With ever-changing quarantine regulations and social distancing in full swing, now feels like the perfect time to discuss the topic of automotive photography for beginners. Hear me out.
Since most meets are canceled, gathering with friends and herds of amazing exotics isn’t an option. That leaves us with ourselves and our cars. However awesome or not awesome you find your car to be, a solitary drive and a few great photos from it might just prevent you from going completely insane. These photos might even help you appreciate your car with new eyes.
That said, today isn’t about organizing full-blown photoshoots with exotic car owners or even taking better spotter photos. Instead, today’s article is all about the fun we can add to a solitary drive with a camera of some kind.
This is not necessarily for the guys with $2000 lenses on $2500 camera bodies. This might not even be for the people that shoot in full manual mode for fun. Rather, this is for the phone-wielding fanatics and the people that may have just bought their first Canon Rebel or similar entry-level DSLR (aka “digital single-lens reflex” aka the black cameras that you can usually twist the lens on to zoom).
By the end of it all, you should learn some things that will elevate your overall car photography game from completely clueless to awesomely adequate.
Still, if you’re someone that can’t tolerate purple fringing, shoots in .RAW ALWAYS, edits on a 5K screen in AdobeRGB, and has an authoritative opinion on CPL vs. ND filters, you’re welcome to stick around (and please contribute your advice and experience in the comments). Let’s get into it.
First things first, your picture-making gear doesn’t really matter until you’re at least well-versed in the basics. These basics are essentially all about photo composition and simple editing - both of which can be practiced with a phone and widely available, free editing programs (e.g. Instagram).
Composition is a huge word. In addition to having 11 letters and 4 syllables (average syllables per English word is 1.2), composition can refer to anything and everything about an image. From the camera you shot it on to the time of day you were shooting, “composing” an image effectively takes practice and a whole lot of trial and error. We’ll cover some tips that relate to car photography below, but these are not “rules” that must be followed.
2. BACK UP AND ZOOM
For full-car shots, extreme wide-angle lenses tend to pull and distort things in weird ways. This is sometimes a stylistic choice (e.g. skateboarding videos shot with a “fish-eye” lens), but it’s mostly a distraction when it comes to taking photos of cars that were professionally designed with specific proportions in mind. To reduce distortion and keep these proportions intact, frame your shots by backing away from the vehicle and zooming in. The closer you get to 50mm of zoom, the more the image will appear as your eyes see. If you’re shooting on a phone, you can still utilize this technique, but work within the range of your phone’s optical zoom levels. On an iPhone, this means using one of the pre-set zoom levels and not pinching or sliding to something crazy (like 10x). Using digital zoom degrades image quality very rapidly.
3. GET LOW
More generally, make the camera level with the vehicle you’re shooting. This usually requires squatting, crouching, or kneeling in some way. In artsy words, this tiny change puts the car on the viewer’s level and lets us better appreciate what we’re looking at. Getting super low (like laying-on-the-ground low) can amplify a car’s presence, making it appear larger than life. Additionally, we are not used to looking at cars from ground level so these shots tend to look more interesting. In certain instances, shooting from a higher angle can produce some cool shots. However, you’ll need a nearby hillside or ladder to do so effectively. Therefore, shooting high, unlike getting lower, isn’t always an option.
4. UTILIZE LINES
Adjustable depth of field isn’t really possible or effective on phones (especially when shooting cars from any sort of distance) and is often difficult to manage in auto mode on a DSLR. Consequently, we can’t rely on crisp subjects and blurry backgrounds to tell us what to look at. We can use lines to guide our eyes toward subjects of interest instead. Diagonals in an image are particularly effective for this, but swooping curves & super straight things can also effectively segment a frame for greater visual appeal. If possible, position your car in a relationship with its environment, utilizing streets, road lines, hedges, etc. at pronounced angles to bring attention to the car itself.
