Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to Take Great Car Photos

Car guys and gals have always liked to photograph their cars, and cool ones we find along the way. It’s part of car culture. The proliferation of smart phones and inexpensive digital cameras has revolutionized the world of the amateur photographer as well. Social media makes it easier than ever to show off your ride, or one you spotted to your friends, and the rest of your followers. Taking those pictures in a creative and high quality way though could get you a lot more +’s, shares, and thumbs up.
I’m not saying that photography is an easy art, however car photography does not have to be difficult in order to get high quality shots.
FAIL: This photo has a lot of problems. First the trunk is open, second the big bag next to the car is distracting, last the wheel is cut the wrong way. The angle and zoom are also not great.
The first tip I can give you is to look at the internet, web or E-magazines, as well as those in print. Yes their photographs were taken by professionals, with no doubt years of experience, likely with some expensive equipment, and edited on an office computer, using expensive software. That does not mean that anyone who is willing to take some time to compose a photo, using the equipment they have in hand, can’t turn out a few a high quality photos for their own use.
I’ve been photographing cars since I was a teenager, and doing so for magazines and publications for the last fourteen years. I’m going to share with you some of the basic tips, tricks, and guidelines that I use to get great photos. This is not meant to be the end all guide to automotive photography, and I don’t claim by any means to be the best in the business. I have learned from many of the best though, and while I’m still always picking up tips from those photographers, I can hold my own these days fairly well.
FAIL: This photo also has several problems. The first is the front wheels are cut facing the camera. This is a big mistake. No one cars about the car's tire tread and what it looks like, show me the face of the wheel, it makes the photo much more attractive. The second issue is also the composition or zoom of this photo. There's too much of everything else and not enough of the car. This is distracting, after all the purpose is to show off the car, not the pavement, grass and trees around it.
 How the Door was Opened
For me the door was opened into automotive photography years ago by an article similar to the one you’re reading now. Then editor of 5.0 Mustang Magazine, Rob Kinnan ran a one page editorial on how to take quality pictures, for the “Reader’s Rides” section of the magazine. Kinnan would later become my mentor while editor of ProMedia’s Race Pages magazine. I owe a lot to his guidance through the years, and he remains someone whom I seek advice from to this day. Those tips got me practicing more with my camera, and eventually I honed my craft into a career. So without further delay let’s get down to the basics of photographing cars.
Time of Day
This is perhaps the most critical tip I can give you. Unless it’s simply unavoidable do not photograph a car when the sun is high in the sky. The best photos are always the ones taken at sunrise, or sunset. Typically I prefer sunrise, during the dawn hours, before the sun is over the horizon. There is ample light at this time for good pictures, you can go outside and comfortably set things up ahead of time, and depending on the time of year and your location have anywhere from about 30 minutes to an hour of useable life.
I shot this photo of my '98 GT just before sunset. Notice how I got a little low, tilted the camera to add some "drama" and got close to the car. Also the wheels are cut to the right, allowing the face of the wheel to be seen, much more interesting than tire tread. There are fewer distractions to take your eyes away from the detail of the car.
I also like late day shoots for many cars. Depending on time of year, this is late in the afternoon (winter) or late evening (summer). Typically I start my shoot when the sun is starting to make everything gold and yellow outside. As it continues to set I adjust my camera, and will keep shooting until I have no more useable light. Some of the best photos I’ve ever shot of a feature car were under these conditions.
These conditions give you more even lighting, they reduce the glare, and they may also add interest to your background by having the effect of the sunrise or sun set add visually to the picture.
Mid day pictures often have significant glare, and can throw off the camera, the color, and the shoot. What could be an awesome car photo, is ruined often by too much light.
Set it Up
This is possibly the second biggest area that I see cause poor photo outcomes when it comes to car photos. Sometimes in our excitement to get the shots rolling, we forget some basic rules, only to find our mistakes when reviewing the shoot later. This has happened to me on more than one occasion, its an easy mistake to make. Take a few minutes to set up your photo area and then take a little extra time thinking about each shot before you snap it.
Remove distraction:
Get the trash out of the picture. Old cups, bags, boxes, etc. These all detract from the photo and distract the eye of those looking at it later. There does not need to be an old fast food bag under the tire, or the car, or beside it. When I can, I actually take my leaf blower with me, or a broom to a shoot, and clean the pavement off in the area I’m using before I bring in the subject car. Leaves, sticks, big rocks, these are all in the way.
Think about bright colored cones, signs or parking lot stripes as well, avoid these things if at all possible. You want the photo to draw your eyes to the car, not staring at objects around it and thinking to yourself “what’s that.”
Light at your back
If the sun is up, you’ll want it at your back. This avoids your subject being washed out by the sun (also called backlighting). You can have the light as much as about 60-70 degrees to one side of you, after that you may start to get sun spots. If the sun is below the horizon this is less of a worry, and not a big deal, just pay attention if it’s sunrise that you may need to move.

