We baby them. We wash them. We buy them accessories. No doubt about it, we humans love our cars. We love them so much that we include them, to a certain degree, in our family records. Who doesn’t have a photo of himself holding the keys to his brand new car? Or one of the kids sitting in the back seat on a road trip? Our cars are a big part of our lives, so it’s almost a given that they deserve some space in the family album.
But here’s the funny thing about cars—they’re ubiquitous. Every city street has got parked cars, moving cars, sitting-in-traffic cars and everything in between. If you’re going to photograph your car—or any other car—you have to do something to make it look different from all those other, run-of-the-mill cars. You have to make it seem special, unique and worth looking at. So for this lesson, let’s focus on capturing some really stand-out photos of cars.
You knew I was going to say it, because if you’ve ever tried taking photos of a car (especially a shiny one), you already have some understanding of how tricky the lighting can be. Very bright, overhead light of the sort you will find at midday is no more flattering for a car than it is for a person. And even lower light that reflects off of that shiny paint is not going to be such a good thing, because it’s going to create glare in all the wrong places. The best time to photograph a car, then, is two minutes after the sun goes down, or two minutes before the sun comes up. That’s because there’s no direct light in the scene at all, only that soft, post-golden hour light. And there’s still enough of it to get a good exposure.
This may mean you’ll need a tripod, of course, because what you don’t want to do is compensate for the low light that you’ll have at this time of day by turning up your ISO. Noise is a detail-killer, and you can’t let that beautiful, shiny paint be marred by digital noise. So keep your ISO down, and mount your camera on a tripod instead. As long as your subject isn’t moving, you can use a slow shutter speed to get a crisp, low-noise image of your subject.
Shooting at this time of day is going to help keep glare off of your subject, but remember that you also need to pay close attention to other things that are reflected in that shiny paint job. If you’re in a busy setting such as a city, you’re going to end up with reflections of buildings, people, trollies or whatever happens to be behind you when you take the photo, and unless you’re looking for them you probably won’t even notice those reflections until you return home and start viewing those images on your computer screen.
It’s always best to park your subject in a place where the reflections will be limited. Parking next to a field, for example, would be a good idea (make sure to orient the field or other open space behind you). And watch out for your reflection, too. Nothing breaks up a beautiful paint job like some guy and his tripod.
You can use light painting techniques to photograph your car after dark, too. The trick is to find a location where there aren’t any street lights and shoot on a moonless night. Simply set your camera up on a tripod and put it in BULB mode. With a flashlight, walk around the car and “paint” in the details. Because a flashlight isn’t a strong light source you won’t get any glare off your subject provided that you don’t spend too much time on any one part of the car. This takes some practice, but you can get great results with only a little bit of effort.
Raining Fire by Flickr user nate.stevens
Just as important as what’s in front of your car is what’s behind it. Make sure you choose a background that’s both complementary and non-distracting. Other cars, for example, will steal the spotlight, even if they’re nowhere near as cool looking as your subject. So will a lot of buildings, pedestrians, billboards, power lines, etc. Choose a simple background—walls are a great place to start. You could also park your car on the crest of a hill, which will give you nothing but the sky as a background. Do this close to sunrise or sunset, and you’ve got a recipe for a great photo.
Don’t forget to color-coordinate, too. Find a background that works with your car’s paint job, but make sure that the color of that background doesn’t also overwhelm your subject.
I’m sure you’re more than familiar with the “glam” shot, that is, that photo that every car manufacturer uses whenever advertising the latest and greatest model in a glossy magazine. This shot typically includes the whole car, and is taken from a low vantage point (usually the same height as the tire), which makes the car look larger than life and therefore more impressive. This is a great place to start your photo session, but don’t forget that the glam shot isn’t the only way to photograph a car. Little details like the car’s logo, the hubcaps, the front grille and the taillights—these closer shots make great images, too. So after you’ve achieved that perfect glam shot, spend some time zooming in on those little details. And don’t forget the mid-shots, too. Zoom out a little and get some images that will make your viewer feel like he’s walking around the car. For example, shoot across the side of the car, towards the front tire. This angle will give your viewer a sense of going places—the car is getting ready to drive off, or the viewer is getting ready to climb into the driver’s seat.
Cars are not just about what you see on the outside—don’t forget those interior details, too. The steering wheel, gear shift, seats—all of these little details can really give your viewer a sense of the car as a whole. You can also try sitting behind the wheel and shooting towards the windshield—now you’re telling your viewer what it’s actually like to drive the car.
This is a lot less simple than photographing a parked car, but done correctly you can get a striking image of a moving car. The thing to remember is that using a fast shutter speed is generally not the way to go, unless there’s something else in the shot to indicate speed (such as flying dirt). It doesn’t matter how fast your subject is moving, if you freeze the action your photo is just going to look like a shot of a parked car sitting on the road. For moving cars, you need a little bit of blur so that your viewer recognizes that your subject is moving.
One way to accomplish this is by panning, though panning is a skill that takes some practice to master. Remember that you don’t have to shoot your subject moving at 60mph in order to create an impressive image. That’s going to be difficult to pull off anyway, not to mention dangerous. Instead, just stand on the side of the road (please choose a road that isn’t very busy) and let your subject drive slowly past you.
You’ll need a shutter speed somewhere in the 1/125th range. Stand so that the car will be parallel to your position when it passes (it’s possible to get a panned shot of a car that’s approaching you at an angle, but that’s more difficult). Now move your camera with your subject, so that your subject remains in the same position in the viewfinder throughout the exposure. It’s best to start panning first, then release the shutter, and continue to pan until the exposure ends. That way you’ll get smooth pan streaks throughout the image. You can also try slower shutter speeds to create a more dramatic effect.
Flying dirt and mud is another great way to capture action in a car photo, but again, definitely exercise caution when shooting these kinds of images. You can take a car out on a dirt road and hit the brakes to create some dust, but make sure that you’re not damaging the road or angering the neighbors. A better way to shoot this sort of image is to visit a dirt-track racing event or other similar, dirt-and-mud-producing affair.
Since you’re probably going to start off photographing your own car, you can spend a lot of time on this one. Experiment with different locations and different camera angles. Give your car a good wash and bring along some supplies for getting rid of dust and smudges while out in the field. And think hard about what your car’s best features are. Whether you drive a Ford or a Ferrari, there is going to be some little feature or angle that’s really going to make your car look its best. Focus on your car’s best qualities, and try take some really well-thought-out images. Who knows, if you get good at this you might even find someone who’s willing to loan out a Ferrari for an afternoon, provided you can give him some great glam shots in return.
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