Life in the Fast Lane: Best Auto Photography (Part 1)

Canon EOS R6, 50mm f/1.4 lens.  1/640s at f2, ISO 100.
Canon EOS R6, 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/640s at f2, ISO 100.

But when done right, automotive photography can be amazing. Epic action, poetry in motion, exquisite design, all captured by you in perfect framing. So, turn the key, accelerate the pedal and let’s begin…

tell the right story

This tip is about what to do before removing the camera lens cap. Photographing a beautiful car in isolation is pointless, because it won’t tell any kind of story. This is where storytelling and planning can be absolutely crucial. Ask yourself, what is the message you want to convey in the frame?

This, in turn, will determine whether the shot will be a static shot or an action image, such as a pan or corner frame. If it’s a static shot, what background will help explain the narrative of the photo; For example, with classic cars, you’d go for an older background, like a wooden fence with peeling paint or rusty metal gates.

Fast lenses will allow you to create a shallow depth of field and this can be used to isolate an area of ​​the frame to focus the viewer's attention.  This image was captured at a Land Rover show that I was booked to cover.  My goal was to get away from bland, standard wide angle images.  Canon R6, RF24-105mm lens at 105mm.  1/400s at f7.1, ISO 250.
Fast lenses will allow you to create a shallow depth of field and this can be used to isolate an area of ​​the frame to focus the viewer’s attention. This image was captured at a Land Rover show that I was booked to cover. My goal was to get away from bland, standard wide angle images. Canon R6, RF24-105mm lens at 105mm. 1/400s at f7.1, ISO 250.

With newer cars, more contemporary architecture will help tell the story that this is a new design. Of course, this may well mean that the photo shoot begins without the camera entirely, rather than you driving on a reconnaissance and looking for potential locations.

Remember, think about how busy that place will be when you arrive with the car to take photos. Will the backdrop be too cluttered and will you even be able to get proper access?

What’s more, another question is whether the car is the only star in the picture; for example, if there are multiple cars in the image: a clever trick to show the evolution of a car’s design is to show it next to an older model. Lastly, including the owner/driver of the car can also help tell a story or fulfill a summary and present a more complete picture.

Capturing the mood and feelings during critical moments is key to stunning images.  The thoughtful anticipation in this racer's eyes as he prepares to hit the track at a classic car race tells the entire story of the frame, and eye contact with the camera is crucial.  Canon 5D Mark IV lens, 50mm f/1.4.  1/800s at f1.4, ISO 200.
Capturing the mood and feelings during critical moments is key to stunning images. The thoughtful anticipation in this racer’s eyes as he prepares to hit the track at a classic car race tells the entire story of the frame, and eye contact with the camera is crucial. Canon 5D Mark IV lens, 50mm f/1.4. 1/800s at f1.4, ISO 200.

Master your AF system

You can get access to amazing supercars on the best tracks, but if your images aren’t sharp, all that effort will have been wasted. It used to be the case that single shot focus (AF-S) was the preferred option when shooting static, and continuous focus (AF-C or AI Servo) was the best option when shooting a moving car.

This tracking photo was captured while hanging off the back of a Range Rover.  Hand signals were used to get the two cars into position, and a slow shutter enhanced the sense of speed.  Canon 5D Mark IV, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM 17mm lens.  1/80s at f8, ISO 160.
This tracking photo was captured while hanging off the back of a Range Rover. Hand signals were used to get the two cars into position, and a slow shutter enhanced the sense of speed. Canon 5D Mark IV, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM 17mm lens. 1/80s at f8, ISO 160.

However, things have advanced dramatically in recent years. Many more cameras, including the Canon R3 and the OM System OM-1, have dedicated focus modes designed especially for capturing moving cars and this increases the chances of sharp images much more in favor of the photographer.

Focus modes and performance vary between camera models, so it’s worth taking the time to properly learn what your camera is capable of and how to get the most out of it. Of course, let’s not forget manual focus: many photographers who take still photos prefer to work exclusively in manual focus and the Live View function of the camera allows them to zoom in and check that everything is super sharp.

