Shoot to Thrill: 14 Secrets to Taking Great Car Photos From a Professional Photographer
Want to show off your baby on the ‘gram? Try these pro photo tricks.
If you have a car you’re proud of, eventually you’re going to want to take some memorable—and sharable—photos of the wonderful machine. You can, of course, take it to a cool spot, snap some images with your smartphone, and be done. But if you put just a bit more thought and effort into it, you can create images that you’ll be as proud of as you are of the car itself.
The 14 examples below—learned over my years of automotive photography—illustrate some key considerations and strategies for shooting cars. The overarching take-home, however, is essentially the same as it would be in other forms of photography: Think about what you’re doing. Don’t just take a snapshot in front of a cool building or a mountain; instead, pay attention to composition, lighting conditions, background, angles, camera settings, and so forth. You don’t have to know everything about photography, but just taking your time and thinking out even a couple of the many aspects that go into a good photo can make a world of difference.
Car Photography Rule #1: Chase the light
The rule of golden-hour shooting is hugely important. The hour after sunrise and the one before sunset offer the best light for photos; low-angle sunlight adds warmth and texture to the image, and the generally-dimmer lighting allowing you to balance the image elements more easily. But don’t pack it in once the sun goes down: I shot this BMW i8 one evening when it was clear that the sky was shaping up to deliver some spectacular colors after the sun set. Pay attention to clouds, and work hard to get the shot dialed-in, relative to the exposure.
Also, remember that if you want foreground and background equally sharp, bump up the aperture's f-stop to higher values—between, say, f/14 to f/20—while adjusting the exposure to compensate for the increasingly dark image. This was shot at about f/14, but I should have gone a bit higher, since the background is a hair out of focus. (Higher apertures also generate the flares from points of light, as seen in the headlights.)
Also, try to keep the ISO as low as possible, to reduce the amount of grain in the final image. The best way to do that is to use longer exposures, which you can do in situations like this—even just one or two seconds—if you have a tripod.
Car Photography Rule #2: Control your depth of field
De-focusing the background—a technique called bokeh—highlights your subject. You do this by setting the aperture as wide as possible (f/2.8, f/4) and compensating for the brighter image by boosting the shutter speed. If you compose the shot right, the image will be stronger, and have the benefit of a dash of artistic flair as well. Thus, the Bugatti Chiron image above, shot in Los Angeles.
Car Photography Rule #3: Pursue your visions
Sometimes you get a little tickle of an idea driving down the road. I had this Rolls-Royce Phantom for three days in Los Angeles, and thought it would be fun to shoot the car with an airplane in the background at the airport. There are plenty of great spots to observe the airplanes at LAX, but there aren’t many places to set up a shot like this one. While I was studying the area on Google Maps—a great resource in general for automotive photography—I noticed all the long-term parking lots directly under the approach path. So I drove up, paid my way onto the lot for $8 per hour, and found myself with an enormous expanse of quiet, low-traffic pavement right under the airplanes. I shot there for two hours—tracking incoming airplanes via an app called FlightRadar24—and came away with dozens of cool images.
Car Photography Rule #4: Surprise people
Sometimes a direct, straight-down-the-middle shot can be surprisingly impactful, especially when you do something novel with the context. This Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class was shot in Beverly Hills during the holiday season—hence the extra lighting. It took about 20 laps around the block to get it, but it was fun and a surprising way to feature the environment I shot it in.
Car Photography Rule #5: Get inside
Interiors are important part of the driving experience, but capturing them can be a challenge. I like to shoot with something to see in the window, so for this image of the Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid, I lined it up with some mountains and hotels in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy. The background is blurred slightly, but I could have made it sharper via a higher aperture—or even made it the opposite, with a sharp background and blurred foreground.
Car Photography Rule #6: Avoid shooting at eye level
An easy trap to fall into is always shooting at eye level—as in, the view you get while standing in front of the car. Though that’s the most natural starting point, it’s also the least flattering angle for a car, partially because it’s familiar but mostly because it’s not how cars are best viewed. So go high or go low. You can use a ladder or step-stool for the high angles, of course, but in this case I only had to hold the camera up as high above my head as I could.
Car Photography Rule #7: Avoid the obvious shots
Shooting a car in a parking lot is easy. The trick is to make it not look like you’re shooting in one. To do this, get in tight or down low, to ensure that the surface markings don't betray you. This also helps make background objects—in this case Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles— look stronger.
