You polished your car, and it glows in late afternoon light. The sun, filtered by a tree, is behind the car, so it casts dappled shadows. You pull out your phone to capture the dramatic image.
Later, you have a look. What’s this? The photo is dull, the shadows are black, and the background is burned out. The car is awkwardly positioned and tilted. You’ve fallen victim to both the limits of cellphones and poor photography decisions.
The cameras built into today’s cellphones can produce publication-quality images, but technique is vital. Let’s start by talking about light.
Backlight, with the sun behind the car, can be beautiful, as can dappled shade, but cameras don’t record in the same way as the human eye sees, so their ability to capture highlights and shadows is limited. Pro photographers, using auxiliary lighting and reflectors, along with lenses that are protected against contrast-killing flare, can shoot backlit cars. Your cellphone can’t. So think: sun over your shoulder and behind you. Full sun works, but hazy-bright light filtered by clouds is better. Since the side of a car can’t be well lit with the sun overhead, shoot in morning or evening, when the sun is low in the sky.
Composition is critical. A car centered in frame looks detached. Photographers subscribe to “the rule of thirds” which suggests the composition be organized within a frame divided into thirds. With car photography, the vehicle is usually positioned in the bottom two-thirds of the frame.
Choose a location where the car can be positioned parallel to the horizon and the frame’s top and bottom. In other words, keep it straight. Shoot front ¾ views, rear ¾ views and profiles from a few feet off the ground. Front 7/8 views and head-on photos can be dynamic, but won’t define your car.
To make your car the star, choose a site where the foreground is clean and elements like hills or trees are distant. This is critical with cellphones, which have considerable depth of field, meaning everything near camera is in focus. A wall 10 or more feet behind the car can serve as a background if it’s simple and its tone complements the vehicle, but busy backgrounds are distracting.
You can shoot your car’s interior with your cellphone, but do it in deep shade as dusk approaches, in morning before the sun is fully up, or on a cloudy day. The idea is to limit outside light and use your phone’s flash to illuminate the interior. That will give you uniform lighting. Shoot through an open door and frame your shot to minimize window areas.
Finally, don’t settle for your photos as shot: edit. Current phone software allows quite a bit of tweaking. With the IOS 9.1 photo-editing software on my iPhone 6 Plus, I can crop, rotate, straighten the horizon, adjust brightness and color saturation, or convert to black and white. Special effects are available as well. But I prefer to use Photoshop Fix, an Adobe app that includes many Photoshop tools, including the healing brush, burn and dodge, smooth and sharpen, paint brush, highlight and shadow controls, and more.