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Photographing a car is one of those things a lot of people consider easy, but quickly reconsider once they give it a go. The truth is it is not as easy as it seems. Sure, with today’s cameras anyone can get a crisp, clean photo of a car, but if you want to do it at an artistic level or make it look like an ad, it will take a lot more than that. Photographing a car is all about highlighting the beauty of the design, capturing the exterior and interior details and about portraying the essence of the vehicle. All that requires some rather special ingredients.
Here are 7 tips to get you started on creating amazing automotive photography.
1. Make sure the car is interesting
Most of us don’t own Ferraris, or haven’t got any friends who do for that matter. The good news is you don’t need a supercar to get great photos. However, you do need to channel your creative talent into an interesting vehicle, so the family sedan is out of the question. It’s not that they are bad cars, they are indeed very useful in real life, but they just don’t make pretty models.
Good places to look for interesting vehicles are local vintage car clubs. Most cities have at least one and the members are usually very proud of their machines. Generally, they’ll say yes to anything that gets them exposure or recognition of their effort to restore and preserve classic cars.
2. Location, location, location
If you look at a car ad, any car ad, it probably wasn’t shot in an average location, like the ones you see every day on your way to work. The environment needs to be interesting as well. When searching for a location, you should have an idea of what kind of mood you want in your photos. As with a model, you could either shoot indoors or outdoors. Most car ads are shot outside. Assuming you are on a budget, go scouting for the most eye catching spots in your area. Look for places like empty parking lots, drive ways, tunnels or high points with a view. Try to avoid clichés and keep in mind that while the location has to be interesting, it shouldn’t steal any attention away from the car. Also, and this is a personal recommendation, don’t put a hot girl next to the car to make things more interesting. Calling those photos clichés is an understatement and it won’t get you any kind of credit as a creative photographer.
If you have the possibility of renting a large, indoor space, there is a great potential in working with studio lights. It might be a good idea to look for abandoned buildings, old factories, warehouses, etc. They offer great surroundings and can create powerful contrasts.
Regardless of what location you chose, make sure the color of the car fits well with the environment.
Properly lighting a car is very challenging. It is harder than you would first expect because of stuff like geometry, reflections and details that need to be highlighted. I don’t recommend using only natural light. Either combine it with a controlled light source or go for strobes only. Natural, soft light can make a car look all right, but as I said before, you will have to emphasize certain details in the design, such as wheels or brake discs and in this case, natural light alone won’t cut it. Ideally, the more strobes the better, but obviously not everyone has access to large amounts of gear. Luckily, there are methods for getting the job done just as well, by using a single strobe. One of these methods is called light painting. Basically, it involves lighting individual sections on the surface of the car, one photo for each section with the camera firmly mounted on a tripod, and then combining the images in Photoshop. It takes a bit more work, but it’s a lot cheaper and quite fun!
4. The angles
After you decide on the location and the lighting, it is time to start working. There are many ways to photograph a car, and with each different design come optimal angles and perspectives. In a way, you are shooting a portrait, but instead of facial expressions, you’re looking for the car’s best angles. I’m guessing car designers try to make their products look good from any position, and most do to the naked eye. The camera however, isn’t so forgiving. Even if you point it in the right direction, if you’re framing isn’t good enough, if you’re not using the right focal length or aren’t at the correct distance, things will look a lot worse than they should.
Take your time and move around the car as much as you can. Impressive photos that stand out happen only if you try and look at things from multiple perspectives.
5. Exterior details
A very important part of a successful design lies in the details. Once you’ve photographed the entire car and have identified all the main features, it’s time to start looking for the small things, the exterior details that make it special. Study the lines and curves on the body work, look for the manufacturer badges, have a look at the grill, the rims and the mirrors.
6. Interior details
Not all good looking cars have good looking interiors, but those who do usually have some work done behind them so it’s worth inspecting the details here. The brand logo is likely to appear in multiple places. Check out the sewing lines, the finishing on the doors and the gear shift and don’t miss the gauges. You will need an even light for shooting the interior. If you can create it artificially, with large modifiers, that would be great, if not, you’ll just have to wait for proper ambient light
This is a great technique used frequently in motorsport photography. The basic idea is to capture the moving car in such a way that the car remains in focus while the background is blurred by the motion. In the simplest way, it requires you to stand still and synchronize the movement of your camera with that of the care. You have to move as quickly as it does. The other, more recommended way is car to car panning. You have the car you’re photographing, and a second one with you in it, both traveling at the same speed. No camera movement will be required on your part, but it might be possible for you to need to stretch out the window. Just make sure to be extra careful and stay safe!
Photos copyright PhotographyTalk member Alex Schult