It’s the hunt that keeps us going. It’s the hunt that keeps us hungry for the next one. The hunt for the unobtainable. The hunt for the perfect picture. It’s our personal holy grail. We always think that we got the perfect shot, but when we finally sit in front of our digital darkrooms, it’s that moment when we see that photo on the big screen that we realize it is close, but, in reality, its not quite there. It’s our endless quest. And we love every moment of it -- we artisans of exposure, we light capturers.
Hello, fellow photographers, my name is Linhbergh, and I’ve had the absolute blessing of being a professional automotive commercial photographer for a little over seven years now. I’ve had the privilege flying around the world to capture all kinds of automobiles and to sample a plethora of car culture. During my years, I’ve shot hundreds of various types of cars; supercars, exotics, race cars, vintage collectables, hot rods, to street tuned imports. So, here are ten tips about car photography I’ve learned during my time behind the camera.
10. Location, location, location
So you have a car that you’d like to shoot, but where would you like to shoot it? Do you think it’ll look good in a downtown area? An industrial park? Outside city limits? On a country road? Or way out in the middle of nowhere?
It’s important to find a location that will compliment the car, but won’t detract away from the car itself. A graffiti wall sure looks amazing, but will suit a 1987 Ferrari F40, or a 1957 Porsche 356A Speedster?
In my experience, it is best to have as clean of a location as possible. You want a location that’ll emphasize and make the subject look overall sexier. What you don’t want is the location to take so much attention from the car that it becomes 3rd wheel to the location. Because remember, the car is the star.
PRO-TIP: Try your best not to shoot a car in a parking lot. If you absolutely have to, find a good parking lot with a view.
9. f/deep isn’t always best
A sharp photo, is, and always will be, a sharp photo. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good photo. When you look at a photo, you’re suppose to feel something. It doesn’t matter what you’re feeling. But if you have some bubbling sensation of a mysterious something going on inside your bowels when you look at a photo, then it did its what the artist meant for it to do.
Step out of that usual car-in-focus-with-everything comfort zone, pop on a fast lens, take it off that tripod, open that aperture up, and play around. When the stars align just right, and something is out of focus, it creates a photo that has some feeling to it. And when its all said and finished, that’s not a bad thing at all.
8. The CPL is your friend
You’ve seen the photo before. It’s two photos of a small quaint pond. One photo is of a serene green pond with a giant sun reflection on the water, the other is the same shot but with a circular polarizer taking away the reflections and thus revealing a school of carp relaxing in the sun.
The circular polarizer, or CPL, does exactly that on anything that’s reflecting on an automobile. Is there a giant reflection on the front windshield? Turn that CPL, utter one of the three Unforgivable Curses, and watch those reflections be no more!
So, when in doubt, CPL.
7. Don’t stick to the same shots
When it comes to car photography, there’s always the usual shots: front and rear 3/4, front and rear 7/8s, side profile, and of course, the wide angle interior. By all means, get those shots, they’re the gold standard of car shots for a reason. But whenever you’re good and done getting those shots in, think outside the usual and do something different. Put the camera down, and take a minute to walk around your surroundings. Keep an eye on interesting foreground or background elements.
See a tiny slivery of light that’s beaming in between those two buildings? What would happen if you put your car there and meter to that tiny sliver of light? Are you surrounded by some awe inspiring landscapes around you? Think about pulling away, and get a photo of the car where the landscape dominates the frame and the car is a mere ant.
Are you shooting a car with some rather interesting bits of detail? Grab a telephoto lens, and come closer to focus on those details.
The key to having a variation for the photo set, is to see differently. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Lay on your stomach. Walk into the weeds. Hike up a hill. Climb a ladder. Shoot from the middle of a lake. Come into each shoot with a fresh mind, while shying away from your usual safe zone.
6. Moving shots go a long way
Cars are designed to do one major thing: to drive. So outside of getting those amazing static shots of the car, get a few shots of the car moving! Pan on the side of the road, hop in another vehicle to shoot car-to-car shots (just make sure you’re not the one driving!), or use a car rig. In my experience, car owners go nuts over any shots of their car rolling around. It’s worth the extra effort.
5. Know your subject
What kind of car are you shooting? What year is it? Is there a specific quirk you should know about it? Is it the 2.4L or the 2.2L?
These are all questions, plus many others, you should be asking yourself about the car you’re planning to shoot. Knowing what you’re shooting will help you on set in ways you never planned incase something arises. Nine out of ten times the car owner will be with you as you shoot incase any problems arise, but knowing exactly what you’re getting into will help ease any car owners’ nervousness if anything does come up.
4. Have a vision
Go into a shoot with a vision in mind. Do you want it to be dark and moody? Light and whimsical? Or maybe even modern and clean? No matter what you envision for a shoot, it’s good to have, what I would call, an assignment for it.
Think about how you want the overall shoot to look once you’re done with the images, and from there, mentally assign (or even write down), what you need to achieve your overall look. This then it leads to my next point….
3. Plan ahead
So you have your vision, and you know where you want to shoot the subject. The next thing to do is to put it all together. The planning phase, aka preproduction, is the most important part of any shoot. If you get this part right, your actual shoot day will go very smoothly.
Ask yourself; Do I need a permit for the location you’re shooting at? If not, will I get kicked out of the location by the local authorities? If I do get kicked out, do I have secondary or tertiary location in mind? When will the sunset? Where will it set? What will the weather be like? Do I want/need to bring external lights to light the car? What color is the car, and how will it react to sunlight/external lighting? Do I need to bring water or snacks? Have I recharged all my batteries? Are my memory cards empty? Are my filters clean? Is there enough gas in the car? Is there gas in my own car?
Plan, plan, plan, and plan. The more you do before hand, the less you have to do when the shoot day does come around.
2. Don’t look at the car, as a car.
If you boil photography down to its most simple definition, it becomes the act of capturing reflected light. Take this same rationality to photograph cars.
When you’re on set, do yourself a favor and try not to oogle and ahh over what super car, exotic, or rare vintage car is in front of you. Save that moment when you’re in the relative privacy of your computer screen scanning through the day’s shots. Doing so will not do you any favors. Thinking about how amazing a certain car is, or how lucky you are to be even photographing it could even impede on your creative process. Instead, think of the car as a simple object that has various surfaces which reflect light. Each surface reflects light differently so you have to think about how you want that light to bounce back into your camera’s sensor.
So remember, that beautiful car in front of you? It’s not a car. ;)
1. Love anything, and everything about cars
There’s always the saying, if you don’t love what you’re doing, then you should not do it to begin with. So, if you’re photographing cars, you better love everything about cars, and every car under the sun. My requirement is this: everything with four wheels should give you a nice warm, comforting, soul food-y, and that I-wanna-do-bad-things feeling.
That feeling needs to surface when you see a Bugatti Veyron, Pagani Huayra, classic Thunderbird, Citroen DS, Mark 1 VW GTI, 2002 Chrysler Prowler, 1999 Mazda RX-7, or a 1928 Pierce-Arrow 36.
Basically, your love of cars needs to envelope the entire fabric of your being.
Happy hunting, fellow photographers!