance to enhance them with studio lights.

 
 

 Wheel closeup - Porsche Carrera GT

Wheel closeup - Porsche Carrera GT



Good Shooting!