How to Photograph Your Cool Car

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1950 Mercury

Art doesn’t have to hang in a gallery to be appreciated. It can be seen every day prowling the streets. It is through the innovative aesthetics of design that the car has evolved from an amorphous piece of metal into a rolling steel sculpture. A car’s shape can be a temple of desire and worship. It is a reflection and a statement of our social, economic and psychological psyche – a time capsule of history. So how can you immortalize the personality of such machines? By shooting them, of course. Photographically, that is.

There is more to car photography than meets the eye. Two aspects are paramount in successful automotive photography: the use of light and capturing what really resonates about the car through composition.

The problem is that most of us don’t have the luxury of owning a large and expensive studio to manipulate the lighting; nor do we have the convenience of a car manufacturer paying our wages to travel to some exotic locale to shoot a luxury or rare automobile. Instead, we see these wonderful iconic vehicles squeezed together like Velcro in dull, cavernous conference centers, placed on pedestals like nubile goddesses, peppered by unappealing harsh lighting and roped off from the goggle-eyed masses. Otherwise, they’re sequestered in parks, farmland or less-than-scenic parking lots, each car encircled by meandering crowds like coagulated blood cells in a cholesterol-clogged artery.

Regardless, the benefit of photographing muscle cars, street rods or sports cars is that each one has a distinct feature that is hard to replicate. The objective is to articulate these idiosyncratic features: their brutal or sensual lines, textures, curves and symmetry that seem to ooze power, rawness or sexiness.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1976, 1978 and 1979 Pontiac Trans-Ams

You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to do this. What you need is imagination. This article is to help you with tips as to get the best from your car photography.

 

Setting A Mood

I can’t emphasize this enough. Like any good photograph, it is imperative to set a mood that will elicit a reaction from your viewers. To acquire this, composition is critical.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
“The Exchange”
I wanted to convey a story of a sinister scenario, and with the access of two 1950’s cars, a 1950 Mercury and a 1951 Meteor, I positioned them as though it was a Cold War rendezvous.

You don’t have to photograph the whole car to have a beautiful shot. Be as innovative as you can by using irregular angles rather than shooting at eye level. I generally prefer to set up my shots with a slanted angle. This gives the image more edge.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1969 Pontiac 440 GTX

Shooting from an aerial view (using a ladder, balcony or bridge) gives the car a sense of freedom, elegance or grandeur.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1969 Dodge Daytona

The perspective of ground up shots have a penchant to emphasize the vehicle’s prowess and presence (I usually use my camera bag to place my camera on it for steadiness).

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1959 Chevrolet Impala

And close-ups translate intimacy from a unique perspective (e.g. lights, exhausts, gear shift and more).

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1956 Corvette

 

Appropriate Gear

I can’t speak for others, but I have been very satisfied using a Zuiko macro 35mm 1:3.5, exceptional for extreme close-ups. I use a Zuiko 14-54mm f/2.8 for full establishing shots, and a Zuiko 200mm (f/2.8) to give me the flexibility for long shots (with soft blurred backgrounds) to close-ups. No matter what lens I use, it is always married to a tripod for stability (to avoid blur) and to permit me to take longer exposures for more light. Photography forces me to observe and a tripod prevents me from rushing. It actually enables me to think through each shot while I’m setting up. Before I take a shot, I mentally picture how I want to shoot the car, usually by imagining how it would look as a poster or magazine cover.

Another consideration before taking out my camera is location. As mentioned before, you are limited to the availability of getting a good shot at any car show, indoors or out – but let’s start with car show photography.

 

TIP 1. Lighting: Indoor Shots

Lighting is the key to any photograph. There are several major issues when photographing your subject, such as how to avoid crowds, reflections and those annoying spotlights pitted across the car. No matter how you shoot a car in these conditions, you will probably spend more time in post-production to perfect the shot.

If you can’t avoid the crowds, you can take advantage of them by shooting from an aerial perspective (an overlooking balcony) of the car with a crowd gravitating around the automobile using a 50mm, 70mm or even a fisheye lens (directly above your subject). Alternatively, use close-up photography. Why select a close-up shot? Sometimes a tease has more seductive appeal than the whole ensemble. A close-up shot gives a completely different perspective and you can actually end up with a fine art piece, great for framing.

It says so much by showing so little: You can capture the era, the style, the brand and the uniqueness while piquing your viewer’s curiosity, intrigue and enthusiasm. Of course, with close-up photography, be aware of your lack of depth of field, so make sure you focus on what’s important.

 

TIP 2. Lighting: Outdoor Shots

Again, you will encounter a swarm of people milling about each car, but you can still achieve great shots providing you’re patient. Use a polarizing filter will eliminate or drastically reduce any reflections or glare off windshields and glass. A lens hood is essential in shielding the optics (lens) while the black cone absorbs any bouncing light. It also helps the camera detect a more accurate meter-reading of the subject. I sometimes bring a white/gold reflector on bright days to reduce or enhance extreme lighting contrasts. Whether it is outdoors or indoors, fill-in flash is a blessing. It is ideal in illuminating areas with severe edges, deep pockets and angular contortions such as the cockpit bucket seats, inside the wheel arches, grills and instrument gauges, and for highlighting the intricacies of an engine.

