Duane Keeling | Photographing Cars

Photographing Cars

May 26, 2015  •  1 Comment

IMG_0158-EditMini ZoomA young couple with their new Mini Cooper. Note how the angle adds to the motion effects. I love cars. Lots of us do and that's what makes them an interesting subject.  Like portraits of people they can be young or old, moving or still, posed or candid.  But they can't smile and they can't make expressive faces or pull you into the moment with their eyes.  At least not without some work.

The first thing that you need to ask yourself is what is it you are trying to accomplish with your photos of any particular car.  Are you trying to sell it?  Are you trying to show how it makes you feel or how it represents you? Are you recording it for posterity or, perhaps, you're using it as a prop in a portrait?  The best images make you feel something and this is no different for flowers, fruit, vases, people, landscapes, buildings, seascapes... or cars. 

Into the WindInto the WindPolished hood ornament from 1937 Cadillac.

The next thing to consider is "scope" of the images.  Is there any particular aspect of the car that is key to your purpose?  For example: the wheels, the steering column, the grill, the headlights, all of it.  Details have their own special beauty separate and apart from the overall vehicle, yet they are often overlooked. If you are only interested in specific details, then the setting or location may not be as important.  However, if you want that full image, then location becomes very important.  SUVs and other recreational type vehicles will "almost" always need an outdoor location like the beach, mountains, trails. I say "almost" because there are no hard and fast rules... creativity would demand that they be broken anyway. That said, you need something that provides a backdrop that says something about the car or will make the viewer feel a certain way about the car, or not. Sometimes a "hint" is all that is needed and allows the car to remain the subject, without distraction.

Probably the most important aspect of the location is the lighting.  What lighting will be available? On the roadAlong the roadSimply the best car I've ever owned; my 2002 Honda S2000 parked along US Highway 93 between Phoenx and Las Vegas. Outdoors you may have bright sun or cloud covered skies. In a garage, it will be shaded but some areas may be very bright and others excessively dark.  I've found that shaded areas are best... but not dappled shade, for obvious reasons.  Covered parking garages with indirect natural light work well.  Underground garages can also work well but you will need to deal with color temperature issues for the type of lights being used in the garage but they can provide some interesting highlights, if they are not too distracting.  Using flash or other light sources works best when the light is diffused - again, no hard rules.  A garage tends to give a grittier, urban feel and works very well with the sleek, curved lines of newer vehicles.  Antique or more rustic vehicles often do better in open air garages or out of doors.  The most important thing is that the lighting be even.  This will let the shape of the car and details like paint, grill work, badging and wheels pop.  

IMG_0811Pushing the LimitA high angle shot of a new C7 Stingray convertible. Night time images with reflected highlights from streetlights or other sources can be stunning.  Additionally, images taken on a tripod, where the car is "painted" with a flashlight or strobe can be very powerful. The vehicle stands out from any background easily but other background light points like a deep sunset, the moon, lamp posts, stars, or bridges can provide a great backdrop as well. Remember to use a tripod in low light situations.  A sharp, crisp image is paramount.

Depending on what it is you are trying to feature in the photo, the shot angle IMG_0248-EditWoo Hoo!An excited young couple posing with their new car as a prop. can be critical as well, especially if you are using a wide-angle lens. The part of the car closest to the camera can appear distorted and to the point of detracting from the artistry of the car itself.  But it can also add to the image as well.  It all depends on the "look" that you are going for.  Clearly, many shots at different angles provides the best chance of finding the perfect perspective.  Often, going with a high angle provides a clear image of overall car but also tends to compress the perspective.  While shooting low makes the car seem to "loom" ominously and gives a more aggressive look.  If you are trying to accentuate the natural lines, use a more natural focal length, 40 or 50mm, and stand a bit further back from the car.  Try to shoot at a camera level slightly lower than the top of the hood line.  Again, different angles work best going all around the car.

IMG_0780StingrayFuel door detail in toned black and white image. Note how the highlight runs through the key elements.

Be careful not to get reflections in the chrome or body.  This means you will need to avoid shooting square on to the vehicle since you and your camera are likely to become subjects in your image.  Minor reflections can often be removed in Photoshop or other photo processing tools.  Which brings me to dust and other imperfections.  Clean your car thoroughly.  A small amount of effort in wiping and dusting will save a lot of time and effort in post processing.  And, if you're not planning or not able to do post processing, pre-shot cleaning and dusting are vital steps to getting the best possible results.

IMG_0813_HDR-Edit-Edit-EditUrban C7Post processing used to smooth out the overall look of the vehicle while leaving the grunge of its urban locale.

Movement is a big issue.  Cars are meant to move and it just seems natural to photograph them that way.  There are more than just a couple of ways to portray movement in your image.  "Panning" is a common choice and involves moving the camera with the car as it passes by you.  You will need to keep your shutter speed low but not too low.  Probably around 1/60th to 1/100th of a second.  Keep the car in the camera's viewfinder as it passes by and move the camera with a smooth, steady motion.  As the car comes square to the camera, exhale and squeeze the shutter gently so there is no vertical momentum added. Another popular method is by traveling in another car or truck ahead of or even behind the vehicle being photographed.  This can be dangerous so proper precautions should be taken. Again, use a slower shutter speed but keep pace with the vehicle.  Depending on the speed of both cars, the photographed carshould then appear sharp with it's surrounding blurred around it. You can also achieve a similar appearance using layers and motion blur in Photoshop. Import the same image into two separate layers in Photoshop then add motion blur to the background layer with the position of the vehicle in the frame as the focal point of the motion.  The mask around the vehicle in the top layer and use "Transform" to make the vehicle slightly larger than the one in the base image.  You just need to soften around the edges of the vehicle to pull the blended image together.

IMG_0141_HDR-EditMini Coper, Max FunNote how the angle also adds to the motion effect.

Lastly, I'm a big fan of post processing.  Not just because of what can be "fixed" but mostly because of how the mood of the image can be manipulated.  You can add glow effects to smooth paint and brighten chrome or you can go gritty and dark to give amore menacing or even somber feel to the image.  The same image can often be done in multiple ways with different effect and it can be hard to choose which is the best overall.  There's so much that can be done that, if you haven't tried any tools like Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz or Perfect Photo Suite you are really missing out on half the fun.  Getting the best image out the camera to start with is key but, as said in my favorite quote from Ansel Adams, "You don't take a photograph, you make it".



Jim Sakane(non-registered)
Very nice. I enjoyed this.
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