How To Photograph Cars

Did you ever find yourself in a less-than-ideal situation trying to pull off a tremendous photograph? Only all the time, right? It seems like I’m always trying to pull a proverbial rabbit out of my photographic hat. Like when a client recently hired me to photograph a beautiful car in a much less than beautiful situation. What it taught me was not only how to make the most of a tough situation, but how you can learn about photographing something the right way by doing almost everything wrong.

I found myself charged with photographing a car outdoors, on a blue-sky day, in mid-morning light that crept quickly toward high noon. Oh, and did I mention that rather than doing this on a deserted city street or in the middle of the desert I was doing it in the driveway of a suburban home? And that it was the middle of a mid-Western winter? That meant there was little foliage or color to work with in the environment. And speaking of color, the car itself was bright white. All of these things add up to create a scenario that’s far less than ideal, but sometimes you just have to muddle through. So, I tried a few things to make the situation work as best I could. And here’s what I learned in the process.

The first challenge I faced was photographing the car outdoors. This taught me that, yes, I’d love to have access to a huge studio with an immense ceiling-sized softbox for illumination. But how many of us—outside of professional car photographers—have access to that kind of expensive setup? The alternative, of course, is the outdoor equivalent: lovely soft light, found when the sky glows softly and beautifully in twilight. That’s the time of day during which your car will never look better. Short of that, you can simply settle for a cloudy day, with its overcast haze that softens the sky and creates a pleasingly diffuse light source. I, of course, had none of this.

The first order of business was to deal with the sunlight. I examined the car from all angles, and found that with the sun rising over my shoulder, I had the best shot at success. I had to be careful, of course, to position the car at an angle relative to the sun that avoided creating a bright spot glare of reflection right in the middle of the car. In some cases I was able to avoid it completely, and in others I simply positioned myself at an angle to put that glare in the least obtrusive places possible. (This also reinforced the need for a diffuse light source, in case I’d already forgotten.)

I was fortunate that, given the angle of the sun, I was able to position the camera and car such that I could deal with the second major challenge: the background. This suburban yard had a stand of trees separating its backyard from the neighbors, which allowed me to simplify the background somewhat by avoiding houses and garages and street signs.

The problem with the trees in the background was that inevitably, occasionally, they protruded at less than ideal angles from the car. Given the options, though, I chose the lesser evil. Some form of obstruction was simply unavoidable, again reinforcing the importance of a wide-open, seamless space in which to work. A wide-open salt-flat would be wonderful. Or, maybe even a forest full of autumn leaves. When in doubt, look at some car commercials. That is how you photograph a car. In a pinch, though, you’ve got to work with whatever it is that will make for the simplest background.

The third thing I learned is about reflections. I was smart enough to bring along large silks, reflectors and flags, because that’s a great way to control what is the shiny surfaces of the car that would be seen. But in the end, I found that the white car managed to hide all but the strongest of reflections quite well. It was the addition of a simple polarizer that eliminated the last remaining vestiges of reflections and created the seamless beautiful surface that a soft sky would otherwise accomplish after dusk. The polarizer also helped to saturate whatever colors were there—like the blue sky and the evergreen trees. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I also found that I could layer multiple exposures together in post to create something a little better than I could accomplish in camera. For instance, at one position the polarizer removed reflections from the steel of the car doors, and at another angle it eliminated unsightly reflections from the windshield glass. By exposing separately for each of these settings, and then compositing them in the computer, I could have the best of both worlds in the finished image.

I also composited a couple of images for another reason: lighting. A shiny board reflector (matte silver) did a wonderful job of kicking a bit of light into too dark areas—like wheel wells and the quarter panels of the shadow side of the car. A large shiny board could be used to fill the whole side of the car, but I had only a small one, about 3×4 feet. So, I made multiple exposures, each time asking my assistant to reposition the reflector to add fill light to another area of the car. In the end, I composited the exposures together to create a photograph that had the entire shadow side of the car nicely filled in. (I got to use my favorite compositing alignment secret, too. Simply set the top layer to Difference via the Layers palette, and when the pixels are perfectly aligned, they disappear. It’s super-simple and works wonderfully. It’s one of my favorite little Photoshop tips.)

In terms of nuts and bolts camera settings, I also learned that sharpness is key. To that end, put my camera on a tripod, and used an aperture small enough to ensure that the depth of field would cover the car from front to back. The challenge is that too small an aperture creates too much depth of field, and turns that otherwise out of focus background into busier shapes and textures that are more likely to distract. To counteract this, I used the longest lens I could—a 70-200mm zoom set at its most telephoto end (200mm), and positioned myself as close as possible to the car without cropping into it. This allowed me to keep the depth of field as shallow as possible without sacrificing sharpness in any part of the car.

There were a few occasions when I used a much wider lens, and I learned something there, too. With a wide-angle lens very close to the car (say, 24mm just a foot or so from the front bumper) you can create a bit of distortion that adds interest to an otherwise bland arrangement. Add a bit of tilt to the composition, and suddenly there’s a hint of dynamic energy in an otherwise static composition. This is actually good advice for working with any number of subjects.

In that same scenario I also learned something important that’s very particular to cars. A low camera angle is a great way to make a car look like a true hero, elevated in stature and worthy of reverence. But, the difference between a camera position 16 inches off the ground and one that’s just a few inches off the ground amounts to night and day. Why? Because the higher position doesn’t create separation between the car and the surface on which it’s parked. Get low enough and you’ll put a bit of daylight between the chassis and the tarmac, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Can you imagine if only you could combine these tips and tricks with the benefits of an ideal situation? It would be a sure recipe for making automotive magic. Ultimately, I can’t complain. Given the challenges of the situation, we pulled off a few great shots and I learned a thing or two about photographing cars. Mostly, though, I know one thing: the next time I photograph a car, I’m going to strongly suggest on an ideal location with ideal light, and I’m going to insist that, if nothing else, it’s warmer outside than 32 degrees.

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