Anyone can wield a camera, but there’s a definite art to photographing cars well. But you don’t necessarily have to be a pro to take great shots, nor need all the expensive camera gear – good technique is the key. Here are some tips on snapping your car to sell, frame or show off on social media, whether you’re using a megadollar digital SLR or the camera in your smartphone.
Photographer Nathan Jacobs, who shoots cars for magazines such as Wheels, Motor and Street Machine, says location is just as important as the car. He prefers a “nice clean and interesting location without too much clutter or distracting features”.
Rather than shoot your car in your driveway or a shopping centre car park, take it somewhere a little more visually interesting. The seaside can work if the crowds aren’t too thick, while industrial areas are quiet and traffic-free on weekends.
Go for a quick drive out of town where the wide open spaces of regional Australia also make for a photogenic setting. Think of how the background suits the car’s colour and character too – your compact hatch might look a bit out of place on a twisty mountain road.
And watch for things such as awkward objects sticking out from behind the car. Nothing ruins a shot quite like a telephone pole jutting out above the roof of your vehicle.
“If the sun is out, make sure it's behind you for even lighting,” says Jacobs. “Overcast days provide even light, which can make it easier to get a nicely exposed photo.”
The time of day is also important with cars tending to look best in the early morning and late afternoon, when the light is more diffused and shadows are longer. Photographers don’t call the hour around sunrise and sunset the “Golden Hour” for nothing.
Watch out for unsightly reflections on the car, too. Positioning your car under trees on a sunny day will only result in dappled light ruining your photo.
A lens hood can help when shooting on a bright day – your hand can do the trick if using a smart phone. It helps prevent lens flare, which blows out parts of the frame as stray sunlight refracts through the lens’ glass elements.
Move the car back and forward in the available light until you see it pop and sparkle from where you’re taking the photo; that’s your best angle.
Choose a different viewpoint to make your photos more dynamic. Holding the camera at eye height is a big no-no. “Everybody knows what a car looks like from standing height.”
Instead, Jacobs recommends getting down low or up high to get different vantage points to add interest. Drop down to one knee – that point of view is more flattering to a car’s form.
Bring the car alive
Even if a car is stationary you can make it look a little more dynamic by turning the front wheels a little so it looks as though it’s turning away from the camera. Turn on the parking lights, fog lamps or daytime running lights if fitted – though keep in mind that bright lights shining directly into the lens can cause lens flare.
Give the car some room
If shooting a wide shot of the entire car, give it some space in front. A great idea is to use the rule of thirds, which divides the frame into nine squares with two horizontal and two vertical lines (like noughts and crosses). Centre the picture in the middle of a line or where the lines intersect. This works especially well with shots of moving cars to make the car look as though it’s moving in or out of the edge.
Another good thing about shooting this way is it allows a shot to be cropped for different social media situations such as landscape for Facebook and square for Instagram.
The above lighting rules are important here. Make sure the car is in even light, preferably in the shade to highlight all the illuminated gauges and switches. Avoid using a flash – that’s a pro technique that requires the right (read: expensive) equipment. Want to make your life easier? Shoot your interior on an overcast day – the light is perfect.
Light is also a great revealer of dirt so ensure you dust out all nooks and crannies. It kinda goes without saying, but make sure you clean out all of those old chocolate wrappers and drink bottles, too.
Align the car seats so they are evenly positioned, and lower all the headrests to be consistent.
Unless you want the car to be dirty – 4x4 owners, we’re talking about you – ensure the car’s paint work, wheels and glass are sparkling clean and free of obvious blemishes. Also ensure there are no distractions on or in the car itself – keep the dashboard and parcel shelf clear, roll up windows and fold up the sun visors.