How To Photograph Your Car: The Basics

Car Culture / 3 Comments

For fun, for art, or for getting those Instagram likes.

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If you fire up your camera or camera app and aim it at your car, then tap the button, you've just taken a snapshot. If you think about where the camera is, where and how the vehicle is positioned, then you tap the button, you've just taken a photograph.

You can max a credit card on the highest-end camera bodies and lenses, but if you're not thinking about what's in the frame and being deliberate about the camera in relation to the subject, it's going to be just a picture of an object. The good news is that it isn't difficult to take a decent photo that will help show off your car and get those likes on social media. Like us, you won't be having Instagram photo battles with the likes of Larry Chen, but we can help get you started.


Location And Background

Whether you're using your phone or a dedicated camera for Instagram or simply for the fun of documenting your pride and joy, the basics matter. Location. Is. Everything.

A car photograph should make a statement, tell a story, or show the car off to its fullest. The best pictures tell a story, but it doesn't need to be a novel. Maybe it shows that the car has stopped on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere, suggesting a long drive. Perhaps it's parked up in a turnoff overlooking some scenery, on a deserted desert highway with the road stretching out to the horizon, or parked on a busy city boulevard as dusk falls and the night is starting. If you want to tell a story, make sure it says something more than, "This is a car." For example, the first picture below tells the story of someone that took the wrong Mazda into the mountains.

A good tip for choosing a background is to choose one with as little distraction that you don't want as possible. Again, though, it's a rule that can be broken if you use good judgment - a case in point being the set we shot with the Porsche Macan a little earlier this year. Road signs are a frustrating example of clutter when shooting cars, as are telegraph poles and electricity pylons.

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Light And Time Of Day

There's a ton of advice on the internet about the best time of day for photographing a car, and it's mostly nonsense. It all depends on the shot you want or when and where you are when an opportunity for a fantastic photo strikes. That doesn't mean there aren't easier times and types of light to look out for, though. Cloudy days diffuse the light, so you don't have to watch for bright spots or glare so much on the car, and opens up shooting angles, whereas a cloudless day in the middle of summer is going to be more challenging with its harsh, direct light.

Sunset and sunrise are going to bring a yellow or orange glow to the scene, including the car, while shooting just before sunrise and just after sunset will give everything a blue tint. In photography, these are generally known as golden hour and blue hour. However, it's a mistake to think of these as the best times. They are simply options. Below, the first two shots are obviously right at the end of sunset, but the Volvo C40 was shot mid-afternoon in Palm Springs in early summer at around 3 PM using shadows. The off-road Bronco Raptor photograph was taken in the desert at the peak of summer at around midday.

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The Basic Angles

There's always a point in time when the basic rules can be broken, but for the real amateurs out there, the fundamentals provide the right playground to test out many of the other suggestions here. One such fundamental is sticking to a basic set of angles for a car.

While you're free to add any extra angles you want, the basic framework of a standard shoot should include a few staples. Single-angle shots like full-frontal, rear-view, and side-profile photos are the real primaries, followed by your three-quarter views both front and rear. These five angles will mean that even if your experimental angles don't turn out as planned, you still have several shots that look good.

Unless you're trying to focus on a particular design element, like broad haunches, or a ducktail trunk, you want to showcase the subject matter as best as possible. While photographing your significant other for their OnlyFans might necessitate you pick an angle from which they look as skinny as possible, when you photograph a car, a good basic rule is to include as much of the car as possible in the shot.

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That's the primary rule for a front or rear three-quarter view (showcasing the front and side of the car). For these shots, pick an angle in which you can see both head- or taillights and the side of the car in full, making sure that neither is completely covered in shadows.

For full-frontal, profile, or rear-view shots, getting dead on and as centered as possible is best. There's nothing worse than a phenomenal shot where the lighting, scenery, and car are sublime, but you realize afterward that you were slightly off-center.

The most basic car shot is to put the light behind you and the car angled so the front and side are clearly lit. We've seen advice to "always angle the wheels to the camera" for that shot, but formulas and conformity are the enemies of creativity. This is supposed to be fun, so play with the light, shadows, and angles. As you can see in the photo of the Kia K900 below, it can be fun to break the rules once you know them.

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Step Back And Get Down To Take Your Photo

Rules can be broken later, but a good one to start with is to get some distance between yourself and the car and crouch to get an interesting angle. Stepping back not only helps get the background in to help tell your story but can avoid that fisheye-like distortion of the subject on camera phones. With purpose-built cameras with an adjustable lens, the same can apply, but using a longer focal length narrows the view and increases the magnification of the subject and is worth playing with. It's something we can get into more technically in a later article about shooting with a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.

Once you've found a nice angle to frame your shot from, it's also worth experimenting with getting the camera lower and higher. Getting really low can create some significant effects, while going a little higher can help the story by bringing elements of the scene into view or highlighting them.

CarBuzz/Ian Wright CarBuzz/Ian Wright CarBuzz/Ian Wright 2021-2022 Lamborghini Huracan STO Rear Angle View CarBuzz/Ian Wright
2021-2022 Lamborghini Huracan STO Rear Angle View

The common mistake here is getting too low for every shot. Some shots work when taken from right at ground level but can often hide a significant portion of the subject matter. The purpose of getting down low or up high is to find a new perspective that the viewer wouldn't get from a standard eye level. Again, getting more car in the shot typically leads to a better shot, but this is a guideline and not a firm rule.