Note, as well, that you don’t have to feature the whole car in every shot. Capturing just a sliver of it can make for fascinating images.
Also try to avoid the obvious side-of-the-road shot. You see these in national parks, at scenic overlooks in the mountains, and especially go-to driving spots like Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. If you have a gorgeous setting, work to create a great composition that takes advantage of it. This Porsche 718 Cayman GTS was shot by the side of the road amid the redwoods of northern California, but I pulled the car a bit farther into the trees to ensure no actual road was visible. (Sometimes, of course, you want the road in the shot, but make sure it’s done in an interesting way—seen through the windshield, perhaps, or with the road swinging past the car while you shoot between the two, from down low.)
Car Photography Rule #8: Use the location to your advantage
In each of these cases, I set out to find a location that took advantage of the context—a snowstorm in one, the energy of downtown Seoul in the other. But driving around for an hour both times paid off.
Car Photography Rule #9: Capture the quirks
Some cars have unique features that you’ll likely want to celebrate. The scissor doors in the BMW i8 are great examples, as is the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament on the Rolls-Royce Phantom, shown here. Focus on finding novel or surprising ways to shoot these features. For this image, I mounted a GoPro directly behind the hood ornament and then drove around town with the camera in time-lapse mode shooting two-second exposures. After a few miles, I had hundreds of frames that ordinarily would be stitched together into a single movie. But that wasn’t my goal—I just used that specific feature to get the camera to shoot continuously. I went through the images, found the 5 or 10 with the best light streaks, and processed just those.
Car Photography Rule #10: Shoot vertically
Vertical images look better on mobile devices, so don’t forget to fold some into your shooting. The challenge is creating satisfying vertical composition of overwhelmingly horizontal subjects. The answer is partly obvious—don’t shoot the car from the side—but it also involves finding nicely balanced strategies for filling the frame, It could be using a segment of the car or having prominent foreground or background objects.
The image on the left is a personal favorite: the Starlight Headliner in the Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge, with the actual Milky Way in the background. This was in Death Valley, California; it took me two hours in 110-degree heat (after dark, no less) to set it up. I had to place gaffer tape on all the interior lights because the exposure needed to be 30 seconds to pull in the Milky Way, and the lights would have blown out the image. Shooting this was a great adventure, and a memorable night—made sweeter by the fact that I successfully executed the vision.
Car Photography Rule #11: Use backlighting
Shooting with the sun in the background is a challenge, and requires some editing work after the shot. To get images like this, expose the frame so that the sun looks as you want it, and then go in later and brighten up the foreground by raising the shadows and lowering the highlights, both of which are easy settings to adjust in most photo editing software.
Try a variety of settings while shooting, and see which one lets you balance the image the best later. (Learn how to use editing software to touch up your images, as they rarely come out of the camera perfect. Most every image you see from the pros has had some work done to it.)
Car Photography Rule #12: Fill the frame
Many photographers start with wide-angle lenses, most commonly a 24-70mm zoom. It’s a great lens, but I’ve found you can fill the frame better with a telephoto. A 70-200mm zoom lets you compose much tighter images, with distant background objects nicely magnified, as here with the Porsche Panamera. You might have to walk 50 or so yards away from the car to get it, but the results can be fantastic.
Another tip: Don’t forget to turn on the headlights while shooting, since that usually makes for a stronger image. If it’s during the day, use the brights, too.
Car Photography Rule #13: Rope in your friends
Shooting car-to-car is a thrill, but use common sense. Don’t do it on public roads—parks can be good for stuff like this—and don’t roll around the back of an SUV. If you don’t have a proper harness setup, just shoot from the back seat of a hatchback with the rear lid open.
When shooting cars in motion, “drag” the shutter by setting it between 1/40 and 1/60 of a second in shutter-priority mode. (That's the “S” on the control dial—it lets you adjust the shutter speed while it sorts out everything else.) Hold the camera steady, and fire away.
Car Photography Rule #14: Don’t hit them over the head
It doesn’t have to be entirely about the car. In fact, sometimes the most beautiful images emerge when you dial down the car’s presence in an image, as I did here with the Rolls-Royce Dawn in Cape Town, South Africa. Let the environment lead you to the best shot—just remember that it may not be what you expect.
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