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

By Matty Graham | 2 August 2022

This is a two-part series on automotive photography. You can watch the first part, from last week, here.

don’t forget the details

While general and three-quarter compositions are great, too many photographers fall into the trap of neglecting car detail. Designer teams have spent hundreds of hours sculpting these curves, badges and grilles, and some of these little details are precisely what makes the make or model famous.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 50mm f/1.4 lens.  1/125s at f4, ISO 400.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/125s at f4, ISO 400.

The trick with detail shots is to use a shallow depth of field to isolate your subject and blur the background to help details stand out even more. Getting up close is a great approach, but this may not always be possible or desirable – macro lenses can be very useful here thanks to their 1:1 magnification ratio that will show subjects at true life size.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Tokina lens operates 50mm F1.4 FF.  30s to f7.1, ISO 250.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Tokina lens operates 50mm F1.4 FF. 30s to f7.1, ISO 250.

Change your focal lengths

While developing a signature style associated with car photography can be a good thing, shooting with the same lens can make images look a bit dated. The best way to add variation to your automotive portfolio is to change your focal length, and varying long and wide angles can add new energy to frames.

Canon EOS 7D, 10-20mm to 12mm lens.  1/200s @ f8, ISO 100.
Canon EOS 7D, 10-20mm to 12mm lens. 1/200s @ f8, ISO 100.

Ultra wide lenses will allow you to show more of the scene while making the most of foreground interest in the frame, with the wide angle widening the perspective of areas close to the lens. Meanwhile, a long lens will provide a compressed perspective, which is ideal for tighter framing.

If you have a bag full of glass, you can employ special lenses such as fisheye optics or tilt-shift lenses to correct for converging verticals if you include tall buildings in the background of your shot.

polish those pixels

In these days of digital photography, clicking the shutter is of course only half the job and processing your image is just as important as taking it. The first step on this journey is to shoot RAW instead of JPEG. While JPEGs take up less memory card space, RAW files retain more tonal data, allowing photographers to push those pixels even further, rescuing highlights in the frame and also revealing shadows when needed.

The editing process gives photographers a second chance to add their own signature style to a frame.  I wanted to bring out the colors of this classic car and take more advantage of the texture in the brick that provided additional interest to the frame.  OM O-M1 system, 45mm f/1.2 lens.  1/2500s @ f2.8, ISO 200.
The editing process gives photographers a second chance to add their own signature style to a frame. I wanted to bring out the colors of this classic car and take more advantage of the texture in the brick that provided additional interest to the frame. OM O-M1 system, 45mm f/1.2 lens. 1/2500s @ f2.8, ISO 200.

To do this, you need RAW conversion software like Lightroom, and you can speed up this processing work by developing your own presets to get the stylized look you want, like a super saturated effect or something more matte and flat.

The journey doesn’t stop here though, because once you’re done with Lightroom you can then open the file in Photoshop to further refine the image and this is where frame elements can be precisely cloned along with dirt removal. . or scratches from the side panels or windshield.

Don't forget the details!  Car design is a beautiful thing and zooming in to isolate and highlight a feature will help tell the car's story in a more compelling way.  This image was taken at a classic car event and the red detail stands out against the black paint.  Canon R6 lens, 50mm f/1.4.  1/640s at f1.8, ISO 100.
Don’t forget the details! Car design is a beautiful thing and zooming in to isolate and highlight a feature will help tell the car’s story in a more compelling way. This image was taken at a classic car event and the red detail stands out against the black paint. Canon R6 lens, 50mm f/1.4. 1/640s at f1.8, ISO 100.

Get better access

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to car photography is finding the right subjects. Just starting out photographers may have a hard time getting to grips with supercars, but there are things you can do to broaden your exposure to cool vehicles. The first is to contact your local car clubs and show up at a regional meeting.

Captured in the pit garage during a break between races, I needed to ask for some ladders to get this aerial shot – making friends with the pit crew is always worth it.  Think of how the image could be used on the pages of a magazine: leave room for text around the frame.  Canon 5D Mark IV, 17-40mm f/4 lens at 17mm.  1/125s @ f6.3, ISO 320.
Captured in the pit garage during a break between races, I needed to ask for some ladders to get this aerial shot – making friends with the pit crew is always worth it. Think of how the image could be used on the pages of a magazine: leave room for text around the frame. Canon 5D Mark IV, 17-40mm f/4 lens at 17mm. 1/125s @ f6.3, ISO 320.

Talk to people, find out the story behind their car, ask them why they bought or built it, and then offer to take some photos. Another route is to approach local car dealers; offers to provide some images for marketing material in exchange for gaining access to their most exciting car models.

As your portfolio grows, it will be easier to gain access to the racetracks as you will be able to display a website/portfolio or even attend on behalf of local media.

Look for complementary colors in the frame – this orange Porsche stands out against the blue sky and green grass.  Also prepare for critical moments;  overtaking, crashes and checkered flags.  Canon 7D lens, EF70-200mm f/4L USM at 118mm.  1/320s at f14, ISO 250.
Look for complementary colors in the frame – this orange Porsche stands out against the blue sky and green grass. Also prepare for critical moments; overtaking, crashes and checkered flags. Canon 7D lens, EF70-200mm f/4L USM at 118mm. 1/320s at f14, ISO 250.

Two wheels are great too

The reality is that many of the skills, techniques, and gear tips we’ve already mentioned are easily transferable to motorcycle and car filming. For those photographers looking to make money from their automotive images, shooting bikes and cars opens additional doors and means there are more events to cover and more magazines to sell these images.

Canon 6D, EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens.  1/250s @ f8, ISO 100.
Canon 6D, EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens. 1/250s @ f8, ISO 100.

If anything, bikes are more affordable and therefore likely to be more subjects to photograph. Even more important than that, though, is that motorcycles are beautiful machines, packed with design elements that are ripe for photography. ❂

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