Up to Speed: Issue One - 11 Tips for Making Better Car Photos

24 Jul 2019 4:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Article by Christian Lantry, photographer at Cars.com.

  • Know your gear – There’s lots of buttons and endless settings on your camera. It’s hard to know it all. But take the time to read through the manual so you know what your camera can do, and how you can quickly get to that setting. As your technical skills improve you will be able to focus more on making great images. Give yourself little assignments. Don’t know what that button is, or what that setting does? Go read about it, watch a YouTube video and practice doing it with your camera.
  • Polarizing is not just for opinions – If you shoot cars, and your camera can accommodate screw-on filters, you need a circular polarizer. This filter is key for reducing/removing reflections from windows and also increases contrast and saturation. You can even get filter sets for smartphones. This small investment will level up your exterior shots right away. Use it for interiors to dial in reflections on dashboards, too. Just remember it will reduce the amount of light getting to your lens so it will not work in every scenario. Again, practice makes perfect.
  • Go for Gold – The golden hour, or magic hour, is the first and last hour of sunlight in the day when the quality of light yields particularly stunning photographs. The reality is, not all the shooting opportunities will happen during these times so look for the light…specifically the lighting ratios. Lighting ratios are the amount of light on the subject (car) versus the light in the rest of the scene. On a soft overcast, cloudy day the ratio will most likely be even or 1:1 with very little contrast. On at sunny day a noon the ratio may be 1:8 resulting in a lot of contrast between the highlights and shadows. Both conditions have advantages and disadvantages but understanding how to use them will elevate the image. Just because it’s a beautiful bright sunny day outside, doesn’t always mean it’s the best for shooting. Don’t be afraid to wait for the right light or wait for that cloud to get out of (or into) your way.
  • Shoot wide – Give yourself wiggle room to crop the image a few different ways. You don’t need to fill the frame with the car. Allow for padding on all sides and crop your image after the fact. You may find that what you saw when shooting can look completely different or better with a different crop. Also, with the rise of Instagram stories and other social media platforms it’s super helpful to shoot a bit wider.  This allows you to crop the image as 3:2, 16:9, or square, without losing vital parts of your shot.
  • Rule the thirds –The “Rule of Thirds” is a basic photographic principle where the image is broken down into thirds both vertically and horizontally into nine parts. Most cameras including smartphones have the ability to turn on different gridlines to give you that overlay to assist in composing your image. By framing the elements of your image on those lines and at the intersection of those lines, it helps create a more balanced and visually interesting image. 
  • Shoot raw When you shoot raw you are getting the most out of your camera’s sensor.  Better yet, any adjustments to the raw file do not affect the original data. It’s also much more forgiving if your original file is over/under exposed. JPGs are compressed and once they’re shot, they’re baked into their look and it’s often not possible to change things like white balance and exposure after the fact. Yes, raw images take up more space, and require using editing software, but if you want better images, start with the most flexible source image.
  • Location, Location, Location– I’m always a bit jealous of our west coast editor(s) because they have so many amazing locations from seascapes to mountains to photograph. But great locations are all around us. Don’t shoot at the same parking lot every time! Put time and research into where you will be shooting a vehicle. Consider context…  a great city skyline or scenic rural road. I do a lot of google map location scouting and have files I can reference to match the car/truck to either my vision and/or the story. You can also save pins in the Google Maps app, making it very easy to see if you’re near one of your favorite spots.
  • Get Low, or high – Don’t shoot everything from standing, eye-level position. Shooting from a low angle will help create a “hero” image.  Finding different vantage points, help show off details from unique perspectives. I often pick a location that has a bridge or walkway if I know I want to capture the car from above.
  • Create a narrative This is often overlooked in automotive photography. Remember to look for details (badging, interesting materials, unique features) and create a visual story that compliments the written content. Much like a great story or song there should be a visual rhythm that keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish. 
  • Capture the speed When shooting the car in motion utilize what is called the panning technique. If you have it, set your camera to shutter priority mode (S on Nikon Cameras, Tv on Canon Cameras) and set your shutter speed from 1/15th to 1/125th. This allows you to keep the car in focus while capturing the motion behind it. Keep the camera level and fluid as possible as you follow the movement of the vehicle and shoot in high-speed continuous or burst mode. It’s easier to pan in a horizontal line but with practice you can master multiple situations. This will take some practice to get right and is a marriage of mastering the technology and using your body to physically move the camera while the shutter is open.
  • Practice I can’t stress this enough! After 15+ years of shooting, I’m always learning something and evolving my shooting style. Shoot as much as you can in multiple situations.  Be willing to learn from your mistakes and take chances. As you become more comfortable you can find your unique perspective and style and truly elevate your images.

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