Yup. When I say lifelong, I mean it. For as long as I can remember, I was surrounded by Matchbox and Hot Wheels. I graduated to the world of radio control, even racing?competitively?for a while, when it was still popular.
And thanks to my Granddaddy, I was able to get behind the wheel of a fairly large machine at a young age. Granted, it was a Ford 8N tractor, not a car, but it had four wheels, a motor and you had to shift. Granddaddy and my Dad were smart – they knew that I would bush hog the fields and do whatever else needed to be done, as long as I was driving that tractor. Later on, Granddaddy started letting me drive his 1967 F-100. The first time I drove it, I was 12. Don’t tell my Mom & Dad though…I’m pretty sure Granddaddy didn’t ask their permission, or tell them about it later. It was just around the family farm though, so it’s not like I was out on the road.
It was only natural that when I really started to get into photography that I would migrate towards automotive photography. Like I said, I was taking car pictures even before I had my own camera. And if I wasn’t taking the picture, I was getting my picture taken any time I saw a cool car, truck, bus…whatever. If it had wheels and I deemed it to be cool, a photo was going to be taken.
So car pictures came naturally to me when I started learning about photography. And the more skills I developed, the better and more detailed the pictures became.
So let’s get to it – allow me to share a few tips and some of the steps I take when I’m at a car show. Keep in mind that not everyone works the same way – you may not agree with all my methods. And that’s OK. My methods work for my style (a style which I’m sure will be apparent as this goes on), but may go against everything you believe as a photographer. That’s part of what we do – just like no two artists paint the same way, no two photographers create the exact same photos. These are simply some baseline guides and ideas. Some of these tips are DSLR specific, but some of them apply to everything from iPhones to point and shoots.
Car Pictures – Useful Tips
First things first – let’s talk about framing the shot.
The big picture.
When you are taking a picture of something that moves, whether it’s your kid on a bike, a racing car, an airplane, a boat, leave the moving object somewhere to go. In other words, frame it so there is more space in the direction the object would be moving. A very common trick, it gives your viewers a sense that your subject has somewhere to go. It creates a sense of forward motion in your shot, even if the car is sitting still.
Most vehicles have a much more aggressive appearance, when you shoot them from a low angle. And when you try from different perspectives, you’ll find that you get some really unique and eye-catching images!
The Devil Is In the details:
Especially on older vehicles, but even on your modern day cars, the details are what take a car from a simple box on wheels, to something that catches your eye. Hood ornaments, the curve or flare to a fender, wheels, louvres, headlights, grills, even a side mirror – they create interesting lines and when framed properly, make for beautiful images. This is particularly true at car shows – a detail shot can have such a small area of focus, that it eliminates unwanted objects in the background, like other cars or other people. When shooting for detail, you want a mid-range aperture. If you shoot with a depth of field that is too shallow (low f-stop, such as 1.8, 2.4), you run the risk of losing important elements of your focus. And if your camera is in auto focus mode, you also run the risk of the camera detecting an incorrect point of focus. When you are close to your focal point, an f-stop from 5.6 to 8.0 will give you that crispness that you want, while allowing a soft focus in the background.
Getting the light right:
If you are outside on a sunny day, usually you don’t need to use flash to get your shot. And as the sun starts to get low in the sky, look for opportunities to use the natural light to highlight portions of your shot. You’ll find yourself looking for different angles and scenes. Usually, these types of images force you to get creative…and as Martha would say, that’s a good thing!
If all you have is an on-camera flash, I strongly advise against using it. Flash can be great for dramatic lighting, but only if you can get the angles right. Flash is great for accenting the beautiful lines of a vehicle, or highlighting certain aspects of the design. But you have to have the right circumstances to achieve a great result. For example, off-camera lighting placed well above your lens can create a very dramatic look when a car is in the dark. But using the on-camera flash will generally cause glare that blows out a portion of your shot. In low light, some of your best shots will come with long exposures instead of trying to compensate with flash. A tripod is a must in these situations – but be careful. Keep your tripod as far away from the car as you can.
