How to photograph cars like a pro
When it comes to attracting attention or securing bragging rights, nothing raises the worth of a car like a first-class photograph. And getting a professional-looking shot isn’t as difficult as you may think; it doesn’t require special equipment, just some thought, time, and a few basic tricks.
Jamey Price, who specializes in automotive photography, is dumbfounded that so few people take the simple steps needed to get decent shots. “I feel like a lot of people, when they are selling a $300,000 vehicle, don’t bother to get nice pictures of it,” he says. “Against similar cars at a similar price, an amazing picture goes a long way to make yours stand out.”
Price shared tips on capturing high-octane automotive images:
Shift to manual
First, you have to know how to manually control your camera—even if it is a phone camera. Manual settings let you customize things like shutter speed, aperture, and light sensitivity, which let you tailor the look of a shot; you’ll make a smarter aesthetic choice than a pre-programmed chip can. A DSLR or point-and-shoot camera will have a manual setting. On your phone camera, you may have to add an app. MuseCam for Apple and Camera FV-5 for Android are free and give you those controls.
Location, Location, Location…
The typical car photo—standing in the big box store lot under full sun—is as bad as it gets. “Don’t shoot it in a parking lot with a Ford Focus on one side, a Camry on the other, and a Honda behind it,” Price says.
Find an uncluttered background. “You can go on any rural country road and find a little turnoff where there is just field and trees and nothing in the background that is distracting. I’ve done some on Blue Ridge Parkway, and the photos just fall into your lap.” Alternately, cities offer brick walls and alleyways where “you can make it a little more edgy downtown,” he says.
… And position
“Shooting with the camera at eye level is the worst thing you can do. I am either way up high, or flat down in the dirt. Changing your perspective to the car helps,” Price says. “If you are down low and all you see is fender, it doesn’t tell you how beautiful or aggressive the car is.”
A wide-angle lens will exaggerate the aggressiveness of a car, while the 50mm “normal lens” is the most natural looking. Use the wide-angle for your beauty shots, but for sales, use the 50mm. Photos with the normal lens won’t leave buyers saying, “This looks nothing like the picture.”
One technical note: the 50mm looks natural on a sensor that is the size of 35mm film, known as a full-frame sensor. Most non-professional cameras have a smaller sensor, so a different lens size will look “normal.” In most DSLR cameras, that will be a lens around 36mm.
… And time
Full sunlight bouncing off chrome will blind the camera, obscuring details. It will also make harsh shadows. At the very least, park your car in the shade before shooting. But pros know the best time to take photos are just after sunrise and just before sunset. “You get those golden and purple vibrant colors that you see on a beautiful day,” Price says.
Shooting a car in motion adds to the difficulty level. You have to become a master of “panning,” which is tracking the moving car with the camera as you shoot. The reason is that moving cars look best when shot with a shutter speed slow enough that the spinning wheels blur, otherwise the car appears motionless. “Shoot at less than 1/200th of a second,” Price says. “Faster than that and it starts to look like the car is parked on the track.”
DETAIL YOUR SHOT
No matter how good you are, every photo can always stand a little improvement. Even mobile phones have an edit menu—use it. You can level out the contrast, emphasize it, add tint, make your photo sharper, or add any number of effects or filters.
Price recommends using Lightroom, a simplified version of the powerful Photoshop editing program. “I use Lightroom; I don’t even own Photoshop. It’s my go-to for editing everything.” His most common adjustments are to make the tint a little warmer—meaning more orangey—and to increase contrast. “I’m not adding insane amounts of contrast. That’s just how I see my world,” he says. “When it comes to photography, especially automotive photography, the simpler it is, the better it is.”
I applied Price’s principles, and here’s the result (plus how I got the shot).
While in Sarasota, Florida, I looked at a map trying to find West-facing waterfront spots where I could put the setting sun behind the car. I found a parking lot at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. A friend at Sunset Chevrolet Buick GMC lined up a silver Camaro RS Redline Edition and we met—of course—at sunset.
Although there were cars parked on either side of us, with people watching the sunset, careful aim isolated the Camaro and made the lot look like a professional set.
Here’s the technical stuff: I shot with a Nikon D7500, using a 16-80mm f2.8-4 ED VR lens zoomed to 22mm. That would be equivalent to a 33mm lens on a full-frame sensor. That’s a bit of a wide angle setting, which exaggerates the Camaro’s aggressive look. The aperture was set at 4.5 to keep the car in focus while softening and blurring the skies.
Because it was overcast, the light behind the car and in front were pretty equal. Later the sun would break through the clouds, requiring extra technique to deal with strong backlighting. That shows both why you need to know your manual settings and also why cloudy days can be good for photos.
After the shoot, using Lightroom, I adjusted exposure and took away some yellow tint. And voila!