How to take better car photos

Many kinds of creative possibilities are available when photographing cars. You are proud of yours and what you have been able to do to her. But there are good and bad ways to show others the apples and oranges of your eyes. Follow our tips and you’ll be taking better car photos in no time.

Car Photography Don’ts

Don’t forget the detail plans. Marc Elias

Avoid parking lines

Avoid parking your car in a lot with white lines sticking out from underneath. They tend to distract and take away from the natural beauty of the vehicle, especially when the car is from a classic era and is parked in a contemporary parking lot. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, such as when there are striking graphics like big arrows or colorful grids, but generally avoid stripes unless you like to spend time making retouching after shooting.

Avoid busy backgrounds

Like distracting stripes of paint, busy backgrounds can detract from the appearance of the vehicle. Remember that “the car is the star” and should be treated accordingly. Try shooting with a longer focal length above 120mm and with a wider f-stop to minimize depth of field. Sure, make sure your car is in focus front to back, but shoot wide enough that the background sharpness fades quickly.

Avoid poles sticking out of the roof of your car

Just as you should avoid having a lamppost, cell tower, or tree growing in someone’s head, the same applies here. This may be unavoidable in some situations, but look around before taking the shot.

A red car in front of a white arrow.
In general, it’s best to avoid distracting background and/or foreground elements. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with your face-framing. Marc Elias

Also avoid power lines

This one is self-explanatory but easily overlooked. Always take a look around the car before taking the photo. If there are power lines overhead, change your angle, lens focal length, or other trick that will eliminate background distractions.

Try not to give him the Jimmy Durante effect

Jimmy Durante was one of the most popular American entertainers from the 1920s to the 1970s. Sure, that’s an outdated reference, but he was also known for having a prominent trunk, or in other words, a big nose. . Using a wide-angle lens at an ultra-close distance can give you the same effect that many shooters have used to shoot Durante. There are always exceptions to rules that are ripe for breaking. A Tucker Torpedo with its center headlight is a great example that begs to be overdone in this way!

A panoramic shot of a sports car
A longer focal length will allow you to better isolate your vehicle from its background. Marc Elias

Try not to photograph cars at a car show where they are grouped

After years of attending hundreds of outdoor car shows, we have found that it is best to speak with the vehicle owner to arrange to photograph a car in a better location at another time. Of course, it’s a good idea to bring your camera, but be aware that no matter how closely they are parked together for display, great photo situations may not arise here. Instead, walk around, shoot for reference, and just enjoy the show.

Do not show steps

Unless you’re doing a comparison of the best tire treads for your off-road vehicle, it’s best to avoid photographing cars with the treads facing the camera. They are usually dirty, dull and sometimes filled with road grime. Instead, keep the tires straight or even slightly angled, which presents a nice open face of the alloy rims to the camera.

Back car photography

The interior of a beautiful car
Photograph the interior. Marc Elias

Use a polarizing filter

Sometimes highlights are good. For example, when photographing a car with a large expanse of dirt on the side of the vehicle. But other times, you may find the vehicle serving as a great mirror to its surroundings. This is where a polarizing filter comes in. Rotate it until the unwanted highlights disappear. Keep in mind, though, that as you walk around in the car, you may need to rotate the filter again for each new position you’re shooting from.

Use daylight strobes…if available/able

Some vehicles need a little help to bring out certain details. Many strobes offer built-in transmitters/receivers and can be used off-camera, where lighting angles become much more interesting. We used up to three strobes to light up a scene. And they’re not just for the night either. There are many examples of using the strobe in the middle of the day to open up vehicle shadows.

Make the engine a work of art.

The engine of a sports car.
The engine of a Maserati is a thing of beauty. Marc Elias

Related: Pro tips for taking the best photos when trying to sell your car

Looking under the hood of many vehicles, you will find many pieces of what we would call industrial art. Some of the latest examples include engines from Maserati, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. We can see that the beauty is more than superficial through clever angling or even the help of a well-placed strobe.

Photograph the interior as a million points of interest. Seat edges, carbon fiber trim, stitching, buttons, etc.

There are many photo-worthy spots inside. The detail of a precision knurled dial on the center console or the tactile beauty of open-pore wood trim and embroidered seat detailing are examples of dignified subject matter inside the car.

Plan a perfectly panoramic shot

Just as there is a “Sunny-16” rule, there are panning rules. The starting point is a shutter speed which corresponds to the speed at which the car in question is moving. For example, if the car is going 40 mph, start with a shutter speed in the same neighborhood, like 1/40 sec. Shutter priority is a perfect setting for this type of shooting, as it will automatically control aperture once you set the appropriate shutter speed. Practice if you want on a busy street by picking up vehicles moving from your left to your right. Follow the car twisting your body at the waist in a smooth motion. It will take some practice, but eventually your timing and movements will start to sync up with the cars, resulting in smooth panning shots.

These are the basic rules, but they can be broken for artistic effect. Setting an even slower shutter speed will blur things considerably, but you might even like the results!

A panoramic shot of a sports car
Use a slow shutter speed while panning to create a cool motion blur effect. Marc Elias

Tracking (car-to-car shots)

Another option, called photo tracking, lets you blur the background while keeping the car sharp. Start with the same shutter speeds described in the Panorama Shot section, varying them for effect. You will also need a friend driving the camera rig vehicle (the vehicle you will be in) and another driving the car in question.

SUVs may work better because they offer two firing points. The first is to shoot through the side window, keeping your photo vehicle out of the shot. The other is to shoot the back of an SUV. A word on safety: The safest type is a three-row vehicle with a seat belt in the third row. Otherwise, the use of an attached safety harness is mandatory. These can be purchased at stores like Home Depot or Lowes.

Film after sunset

Just because the sun is over for the day doesn’t mean you should be too. Some of our best photos come from the reflections in the sky after the sun has set below the horizon. The effect is most pronounced on dark vehicles, although any color is fine for an overall view of a car.

Combine shots

A blue car against a blue sky.
This image is a composite of two different exposures, one made for the car and one made for the sky. Marc Elias

Using a tripod-mounted camera, photograph a hero with a circular polarizing filter rotated so that it removes reflections off the side of the vehicle. Once you’re sure you’ve taken this shot, rotate the filter until the reflections on the hood and windshield disappear, while being careful not to touch the tripod. Do this shot too. Back on your computer, in Photoshop or Lightroom, cut out the hood and windshield parts from the second image and paste them into the photo of the car as a whole. Remember to feather the image for minimal artifacts.

This is just the start of your automotive photography journey

These are by no means a definitive list of in-car shooting techniques. And they can also be used for other types of photos. For example, the panning technique can be applied when dealing with motorcycles, bicycles, boats, trains, and even racers. Consider this a starting point for where your photography can take you. And along the way, don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

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