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Car Photography: A Guide to Making any Set of Wheels Look Great on Camera

March 12, 2014 by Marc Schenker

As far as subjects go, there’s hardly anything hotter than having a nice set of wheels as your main star. While anyone can take pictures of a nice car, unfortunately not everyone can make the car look great! So the next time you’re thinking about taking some snapshots of a hot car, do yourself a favor and know what you’re doing. You’ll feel better when you admire your great pictures afterward.

To make any car look great on camera, you’ll have to rely on a combination of the correct timing, fine photography skills and even the color of the car itself. Here’s how to take excellent shots of cars all the time, every time.

Car Photography - 2009 Lamborghini Gallardo
photo by Brett Levin

Picking the Proper Time of the Day

If you’ve ever wondered why so many pictures of cars look like they could be improved, it’s because many a photographer continues to make the same, repetitive mistake. This involves miscalculating when the best opportunity exists in the day to shoot cars. If you want stellar car shots, you’ll aim for the golden time that occurs around sunrise and sunset.

Generally, you ought to be shooting pictures of cars either a few minutes after the sun has gone down or a few minutes prior to the sun going up. What you are aiming for is that ideal, soft light on the car’s paint. By using a tripod in these situations, you can eliminate any blur from shaking and get perfect car pictures.

Car Photography - Audi S4
photo by Rocking Cars

Try Shooting at Night

What’s more daunting than taking excellent car pictures? Maybe… taking great car pictures at night, right? Not really. Shooting at night is ideal for getting effective results. There is only one rule above all that you have to follow to ensure success: pick a perfectly pitch-black location that’s devoid of even streetlights or the light of the moon.

Sure, it may take a while to find such a location, but it will be more than worth it. Again, use a tripod after you’ve found this location. Set the ISO to 100, your aperture to around f/9 and the shutter speed to 30 seconds. As the shutter opens, take a significant and consistent light source; then walk around the car so that you actually “paint” it with the light. A basic flashlight is effective for this.

Car Photography - XY Fairmont
photo by Samuel Sharpe

Now, use your creativity to “paint” the car however you like to get various effects.

Ensure an Appropriate Background

You should invest some time and thought into what background you use for any car picture. For starters, the background should be fitting for both the car itself and the theme of your shoot. It’s a good idea to make sure the background is free of anything that will distract the viewer’s eye.

Car Photography - Ford Ka
photo by Malcolm Debono

These are examples of clutter in the background that will subtract from your car photo: power lines, dustbins and even other vehicles. Minimalism is always a good solution when you’re struggling to find what you believe will be a fitting background for your car photo. Something as simple as a plain-colored wall, for instance, can work wonders at directing the eye to the star of your photo, which is, of course, the car.

Take Some Driving Shots for the Coolest Images

Taking shots of a car that’s being driven while in a moving car yourself will produce some of the coolest car photographs around. It’s hardly as difficult as it may sound. Since you’re dealing with moving vehicles, though, you’re urged to be as cautious as possible during this shot.

Car Photography - Audi TT
photo by Rob King

Have someone else be the driver while you sit in the passenger’s seat and only worry about taking the right shot. Have your driver aim for a speed of 40mph while you focus on a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. This setup will allow you some slick movement on the road. You could try to lower the shutter speed a bit, too, so play around with the shutter speeds and see what produces the sharpest and coolest results.

Think About the Car Color

You may believe that something as “small” as the color of the car is irrelevant, but nothing could be further than the truth. What you have to understand is that various kinds of paint will have different reactions at different times of the day and even in different types of light.

Some colors are not easy to work with in direct sunlight; on the other hand, other colors do really well when photographed in direct sunlight. For example, a color like light blue is ideal.

Don’t Forget to Pan for Motion Blur

Want some motion in your car photos? If so, then try this unique approach at ensuring motion in your shots. Just stand right next to the road as the car drives right past you. Follow said car with your lens in a smooth, steady action. Before that, though, be sure to set your shutter speed to around 125th of a second.

Car Photography - 1930 T-35B chassis no 4955
photo by Mike Baird

This is actually a lot easier than what it sounds like. All it takes is a bit of practice to get used to panning the camera for a moving car, especially if the car is going at a fast rate of speed.

Cars Make Stellar Subjects

Cars are among the hottest things to photograph. There’s nothing quite like getting their attractive lines, fast-moving velocity and aerodynamic shapes in a picture. Because we have, as a culture, a long-standing love affair with the automobile, it is imbedded in our collective consciousness, thereby making it a perfect photography subject.

The only thing is being able to effectively pull off shooting cars, which not everyone can do, no matter how seasoned a photographer they are. However, when you know how to really photograph cars, you can make even the most ho-hum, ordinary car look like an absolutely gorgeous set of wheels in front of the camera. That’s to say nothing, then, of having truly spectacular cars as your subject!

Have we missed out on any useful car-photography tips? Do you have some to add, perhaps from your own experiences? If so, feel free to leave us a comment!

Marc Schenker

About the author: Marc Schenker

Marc Schenker is a Vancouver freelance writer who is adept at providing engrossing copy and articles on various subjects. He believes that the written word is a highly effective means of communication and persuasion when done right. Find out more about him on his website at marcschenkerwriting.com or on Google+.

  • Brandon Rudich

    I’m an aoutomotive photographer and I go to car shows almost every weekend. Some of the best shots I’ve taken are close-ups with my camera on the ground looking up. Also, use the rule of thirds when trying to photograph a car with an interesting background. Photo by: Brandon Rudich Photography

    • http://marcschenkerwriting.com/ Marc Schenker

      Thanks for chiming in, Brandon.

      Nice shot of the car to illustrate the technique of using ground-up angles for maximum effect.

  • Alan Klughammer
  • http://moisseyev.com/ Masya

    Phtoshop can help as well. Some of my pictures :)

    http://moisseyev.com/automotive/