If you can avoid it, don’t shoot during the mid-day sun (noon – 1:30 p.m.). Very little actually looks attractive in this light, because it is too harsh (though it is fine for close-ups) and causes severe lighting conditions, spot glare and ubiquitous reflections. It is best to photograph a car when the lighting is more horizontal than directly above. Shooting with the light behind you will enhance every feature of the car, but it may also present a flat appearance – and be careful to avoid excessive shadowing. It is a difficult time to shoot due to the extreme lighting, resulting in frustrating attempts to acquire the correct exposure. If this persists, try bracketing your shots by rotating the white balance dial – take three shots: the first at 1 stop down, the next at the meter reading and the third shot 1 stop up. Then combine them. Yellow and white cars are the worst in these situations. The best time is when the light is soft and evenly distributed, such as after 4 p.m or around sunrise (not that this is going to help you at a car show that starts at 9 a.m.). This light emits a warm and seductive radiance. Remember, all types of paint react differently at various times of the day with different lighting conditions.

 

TIP 3. Reflections

Car surfaces are like mirrors: reflecting everything, including the close proximity of other vehicles, people, poles, telephone wires, buildings and even your own image. I am always looking for the sinewy lines or curves of a car and reflections can really hamper this, so use a polarizing filter to limit distractions. Wear dark clothing to blend into the background. If you can’t avoid seeing your own reflection, place your camera on a tripod, set the timer and move out of the shot. On the other hand, a reflection can be particularly impressive if you can find a reflection of a flag, a palm tree or a canyon of skyscrapers. These reflections can actually add personality, patriotism or a sense of emotion to the moment. In addition, some of the best car shots are created with intentional reflections from the car off the ground.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1923 Ford T Model hot rod

The best time for this is right after a rainstorm or on a mild day. Position a car at a ¾ angle on a driveway and spray the tarmac with water. This heightens the vehicle’s prestige and dominance. However, I wouldn’t recommend this on a hot day. The heat simply evaporates the water in minutes.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1940 Chevrolet Coupe

 

Private or Commissioned Shoots

A private car shoot is a passport to explore endless possibilities. You and the owner can decide where to go, how to shoot and when to shoot. Let’s say you are going to photograph a ’69 Dodge Challenger, an iconic muscle car with attitude. The background must complement the car, meaning that you need an environment that simulates, in this case, the aggressiveness and brute force of the car. Days before the shoot, scout around town, and write down on a pad all the locations that could be appropriate, from derelict warehouses and overpass bridges to seamless concrete or patterned exteriors. Be aware how natural light penetrates the area and note the time of day.

Try to avoid bland backgrounds. If you have no choice, blur the backdrop by changing your exposure to f2.8 to f5.6. I do this with my 200mm lens. This will keep the car in focus and blur out what isn’t necessary. Always notice any superfluous distractions in the foreground and background, such as hydro towers, poles, telephone lines, signs, litter, people, other cars, fences, posts, etc. Remember, the car is the key focal point.

 

What Angles to Use

Many photographers place their camera at a low level, basically looking up at the car to give the vehicle a menacing or dramatic stance. Even better when there are ominous clouds and the car’s lights are on.

Try shooting towards the front corner of the car or the “3/4” shot (i.e. 75 percent of the front and side of the car). This offers the benefit of viewing the grill, the side panel and, depending how high or low you are, the hood of the car.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
1967 Ford Mustang Fastback

It is also a good angle for it hides your reflection. A slightly more restricted shot is the 45 degree angle shot. Make sure the front tires are turned to the extreme to expose the chrome rims/wheels to the sunshine or light source. Note that when shooting such an angle, it is important that all four tires are visible. And if you shoot a profile of a car, it is imperative that you have a complementary backdrop since this angle is, most of the time, the least compelling.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
2009 Porsche

I try to avoid shooting cars in parks. I don’t like grass covering the bottom of the tires. Furthermore, don’t photograph cars under trees. The branches cast irregular shadows on the car.

Once you have found a location, scrutinize the site for patterns or objects that can direct the viewers’ attention to the car. For example, if you photograph in a parking lot, use the parking lines as perspective, leading the eyes to the automobile. If the background buildings, trees or bridge are distracting, make them silhouettes in post-production or even alter the complete image by using spot colour, so everything is in black and white except the colour of the car or its tail-lights.

How to Photograph Your Cool Car
Factory 5 1965 AC Cobra

In addition, some of the most dramatic car shots have been taken in inclement weather, such as showing the car emerging out of the mist along urban wet streets or in rural setting. So always make the most of any weather condition. Picture yourself looking at a ’67 Camaro deep inside a rustic garage with the only light being a spot light over it. The garage’s door is open, revealing rain pouring outside.

 

Panning Shots

To capture the excitement of speed or action, have the owner drive the car around you or into a corner. Follow the car with your camera (shutter speed dial on ‘S’) and set it between 1/25 to 1/60 to get enough sharpness of the car, but the spinning of the wheels and a blurry background. The car can be moving from 20 mph to 60 mph.

If you are in one moving car to shoot another moving car, your exposure should be at 1/80 up to 1/250 with the lowest ISO. And make sure you have a good grip on the camera. Of course, with the advantage of drones, you can get remarkable aerial shots. The sky’s the limit.

Cars have character, history and pedigree. If your photography can transfer a snapshot into a portrait, then you have seized the ultimate expression by resonating an strong emotion from your viewers. There is no greater reward. Good shooting.

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About Clive Branson 35 Articles
Clive Branson is a photography graduate from Parsons School of Design in New York City and has since divided his career as an advertising creative director/copywriter and as a freelance writer/photographer. He is the author of Focus On Close-Up and Macro Photography and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Britain. Clive lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario.

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