Location is a major player. Your location should not be more interesting than the subject. Location should if anything add to the appeal of the photo, and further make the car stand out. 
Don’t get yourself into any trouble for trespassing or breaking laws. However your driveway may not be the best place for your next photo shoot. The local track or drag strip can make a good background. Industrial areas, an old barn, or building, etc. Just make sure that the car is your focal point, background is just that it’s background, not the focus so be careful and don’t let that overwhelm the car.
Be aware of your surfaces. All cars look good on pavement, some look good on gravel or dirt, avoid grass. Shooting car photos on grass used to be the trend in the mid 90’s. I’m guilty of it, but really it just doesn’t look like a natural environment for the car. So be aware of that. Old industrial sites, and buildings with some character or architectural interest make good sites for backgrounds. So do high tension power lines, and power stations. You can also just use a blank wall, or empty road. Avoid backgrounds with people in them, also try to avoid homes or multiple buildings, although sometimes these can look good depending on the setting. Rule of thumb to ask yourself goes back to, would this photo make it in a magazine? If you can answer yes you’re on the right track, no doesn’t mean it’ll be a bad photo, it just means you can do better.
Is the Car Ready?
This is a big one too. It’s especially hard when I go to race tracks where tire rubber, dust, etc all make a car very dirty over the course of a day. Not to mention fingerprints from working on the cars.
If it’s your car, a friends, etc. Take some time to get the car cleaned up. No big bug splatters, no splash from the drive home. I always say make it showroom clean, clean it like you’re going to show it to someone to sell it to them. That should do the trick.
Along these same lines, make sure the windows are up when you shoot the car. Unless you’re shooting a topless car, (convertible, targa or T-top, with the top down or panels removed), make sure the doors are all closed securely (and trunk) and put the windows up! This gives the car a much more even appearance in the photo.
Tire Angle!
This is my biggest peeve in car photos. I see more and more pros doing this these days, and I hate it, simply because it’s a big error. Unless you have some super cool custom tread, or top secret prototype, no one is interested in seeing your car’s tire tread. If I’m looking at pictures of a car, the face of the wheel is what I want to see, not the entire rubber of the tire. So always make sure the front tires are cut in a manner that you’re seeing the face of the wheel, not the treads. It looks better and makes for a more interesting photo. If you’re taking a profile shot, (straight on the side), you can leave the wheels straight. Trust me on this, your photos will look significantly better with the tires cut so the wheel faces you on whatever angle you’re shooting from.
FAIL: The problem with this photo is that the car is dead center, and it looks like the photographer is 40 feet away with no zoom. There's nothing interesting going on around the car, just empty dirty road, and lots of trees. The angles are good, the execution is flawed.
This is another huge area where I see mistakes made. For the most part you want to get the entire car or side of the car in your picture. Don’t cut off the sides, the back or the front. Also don’t move too far away, use a close up framing. If the background is interesting or provides a nice contrast you can highlight some of it, but remember this is a car picture, no one is interested in what’s going on a quarter mile away, or that you stood twenty feet away to get it. If your car is parked in a parking space crammed between two cars, move it. Same goes for cool cars you see at shows. Don’t be shy, ask the owner if he’ll move it out so you can snap a picture. Just don’t make a habit of doing this to every car there.
Partial shots like this are cool as long as they highlight cool detail or are purposeful. In this one I was trying to highlight the curve of the rear quarter panels, a cool body feature on these cars that I've always loved with the SN95 body style.
Move Around
Move around and play with angles for your photos. A straight on front or rear shot, or straight profile is not always as interesting as one with some angle, or a shot at what we call a 3/4 angle. Play with the tilt of the camera, put the nose of the car in the top corner or the frame or near it to add some drama. Zoom in from a little bit of distance and change the depth of field for the background.
You can do some close up shots that don’t show the entire car on an angle. These can be interesting if done right, but don’t make that your only angle.
Moving around and experimenting with angles will often yield incredible results. This is one of my personal favorite angles when shooting both classic and late model Mustangs. The car's long good stands out and the whole thing just takes on a different look. I found this angle simply by experimenting years ago, I use it often, almost on every Mustang I shoot these days. It may also work good on other vehicles, it all depends on the lines, and it's up to you to judge.
Before editing, not a bad photo.
Editing is Important
Do something with your photos after the fact. When I started taking digital photos no one thought they could use them in magazines because of previous failures. I explained it was all about the post processing, and within a few years the magazines I worked for were no longer accepting film, slides or negatives.

