Taking Pictures of Cars

Dom Miliano

 With the advent of the ubiquitous digital camera, just about everyone these days fashions himself or herself as the next Ansel Adams. But the rules about what makes a good picture and what constitutes “dreck” did not changed when we went from using light sensitive silver crystals to capture our images to using electrons. You still need good composition, good lighting, proper exposure, an interesting subject and an uncluttered background. And nowhere are these rules more important than in the world of automotive photography. 

As a reader of the Vintage Racing League web site, it’s safe to assume that you have more than a passing interest in cars. So it stands to reason that you might be interested in some simple tips on how to shoot the best pictures of automobiles that you have ever made. These apply to sports cars, classics, muscle cars and just about anything else with wheels and tires.

The Basics: Photography is painting with light so, naturally, light is my first topic. The best light for automotive photography is “directional” light – that is, light that casts a shadow behind the subject. Practically speaking, that means the best light is when the sun is relatively low in the sky – early morning and late afternoon. In the movie world, they call the last hour of sunlight “the magic hour” or “the golden hour” because of the unique qualities this special light contributes to an image.



I prefer late afternoon light because as the sun sets, it keeps getting better and better. Morning light can be just a beautiful but as the sun rises, the light keeps getting harsher and less directional. The worse light is mid-day since it casts dark shadows under the car, causing the bottom edges of the vehicle to get lost in deep shadows.


 The next most important thing is background. A cluttered, tree-filled background or confusing jumble of telephone poles and fences will distract the eye of a viewer and detract from the beauty of a car.



Simple backgrounds are best. I like rock walls, ocean settings, gritty urban scenes and open country with mountains or hills in the deep background. If the car is a racer, then a race track setting is ideal. I like to clean up the ground around the car too – picking up cigarette butts and assorted debris makes for a much cleaner image.


The Pose: Just as with people, cars have a “face”. Most people have a “good” side and look best in pictures when their photo is taken from that angle. With cars, the “good side” is a front three quarters shot taken from a slightly low angle so that light can be seen under the car or slightly above eye line to capture the top rdge of the roof .


Both of these approaches give a good indication of the shape or lines of the vehicle and shows off the grill and headlights.



A real insider tip is to angle the front wheel slightly toward the camera.  Naturally, if this is a photo shoot for publication in your club magazine or for an ad to sell the vehicle, you should shoot a rear three quarters shot, a full side shot, a head-on and a rear-on shot as well.


Engine and interior shots are a little trickier because of the lighting challenges. I almost always use a flash to fill in the darker areas and soften shadows.

On most modern cameras and flash units, you can dial back the power. I start with a minus one full stop (-1) flash setting (keeping the camera at its normal exposure) and then look at the digital screen to see if I like what I got. If not, I adjust – more light or less light from the flash – until I get the look I want.   


Advanced Concepts: The camera, or more accurately, the lens is a very important ingredient in the job of making a good picture of a car. I find longer focal length lenses deliver the best pictures of cars. These lenses, called telephotos, give a car a muscular, aggressive look and accentuate (even flatter) the vehicle’s lines. I have taken pictures of cars with lenses as long a 500MM but good images can be made with lenses that are in the 70-100MM range.


Using a wide angle lens or even a fish eye lens may make a dramatic and graphic picture but I never find them flattering so I tend to use wide angle lenses sparingly when I make images of a car’s exterior.



Again, that’s my personal preference. Your judgment may be different.



There are two schools of thought on the use of tripods for car shots. Some say “always” and others say “never”.  And, believe it or not, both are right! One photo editor told me he used a medium format camera for years (big, heavy and slow) to make salon images of cars. It was always firmly mounted on a tripod to ensure an exact composition and tack sharp focus. Then one day, he switched to 35MM and tossed the tripod. Because he was shooing hand-held, he was free to roam around the car at will. He said that freed him creatively and he said he was able to get new and different shots that showed never before seen angles – laying on the ground or shooting down from a ladder. At a car show (as seen in the above shot) no tripod would be possible so you need to be flexible in yoru approach.  For him, in this new phase of his art, he found freedom and inspiration. Me, I use a tripod a lot – especially when I have a telephoto lens mounted on my camera. It helps me slow down and make stronger compositions and it eliminates the chance of camera shake (especially if I have had a few espressos!)  Two schools, both correct!


Final Tips. I like using polarizing filters on my lenses and I always use a lens shade to help eliminate flare and glare from the sun. The polarizer deepens colors (especially the blue sky) and helps tone down reflections. NOTE - Most modern autofocus cameras require a special type of polarizing filter (i.e., circular vs. linear) so you should read the owner’s manual that came with your camera to be sure which of the two types is recommended. The lens shade (often provided “free” with a lens but not always) fits over the end of the lens and prevents stray light from washing out your image. All of my lenses have them and I use them without exception.


These are some tips on taking static pictures of your car. Next time we’ll discuss action pictures and the challenges of taking good shots at a car show or concours.



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