A few solid starting heights are the headlights, taillights, and shoulder lines of the vehicle - these are points that we're seldom positioned level with unless you're a child or particularly short, and will create an entirely new perspective of the car. It's particularly true of very low cars, like a Mazda Miata, which are usually viewed from a towering perspective. Start at these points and move up or down slightly to find the angle that works best. Depending on the shape of the hood, getting too low can obscure a large portion of the car, making it look awkwardly proportioned and not showcasing its best traits.

The rear three-quarter shot of the M2 CS above is a very low-angle shot, but it works because the trunk and spoiler extend higher than the taillights, framing these elements within the bodywork. The full-frontal shot is slightly higher than headlight level, which allows the hood vents to be visible in the frame; any lower, this wouldn't be the case.

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Taking Your Shot

If you've read other articles about photography, you've probably come across the rule of thirds. The idea is that if you imagine your frame is split by lines equal distance apart three ways horizontally and three ways vertically and place your subject where lines meet, you'll get a pleasingly composed image. It's worth using to start with and get an idea of composing shots, but there's no real reason you shouldn't put the car in the center of the shot. It's a rule that isn't really a rule if you don't want to use it.

Once you have all the elements of the shot in your frame, it's time to take a closer look and make sure there are no reflections you want to avoid. Reflection can be your friend, but one of the worst things that can happen as a photographer is to get an awesome shot only to realize later that you're in it. If you're using a traditional camera, it's time to get a polarizer on your lens to help control reflections. Also, make sure there's no tree growing out of the roof or half a bright yellow sign adding to the car's shape. In the photo below, you can see that just repositioning the car just a little would have made for a better composition.

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A Quick Word On Cameras And Settings

If you're getting into automotive photography and have just bought a camera, how much do you need to worry about settings?

The software for automatic settings will take care of you 99.999% of the time. One of the only things you'll ever need to worry about is whether the flash should be on or not - the answer is usually to turn it off.

In general, though, modern camera technology is fantastic. Something like the Canon EOS 300D (also known as Digital Rebel) can be picked up new and used inexpensively and comes with a decent lens. Some of the shots used in this feature were taken with one. The rest were taken with a five-ish-year-old camera body that cost around $2,000 new but was picked up for much less. The lens is nothing special, either.

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A common mantra amongst photographers is that they only use manual settings. This is foolish.

The different camera settings are there to make life easier and help prevent you from missing a shot. Fully automatic will cover most photos for beginners, but it's worth digging into the modes where you set one setting, like aperture or shutter speed, for what you want, and the camera takes care of the rest. There's also typically a sport mode for when you need a high shutter speed to catch the action. However, for dynamic shots of moving vehicles, it's better to work out your own shutter speed so that it doesn't freeze the car and make it look like it's standing still. You at least want the blur of the wheels spinning, but we'll get into that in a later and more advanced article.

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Smartphone Photography

There's an adage in photography circles that the best camera you have is the one you have on you at the time. If all you have is a smartphone, the good news is that the cameras are amazing now, and it's always with you. They do have limits, but they stretch every generation and get exponentially better. For reference, each of the photos in the two galleries below was shot with a smartphone.

For the most part, the basics we've already discussed all apply to smartphone photography. However, the important thing is to know the limitations of your phone camera.

The biggest of these is low-light photography. The sensors on smartphones are nowhere near as good as those on modern cameras. The size and space constraints of a mobile phone mean the sensors are simply too small, so there's a limit to how much light can be absorbed. Taking photos after the sun has gone down or in artificially-lit parking garages, for example, can lead to noisy/grainy photos. You can see a tiny bit of that in one or two of the shots below.

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That doesn't mean your photos should be taken under the mid-day sun, either. Phone cameras don't have the option of a polarizer, but there is a way around this. If you've got polarized sunglasses, holding them in front of the camera lens can act as a makeshift polarizer to get rid of glare. It's not a perfect solution, but in a pinch, it'll do.

Smartphones used to be disadvantaged by not having the ability to swap lenses, but modern smartphones have multiple. Play around with these, and learn the limitations of your wide-angle (0.5x), standard (1x), and zoom (3x) lenses, as each frames the car and its surroundings differently and affects the image quality. The wide-angle lens might create some interesting shots, but we believe it should only be used to draw more background into the shot - like an interesting sky - rather than to take a photo in close confines and get the whole car in. It makes the proportions look odd, so should be used with caution.

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Final Word: Editing

Editing is a whole new subject. However, editing becomes easier if you've composed and shot the photo right in the first place. Any basic photo editor can do everything we talk about here. The first thing to do is clean up the image by straightening it and making sure things like the horizon are straight, then using the crop tool to finesse the composition. Most editing programs have a spot-removing tool that can remove any distracting spots from dust on the camera lens or that one white stone on the black tarmac. Then it's time to fine-tune the exposure to increase or decrease brightness. Something to remember is that it's easier to bring out detail in an underexposed image and hard, if not impossible, to recover detail in overexposed images.

For the absolute basics, we would also recommend playing with bringing up shadow levels when photographing cars, as a lot of detail can be lost there. Vibrance and saturation are also worth investigating and experimenting with. The single biggest mistake we see people make, including ourselves occasionally, is over-editing images. The trick here is to finish your edit, walk away for five minutes, then come back and look at it with fresh eyes.

Below are simple edits on a single image using exposure, shadows, vibrance, saturation, contrast, and clarity. Clarity is a slider in software that should be used with particularly great care.

See you on Instagram!

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