5. SHOOT ALL THE ANGLES
Modern, digital photography is amazing because images can be taken, viewed, stored, processed, and shared with wicked ease for almost no expense. This means that you can take dozens or even hundreds of photos just to see what works. Go crazy! It’s what a lot of pros do. Shoot in quantity, make your selections later, and delete what you don’t want afterward. If 1 shot in every 10 is amazing, that’s fine. Shooting 100 pictures will virtually guarantee you a few good ones.
There are infinite styles and preferences when it comes to editing photos. Some prefer altering everything about an image, adding or erasing whole components (e.g backgrounds, wheels, people, other cars, etc.) at will. Others don’t bother with any sort of editing beyond slapping on a filter. Despite these extremes, some generally applicable principles still exist. Similarly, innumerable editing platforms exist. Because this is all about staying simple, we’ll shelve the curves, histograms, and gradients found in pro programs like Lightroom and discuss techniques for maximizing Instagram’s built-in editor: a simple, but capable set of adjustments that are optimized for tiny touch screens.
7. LESS IS MORE, BUT MORE ISN'T NECESSARILY LESS.
A well-edited photo does not appear obviously or unnaturally altered. As a general guideline, try to avoid maxing out the adjustment sliders. Most adjustments on Instagram are made with a slider that can be set to some number between -100 and 100. Instagram doesn’t provide a “histogram” for photos that will show you when colors & quality are being lost but pushing these adjustments to their limits almost always results in some kind of undesirable degradation. If you can stay between -50 and 50, your images will benefit tremendously. In other words, less is more. The caveat here is that certain images will require extensive editing to appear “normal” while others will require almost no editing at all. Thus, making more edits might make an image appear more natural (i.e. less unnatural). In other words, more isn’t necessarily less.
8. ALWAYS CROP AND/OR STRAIGHTEN
One of the most difficult things about shooting cars is that we are mostly working free-hand in uncontrolled, outdoor environments. This means getting perfectly level shots is really difficult. Luckily, such framing is easily fixed with Instagram’s “Adjust” tools. Use the grid and sliders to make everything line up to your satisfaction or to place everything at an intentional tilt. Few things distract an image more than wonky horizon lines and slight tilts. You can even tap the grid icon in the upper left to increase the grid’s precision for aligning tiny stuff. Keep this editing tool in mind when shooting. You can pull back, loosen up your framing a bit, and make it pixel perfect in post (i.e. post-production/editing).
9. DITCH STANDARD FILTERS ENTIRELY
Crafting your own aesthetic is part of what makes photography fun. If that means you enjoy the look of a certain filter, so be it. However, so much more can be achieved with individualized adjustments. As we mentioned previously, every image will require slightly different tweaks. Throwing a blanket filter on all of them will undoubtedly leave some short of their full potential.
10. ALL PHOTOS "NEED" EDITING
A camera in auto mode and a phone (when using a standard camera app) is doing a whole lot of guesswork in taking a photo. Chances are good that it will get most of the information right, but a sensor and software won’t know exactly what looks best on their own. For this reason, every photo is a worthy candidate for editing. This is not only true for phone pics and auto-mode DSLR shots. You could be shooting on a $33,000 H6d-100c Hasselblad (look it up) and your images would still require tweaks in editing.
11. EDITING ON A PHONE HAS ADVANTAGES
Huge 4 and 5K IPS displays are very cool, but it is important to remember that an image will look different depending on the device it’s displayed on. Most computer monitors aren’t as good as (or at least differ significantly from) modern smartphone screens. These differences are most pronounced with simple things like resolution and refresh rates, but extend to more complex stats like dynamic range and auto/factory calibration for color accuracy. Because of these differences, an edit on one screen might look like crap on another. Editing with a phone increases the likelihood that your images will appear as you intended them to because (if you share your images online) chances are high that they’ll be viewed on another smartphone.
Now, go take some fun photos of your car so you can come out of quarantine with some skills. Then, you can better document all the meets and cool stuff that’ll happen when this madness ends.
Push to find unique perspectives. Edit color levels or mess around in black and white. Just remember, photography is a creative process. There are few right answers. When it comes to what looks ”good,” shoot what makes you happy.