Sometimes the drivers can be just as interesting as the cars.  This guy looked great and sported awesome tattoos so including him as a frame feature was important and the wide angle lens was the key to unlocking this composition.  Canon 6D, 24-70mm lens at 24mm.  1/160 s to f10, ISO 100.
Sometimes the drivers can be just as interesting as the cars. This guy looked great and sported awesome tattoos so including him as a frame feature was important and the wide angle lens was the key to unlocking this composition. Canon 6D, 24-70mm lens at 24mm. 1/160 s to f10, ISO 100.

work on your angles

One of the best pieces of advice I was giving when I first learned the trade was to never shoot a car from head height. Why? Well, because this is the angle of vision that we all see every day when we walk. Going up and down will bring new perspectives to your frames and make them more attractive to viewers.

An especially low angle makes the car look tougher, which is well suited for muscle cars, while higher angles are great for newer cars with panoramic roofs. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to composition, as the angle of the camera affects the amount of energy in the portrait.

For example, there is a technique called ‘Dutch Tilt’ and as the name suggests, the camera is tilted to tilt a car that is on a flat surface. One of my favorite techniques is to bring elements into the foreground; they can be walls or fences, as foreground interest adds depth to the frame and this results in an overall more professional feel to the photo.

Getting the best backgrounds for your car images may involve travel.  This shot was captured high up in the Austrian Alps, perfectly matching the car's rally pedigree.  Canon 5D Mark IV, 70-200mm lens at 70mm.  1/400s at f9, ISO 200.
Getting the best backgrounds for your car images may involve travel. This shot was captured high up in the Austrian Alps, perfectly matching the car’s rally pedigree. Canon 5D Mark IV, 70-200mm lens at 70mm. 1/400s at f9, ISO 200.

speed is key

There’s a reason professional auto photographers gravitate toward speed-focused cameras like the Canon R3 or 1DX, the Sony a9, or the Nikon Z 9. This is because they’re capable of capturing a huge amount of images per second. These cameras are expensive, but there are more affordable options like the OM System OM-1 (with a maximum burst speed of 120) or even older DSLRs like the Canon 7D Mark II.

The advantage of a fast burst speed is that it gives you a better chance of pocketing the perfect frame: nailing that split-second moment when the car is exactly where you want it to be, or when the wheels spin dynamically over the gravel. Along with fast burst speeds, speed can also be conveyed by slowing down the shutter speed.

Canon 7D lens, EF70-200mm f/4L USM at 188mm.  1/320s at f10, ISO 250.
Canon 7D lens, EF70-200mm f/4L USM at 188mm. 1/320s at f10, ISO 250.

Mastering the panning technique, in which the camera literally pans from side to side while using a slower shutter speed of around 1/80s, will keep the car sharp while blurring the background, and this technique can make A car traveling at 30 km/h appears to be traveling at 130 km/h.

Additional options for capturing speeding cars include follow shots where a camera is attached to a “follow car” or a photographer shoots from the back of a follow car to allow the photographer to frame a car on a curve or going around a circuit.

Simple equipment is important

The truth is, you don’t have to spend a ton of cash to fill your camera bag with useful accessories that will make a real difference in the field.

In my bag you’ll find a humble circular polarizing filter that, while best known for saturating blue skies when capturing landscape images, does a fantastic job of removing glare from the windshield so you can reveal the interior of the car.

Canon 7D, 21mm.  1/160s at f13, ISO 320.
Canon 7D, 21mm. 1/160s at f13, ISO 320.

Located next to the filter is a simple pop-up reflector, used to bounce light onto the car to lift shadows when capturing detail. If you’re new to car photography, a basic 50mm f/1.8 lens will be ideal for stills and close-ups, but if you have a bit more budget, a telezoom such as a 70-200mm lens will magnify your shots. creative options, especially when it comes to action shots.

Stay tuned for part two next week.

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