The Right Equipment
If you’re at a car show during the day, the last thing you want to do is lug around a tripod. Not only will you be a nuisance to the people in attendance, but you’ll make the car owners nervous if you get too close. Remember – in most cases, these men and women have put a LOT of work and money to create a car that they love. ?One misstep by you could cause a scratch or a ding that will cost YOU money to repair. Car owners will not be forgiving if you scratch their paint – and they shouldn’t have to be. Don’t put yourself in this position, no matter how careful you think you can be. All it takes is one bump from someone passing by and it’ll ruin your day. Granted, for shows that run into the evening hours, you will need a tripod – just be smart about how you handle it.
A tele-zoom lens, like the Sigma 17-70?is a great choice for the beginner, the avid hobbyist and even the professional photographer. At 17mm, you’ll be able to get a nice, wide, full vehicle shot without having to stand too far away. Remember – the farther away from the car you are, the harder it will be for you to get your shot. Especially at shows, people will be walking in front of you. If you’re a little closer, they’ll be more likely to notice you and try to stay out of your shot. And at 70mm, you can get a detailed shot of something in the interior, without having to lean in too close to the car. Again – the closer you get, the more nervous you’ll make an owner and the higher the risk of you scratching the paint.
Neutral Density (ND) Filter
A neutral density filter limits the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor. Using a neutral density filter for car pictures allows you to shoot at a higher aperture, for a longer period of time. When used properly, it will also allow you to capture more detail throughout your shot – like the beautiful blue skies and puffy clouds above the car, that are a great contrast to the color of the car. It also comes in handy for catching reflections in the paint with more detail.
Flash (To use, or not to use?)
If you absolutely must use flash, then off camera either with a hot shoe cord or a wireless trigger is a must. And if you don’t have a spare set of hands, some sort of small stand for the flash. There are scenarios where a flash can come in really handy for car pictures, even in broad daylight. For example, shooting the open space between two parked cars. Unless the sun is directly overhead, in front of or behind the empty space, a flash aimed low and bounced off the pavement will brighten up the sides of the cars, creating a nice, even light between them. Or in the case of shooting a reflection, a flash can be used to highlight the object that you are seeing in the reflection. In other words, the flash is aimed at the other object, away from the reflecting surface.
Freezing the Action
Completely freezing a scene, even with a slow moving object, requires a very fast shutter speed. An object moving at 10mph requires a shooting speed of 1/200 or higher, depending on angle and distance. At 25mph (and a distance of 25 feet), you’re talking about a shutter speed faster than 1/600. Even in broad daylight, my ISO is usually set to 400 when I want to freeze a moving car. So to freeze an object, speed is your friend and that means a fast shutter speed. (The numbers quoted here are based on a vehicle moving parallel to the camera at specific distances. Speeds determined utilizing John Dudak’s Shutter Speed Calculator.)
Blurring the Background/Panning
Sometimes, the car you want a picture of is cruising the lot and you want to capture it in motion. These are fun shots – but are more difficult to get right. ?The technique used to isolate the moving object from it’s background is known as “panning.” Because this is a technique that can be applied to other types of photos and requires a bit more in depth explanation, it will be covered in another article, coming soon!
Again, these are just some basic tips to get you started on ?your way to getting great car pictures in a show setting.
Talk to the car owners when it’s feasible to do so. These men and women take great pride in their rides. They might point out some details you wouldn’t otherwise notice. When you are armed with that knowledge, you may get a killer shot of that personal touch that the owner loves. Do it right and it just might lead to future business. If nothing else, it will add a personal touch to your images in a setting that tends to be impersonal.
Bring business cards, even if you aren’t a pro. If you’ll be posting photos somewhere, even a site like Flickr, car owners would love to see them! You’d be surprised how often a car owner emails me about a photo I took of their car, asking if they can buy a print, or the digital. For example, 2 days ago, I was contacted by a car owner who spotted a photo I took of his car at Lead East, almost 8 months ago.
Car shows can be a lot of fun – but remember that everyone is there to have a good time. Don’t get aggravated if someone walks into your shot, or is taking their time around a car you are trying to get a picture of. Odds are good you’re shooting with digital – if the shot gets messed up, take it again. It’s GOING TO HAPPEN. It’s not the end of the world, I promise!
Equipment discussed in this article:
Sigma 17-70 2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM for Canon?(the lens I use most)
Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Aspherical (IF) for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 Image Stabilized USM SLR Lens for EOS Digital SLR
Sigma 17-70 2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM for Nikon
Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Aspherical (IF) for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras
Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor Wide-Angle Telephoto Zoom Lens for Nikon DSLR Cameras?Neutral Density (ND) Filters