How to take better car photos

Many kinds of creative possibilities are available when photographing automobiles. You are proud of yours and what you have done to them. But there are good and bad ways to show others the apples and oranges of your eyes. Follow our tips and you’ll be taking better car photos in no time.

What not to do with car photography

How to take better car photos
Don’t forget detail shots. Mark Elijah

Avoid parking lines

Avoid parking your car in a parking lot with white lines peeking out from under it. They tend to be distracting and detract from the natural beauty of the vehicle, especially when the car is from a classic era and is parked in a contemporary parking lot. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, such as for flashy graphics like big arrows or colored grids, but in general, avoid stripes unless you like to spend time on post-shot retouching.

Avoid busy backgrounds

Like distracting paint stripes, heavy backgrounds can detract from a vehicle’s appearance. Remember, “the car is the star” and should be treated as such. Try shooting with a longer focal length above 120mm and a wider f-stop to minimize depth of field. Of course, make sure your car is sharp from front to back, but shoot wide enough that the background sharpness drops off quickly.

Prevent Poles From Growing On Your Car Roof

Just as you should avoid having a utility pole, cell tower, or tree growing out of someone’s head, the same applies here. It may be unavoidable in certain situations, but look at the entire scene before taking the picture.

A red car in front of a white arrow.
In general, it’s best to avoid distracting background and/or foreground elements. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with your framing. Mark Elijah

Also avoid power lines

This one is self explanatory, but easily forgotten. Always take a look around the car before taking the photo. If there are power lines overhead, change your angle, the focal length of your lens, or any other trick that eliminates distractions in the background.

Try not to give it the Jimmy Durante effect

Jimmy Durante was one of America’s most popular entertainers from the 1920s through the 1970s. Sure, it’s an outdated reference, but he was also known for having a prominent proboscis, or in other words, a big nose. Using a wide angle lens at a very close distance can give you the same effect that many photographers used when shooting During. There are always exceptions to the rules that are ready to be broken. A Tucker torpedo with its centrally located lighthouse it’s a prime example that just begs to be exaggerated in that way.

A panoramic shot of a sports car
A longer focal length will allow you to better isolate your vehicle from its background. Mark Elijah

Try not to photograph cars at a car show where they are grouped

After years of attending hundreds of outdoor car shows, we’ve found it’s best to talk to the owner of the vehicle to arrange to photograph a car in a better location at a later time. Sure, it’s a great idea to bring your camera, but keep in mind that even though they’re parked together for display, great photo situations may not present themselves here. Instead, walk around, take photos for reference, and just enjoy the show.

Don’t show traces

Unless you’re comparing the best treads for your ATV, it’s best to avoid photographing cars with the treads facing the camera. They are usually dirty, dull, and occasionally full of road grime. Instead, keep the rims straight or even turned slightly outwards, which presents a nice open face from the alloy rims to the camera.

Two of car photography

The interior of a good car.
Photograph the interior. Mark Elijah

Use a polarizing filter

Sometimes reflections look good. For example, when you are photographing a car with a large expanse of land to the side of the vehicle. But other times, you may find that the vehicle acts as a great mirror of its surroundings. That’s where a polarizing filter comes into play. Turn it until the unwanted reflections disappear. Remember though, as you walk around the car, you may need to rotate the filter again for each new position you shoot from.

Use strobe lights in daylight…if available/able

Some vehicles need a little help to highlight certain details. Many strobes offer built-in transmitters/receivers and can be operated off-camera, where lighting angles become much more interesting. We have used up to three strobes to illuminate a scene. And they’re not just for the night, either. There are many examples of the use of strobe lights in the middle of the day to open up the shadows of a vehicle.

Make the engine a work of art.

The engine of a sports car.
The engine of a Maserati is a thing of beauty. Mark Elijah

Related: Pro tips for taking the best photos when trying to sell your car

Looking under the hood of many vehicles will show many pieces of what we would call industrial art. Some of the latest examples include engines from Maserati, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. We can see that beauty is more than skin deep through clever angle or even using a well-placed strobe.

Photograph the interior like a million points of interest. Seat trim, carbon fiber trim, stitching, buttons, etc.

There are many points within the interior worthy of photographing. The detail of a precision-knurled dial on the center console or the tactile beauty of open-pore wood trim and embroidered seat details are examples of rich themes within the car.

Plan a perfect panoramic shot

Just as there is a “sunny-16” rule, there are panning rules. The starting point is a shutter speed that is in line with the speed at which the subject’s car is moving. For example, if the car is moving at 40 mph, start with a shutter speed in the same neighborhood, like 1/40 sec. Shutter priority is a perfect setting for this type of shooting as it will automatically control the aperture once you’ve set the proper shutter speed. If you want, practice on a busy street by picking up vehicles moving from left to right. Follow the car by turning your body at the waist in one smooth motion. It will take a bit of practice, but eventually, your timing and movement will start to sync up with the cars, resulting in smooth panning shots.

These are the basic rules, but they can be broken for artistic effect. Setting an even slower shutter speed will blur things considerably, but you might even love the results!

A panoramic shot of a sports car
Use a slow shutter speed while moving to create a cool motion blur effect. Mark Elijah

Tracking (car-to-car shots)

Another option, called tracking photos, allows you to blur the background while keeping the car sharp. Start with the same shutter speeds described in the Panorama section, varying them for effect. You’ll also need a friend to drive the camera rig vehicle (the vehicle you’ll be in) and another to drive the car in question.

SUVs may work better because they offer two firing points. The first is to shoot out the side window, keeping the camera vehicle out of the shot. The other is shooting out the back of an SUV. A word about safety: The safest type is a three-row vehicle where you wear your seat belt in the third row. Otherwise, the use of a captive safety harness is mandatory. These can be purchased through stores like Home Depot or Lowes.

Shoot beyond the sunset

Just because the sun is done for the day doesn’t mean you should too. Some of our best photos come from reflections in the sky after the sun dips below the horizon. The effect is more pronounced on dark vehicles, although any color will work for an overall shot of a car.

combine shots

A blue car against a blue sky.
This image is a composite of two different exposures, one made for the car and one for the sky. Mark Elijah

Using a camera mounted on a tripod, take a hero shot with a circular polarizing filter rotated, so that it eliminates reflections on the side of the vehicle. Once you’re sure you’ve got that shot, rotate the filter until the reflections on the hood and front windshield are gone, making sure not to touch the tripod. Take that shot too. Back on your computer, while on your editing platform of choice, cut out the hood and windshield parts from the second image and paste them into the overall car shot. Remember to fade the image for minimal artifacts.

It’s just the beginning of your automotive photography journey

These are by no means a definitive list of car shooting techniques. And they can be used for other types of photos as well. For example, the panning technique can be applied when it comes to motorcycles, bicycles, boats, trains, and even joggers. Consider this a starting point for where your photography can take you. And along the way, remember to enjoy the ride.

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