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Automotive Photography How-To

Top techniques for better car photographs

Whether you’ve just purchased a new electric hybrid or you’re selling a classic convertible, photographing cars is more challenging than it looks. From the location to the lighting, the positioning of the car to the angle of the camera, there’s a lot that goes into making cars look great. This stems largely from the fact that their shiny surfaces reflect cameras, lights and objects in every direction. To that end, here are four keys to achieving top-tier automotive photography results. 

Start With A Good Location

Assuming you don’t have access to a drive-in automotive photography studio, you’re going to want to photograph your car outdoors. This is helpful both for the visual interest of the surroundings and also for the quality of the lighting. (More on that in a moment.) By shooting outdoors you’re able to use the environment to your storytelling advantage.

If you live in a city, you can choose a rough and rugged industrial environment, with brick walls and jagged steel that juxtaposes with the clean curves and shining chrome of a beautiful car. Likewise, the exact opposite location—an empty desert flat, for instance—can provide natural beauty that cars often look great in. It simply depends on what options are available and the look you’d like to achieve.

Sometimes you’re stuck in a suburban parking lot. How do you make that work? In whatever location you choose, it pays to keep the background as simple as possible. Avoiding other cars, obtrusive structures, telephone poles and fences… All of these things both reflect into the shiny surface of a car and create busy backgrounds that serve to distract from the center of attention. It’s why so much automotive photography is done in studios: because simplicity works incredibly well.

So wherever you choose to shoot, take pains to keep the background as clean as possible. And if all else fails, try raising the camera to make the pavement fill the background or do your best to ensure that whatever “stuff” is in the background is as far away and out of focus as possible.

Automotive photography

Shoot At The Ideal Time

It’s not the time of day that matters so much as the position of the sun. Because you’re shooting outdoors, the sun’s location is everything. If you shoot at noon, it will be high overhead. In the late afternoon, it will be low to the horizon. While warm, low-angle light in the magic hour can sure look great, more often than not you’ll want to photograph cars when the sun is below the horizon. Why? Because cars are shiny, polished surfaces, which makes them highly reflective. And that specular quality means cars “see” everything around them—be it the sun in the sky or the buildings nearby. To look its best, a specular surface doesn’t want a specular light source—be it a flash, or an LED light, or the sun. Shiny surfaces want the biggest, broadest, softest light sources possible. And in the case of a car, what’s bigger and softer than the entire empty sky?

In an automotive photography studio, a giant white softbox or diffusion silk is suspended above the car—sometimes measuring 30 feet in length. In lieu of this obviously expensive and cumbersome equipment, you can simply use the empty sky. With the sun below the horizon, you’re working in open shade and evenly illuminating the car’s shiny surface with a giant, horizon-to-horizon, diffuse light source. It’s beautiful and it works wonders for automobile photography.

If you’re unable to photograph your car before the sun rises or after it sets (maybe your client requires it, for instance, or you only have access to the vehicle for a brief time), you’ll want to do all you can to emulate an open-sky environment. In lieu of draping a 40-foot diffusion silk over the car, consider moving to a spot where the sun can’t fall directly onto the car. That could be adjacent to a tall building (as in the classic Corvette example shown here) or in the shade of tall trees, a mountain peak, or anything that helps keep the sun from directly illuminating the subject. You’re creating “open shade” which works well for photographing almost any subject outdoors. If you’re really lucky, a passing cloud will provide a bit of diffusion or a lightly overcast sky will save the day. The point is, do what you can to keep the light soft, even and indirect. Don’t shoot in full sun.

Automotive photography

Do The Little Things Right

Lots of little things can add up to make a big difference, and nowhere is this truer than in photography. When it comes to shooting cars, one of those little things is turning the front wheels so they’re no longer parallel with the car. This introduces a bit of dynamism into an otherwise static composition. Angled wheels imply agility and movement—great things to have in photos of fast machines that are standing still. For a similar reason, you’ll be well served to choose a low camera angle so there’s daylight, or at least visual separation, between the bottom edge of the car and the road upon which it’s sitting. This helps the car to appear less heavy and more nimble and better shows its shape. Next, you’ll notice that certain areas of the car are likely to turn dark, practically cave-like, especially if the car is a dark color. Wheels and tires, grills and ground effects… Such shadowed areas tend to suck up every bit of light. To add a bit of illumination and provide visual separation and definition, soft silver and white reflectors come in very handy. These can be as simple as poster-sized foam boards or popup reflectors placed just out of frame or on the ground. You can crop them out in camera or composite multiple frames to eliminate them in post. In a pinch or with particularly dark details, a fill flash used sparingly can add detail and definition. Just be careful how much flash you use, and watch out for unappetizing reflections on the shiniest surfaces of the car.

Another thing that goes a long way is the impact of the aperture you choose. If you’re in a studio-style controlled setup or an outdoor area with an especially attractive and detail-free background, a super-sharp aperture such as ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 might be ideal to keep the car sharp and surrounding elements in focus. But if you’re dealing with a busy background, increase the visual separation between subject and background by opening up the ƒ-stop to create shallow depth of field. Lastly, and particularly if you’ll be shooting before dawn or after dusk, turn on the car’s headlights to provide a dash of sparkle that will look great when photographed.

Don’t forget one other little thing: making photographs of the car’s details. You might like a close-up of the badge on the bonnet or perhaps a reflection catches your eye and highlights the line of the fender just so. You don’t always have to photograph the entire car to make interesting pictures, and subtle details really help tell the story of a beautiful car.

Automotive photography

Make A Plan For Post

While getting everything correct in camera is certainly the optimum way to shoot automotive photography, understanding the importance of post-processing is crucial for photographic success. This is especially true for cars, which can benefit greatly from some simple post-processing techniques. Start with the understanding that simple image cleanup doesn’t require a ton of Photoshop expertise. Small blemish removal works wonders for car shots just like it does for portraits. I like to start with the things around the car, eliminating anything that detracts attention from the car. This could be anything from cracks or stains on the foreground pavement to eliminating fence posts, telephone poles, street signs and other objects from the back. With its surroundings cleaner, the car will look better already.

Applying those same spot fixes to the surface of the car will obviously add a lot as well. This could be dings, scratches or rust spots on the body or environmental elements reflected in it. In the corvette example here, one such light pole reflection has been removed from the front fender. For this and other small fixes, I use a combination of the spot healing brush and the clone stamp. Such simple blemish removal really does go a long way to make car photos appear more professional. 

Beyond basic spot repair, you’ll also want to consider shooting your automotive photography with some specific post-processing in mind. Namely, you might consider breaking some of the rules of thumb outlined above to make more unique pictures, and compositing multiple frames together so you only get the good side effects of such creative choices while eliminating the bad. For instance, you could use a handheld flash fired from several positions around the car in order to illuminate different elements without the need for multiple lights and free from the fear of distracting glare from the flash on the car. How is this possible? Because you can always shoot multiple frames and then layer those shots together and take advantage of Photoshop’s layer mask controls to selectively show the best elements in an image while hiding those parts that don’t work—like light stands, reflectors or even an unattractive highlight. Just be sure to start with the camera on a tripod so all of the frames will line up perfectly in post.

As with many rules of thumb, great photos can be made in a variety of ways. But with the techniques above, you’ll increase your chances of success when it comes to making more attractive car photos.  

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