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.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Billy's Bad Day

This was the shot I had set out to capture for Glidden that weekend
Nearly eleven years ago, I took a stab at running my own race track photo sales business. I was an overly ambitious 23 year old with neither the business sense, nor experience to make the endeavor work. After nearly two years I had to fold the business and go back to working a regular day job. I don’t regret my attempt, or the consequences that come from it, I simply look back at it as a reference point for making better decisions today, and move on.
My business shot everything digital, and printed it from computers in a trailer that I’d customized with the help of some friends. I could produce a print as big as 11x17 inches within about 15 minutes of shooting the photo if needed. Most of the other businesses who did the same line of work had bulky photo processors, the big kind you see at Walmart and the like, crammed into their trailers. Their photos were great, but their technology typically required those companies to either have someone man the trailer constantly, or stay up all night printing orders from Saturday to be delivered on Sunday.
One person who offered support and advice to me during this time in my life was Billy Glidden. Those who follow NHRA racing and even Mustang and outlaw level street car racing know this name. Billy on several occasions worked out deals with me to provide photos for him to use either for his sponsors or other promotional work. It was a good relationship. Billy also provided me with a lot of good advice. He referred a lot of business to me. I haven’t seen or talked to him in a number of years as I’ve spent time away from the race track until recently. Next time I do run into him, I plan to thank him for all that advice, and the experience that came with it.
The World Ford Challenge, was a huge event during this time, drawing some 45,000 racers and fans combined. I ambitiously landed the deal to be World Ford Challenge 5’s official, and only photo vendor. That race was held the second weekend in May, 2002, at Gateway International, in East St. Louis.
Pro-Stock Legend Bob Glidden was also on hand, driving his son's Outlaw 10.5W car that weekend. This is a good wheels up shot that has been retouched recently in Lightroom 4
In addition to all the crazy Mustang and Ford madness of the weekend, NHRA Pro-Stock legend, Bob Glidden (Billy’s father) was going to step out of retirement, and drive Billy’s older outlaw car, while Billy drove the newer Pro 5.0 chassis which met the safety standard at the time to exceed 200MPH.
Prior to the event there was much press, and internet buzz about Bob competing. I headed to Glidden Racing Engines one Friday night, about 2 hours from my home, to take some promotional photos. I no longer have a disc of those photos, although I may have my own printed copy somewhere. Billy and his dad posed beside the cars, near sunset, in front of the shop. We ran on the bottom of the photo “The Legacy Continues...”. I agreed to do a limited print run of the photos, providing Billy with several copies. I would sell the others and give part of the money back to Billy as a commission, since I was essentially making a good deal of money from them.
Unfortunately it rained two of the days of the WFC5 event. Unable to sell as many starting line photos as I would normally have, our top seller was the Glidden father-son photo. Fans came to our trailer throughout the weekend and bought copies of the limited photo, printed in 11x17. I have no idea today how many we did, I think we limited the entire run to 200 pictures, maybe less. Bob and Bill were at their trailers, either between rounds, or during the rainouts, they autographed those prints for fans if requested.
Had it not been for that photo I’d have walked away from WFC5 deeper in the red for the event because of the weather and bad planning on my part. That photo took away some of the financial pain.
Billy had also asked me to get some photos of his Pro 5.0 car which had a special sponsor across the doors. The sponsor, was a St. Louis Ford dealer. I was also sure to get photos of Bob’s car as well.
Bad luck for Billy turned into a bit of good fortune for me. The photo you see of the red car with the fireball over the hood, is of Billy’s car having a rare nitrous backfire. Billy is a nitrous guru, knowing perhaps even more about setting up, and running nitrous than many that design and sell systems. I snapped this photo at just the right moment, with my Nikon D1x, what was considered to be the premiere digital SLR camera at the time. This was a time when nearly everyone else was still shooting film.
My shot  was the only one to grab the extent of the fireball. That D1x shot at an incredible frame rate for the time, and I had photographed Billy enough over the years to know when his car was about to launch. you just get a feel for that when you work the starting line as often as I did. I had hoped to get a good wheels up shot. Instead as soon as the clutch was let go, the car backfired in dramatic fashion.
The photo made the cover of ProMedia and NMRA’s magazine, Race Pages. I also was paid for providing the photography to ProMedia for the event. This was the first and only cover photo I ever snapped.
This is the shot that became famous for the weekend. Experience, timing, equipment and luck made it possible.
I recently came across the picture when I climbed up into the rafters of my garage and pulled down about 30 old archive cd’s I’d made before my original processing system went belly up in 2007. I’ve altered this photo recently, giving it lighting correction with Lightroom 4, and cropping it some to put the focus on the car more and less on the crowd. This is one of those shots that literally is a moment frozen in time. When the shot was taken, no one had yet processed, or reacted to it, the moment was that instantaneous, and surreal. I didn’t even fully realize it. I seldom close both eyes, and all I saw was a flash, and felt some heat. Realizing what had happened I immediately looked at my view screen, hitting the playback button, I found that I did capture the important image.
Sometimes it’s not just about good equipment, or the proper settings. Sometimes even the best timing and reflexes of a young person or a veteran starting line photohrapher aren’t enough either. Sometimes you just get lucky and an ordinary moment turns into something miraculous captured forever.

Don’t forget to visit my site, also follow me on Gogole+, Twitter: @DonaldCreasonJr, and Facebook.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Time for Change

In the past I've struggled to make this blog one about my personal experiences to share with family and friends. That has proved more difficult than I originally imagined.
The new year brings about some change for me and for my blog. Being a freelance writer and photographer these days, I want to make sure that I don't limit the exposure of my work. That being said I'm starting both a web site which will link to this blog, and display my work as a photographer. I will be discussing here the thing I know best which is cars. However, I'm not setting this up as another typical car related web site or blog. My work is sometimes limited for the company that I write for, because for the most part I write assigned stories, and occasionally dig out a few on my onwn.
With that said, I will be using this blog to discuss any number of several things. At times I may discuss a certain picture I've taken. The old cliche is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I may not be able to squeeze that many out about any single image. I have however taken through the years, thousands of photos of cars. I intend to discuss both newer photos, as well as revisit some of my favorites.
I'll also discuss my opinons on things going on within the automotive world. Everything from changes in the industry, new models, classics, etc. I intend to report things here that I may not have the oppurtunity to report elsewhere.
 News stories are abundant in the automotive world on a daily basis. Some of those get published with the company I work for. Others may not meet their criteria but because they interest me I may report on them.
From time to time I may do the same with a particular car. There are thousands of beautiful cars out there that will never make a magazine or web feature otherwise simply because they don't meet the stiffer criteria that many of those publications hold. I'm not saying I'm lowering my standards, in fact it takes a great deal for a car to catch my attention. There are cars out there though that I feel deserve some form of feature. I'll do my best here.
I want to take submissions from my readers, requests, and offer advice. The majority of my work will reflect late and early Muscle Cars, classic cars, street rods and hot rods. I will not object though to talking about four wheel drives, and even imports, though I lack some experience with both.
I'd also like to offer advice here and there on various automotive topics. This will be more of my opinion so you can take it or leave it. It will be based on my years of experience.
Last but not limiting will be my own projects. I may rarely get to publish stories on work with my own vehicles in any other outlet. So I'll occasionally show you what I'm working on and how it's going.
I hope you enjoy this blog, and take the time to come back each week to see what's new. I'll be using Social Media as a way to promote it, and hope to see it grow in it's following over the next year.
Best Wishes, and Happy New Year