After editing, a much more vivid photo,
I had a professional photographer that I follow on Google+ talk about the importance of editing one day. The gist of it was this. A camera is a tool, a device, cold and unfeeling it captures the world in raw detail as information only. We as humans see things not only with our eyes from an analytical perspective but also perceive things when we see them, you feel something, smell something, maybe your heart rate changes, or it makes you think of something else. For many of us cars are an emotional thing, we get excited, nostalgic, or happy when we look at certain cars. The camera can't convey your emotion, you have to add that back when you edit your photos, show the world what you were perceiving and feeling when you took that picture, give the photo life.

Unedited, not a bad looking photo, this would be acceptable to publish. Scroll down though to see the post edited version.
Personally I use Adobe Lightroom 4 to get my photos corrected, and add some effects. There are plenty of lower cost apps and programs out there though for someone who’s not going to edit large numbers of photos every week. Do something interesting with your pictures, bring out the colors, add some vignetting, crop to remove distracting items. It will make a big difference in the final product.
Just don’t get too carried away. Unless I’m making an HDR or art project, I like to use software to make things look correct, crop and focus. Too much editing is like too much makeup and plastic surgery, it can go from good looking to ugly and unnatural in a hurry.
Same photo after editing. Which would make you more likely to pick up a magazine, click on an article, or check out an ad?

Taken on my iPhone 4s, edited in Lightroom 4, proof equipment isn't everything
I personally shoot on my Nikon D3200 right now. This is a higher end consumer level DSLR, I recently upgraded to this camera, it’s not the highest end Nikon and it’s also not necessary for you to snap some good pictures of your car. Most smart phones have at least a 5 megapixel camera in them, which is plenty for a decent shot. The same holds true for many small point and shoot digital cameras. As the old adage goes the best camera is the one you have with you.
If you have a tripod or a way to steady your camera that is always helpful. Some cameras have stabilization features, and those can also do wonders for you. A flash for interior and under hood shots also goes a long way, but I haven’t even touched on those in this blog.

I could go on into a technical discussion about camera settings, rule of thirds (which often doesn’t apply to car photos), and editing. This blog though is just intended to give you the basics, just a few things to keep in mind next time you’re snapping some still photos of your ride. Action photos, are an entirely different animal. For now go clean your car, get out to an interesting location, and take some great car pictures.


  1. Man, your shots are perfectly angled! Your ’98 GT looked more awesome than it already is in those pictures. I love the sunrise dramatic effect. Thank you for sharing with us those tips, Donald! I’m going to grab my camera and take a photo of my car right this afternoon. =)

    Lawrence Harkness

  2. It is a good collection of guidelines which can make it possible for anyone to take great photos of his car. The photos you have presented are also very great.
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  3. Even it seems easy but car photography is not an easy task at all. Ordinary photos can be taken easily but to make it little classy, you will definitely need some guidance. Taking photos from an angle is the best way to take a good photo. Photos taken from front face or from side make it look little lazy type. I don't like those photos. Well, your car pictures are quite impressive. Actually, the color is the attractive one, nice choice. Thanks for sharing them all. Auto service Leland NC.