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The three worst mistakes a beginner makes

when photographing their car

1: Bright overhead sunlight. Not good. Harsh sunlight (and worse, the harsh shadows caused by the sunlight) ruins more vehicle photos than anything else. Solution: wait until near sunset, or wait for an overcast day, and position (i.e., rotate) your car to take full advantage of any softer light.

2: Taking the photo too far away. Not good. Solution: get up close and "fill the frame" with automobile. Your objective is to photograph the car, not the background.

3: Stand up and "shoot down" on your car. Not good, and for several reasons. Solution: it's covered in detail below.

If you'd like all of the following guidelines in condensed form:

  • Clean your car and tyres thoroughly; give your tyres a rubdown with rubber coat.

  • Schedule your photo session very early or very late (just after dawn or just before dusk).

  • Park your car on (clean, unstriped) pavement. DO NOT photograph it parked on grass, or if you want it to look like an abandoned vehicle.

  • Carefully position/rotate your car so that you've got evenly-distributed sunlight over ALL the surfaces of your car facing your camera (the grille, the "chin," the tires, the sides). The sun should be directly behind you, warming your backside and illuminating ALL of the surfaces of your car facing the camera; once again, just to make sure you've got it: with the (very early or very late) sun at your back, shoot the SUNLIT side(s) of your car, not, repeat NOT the shadow side(s). If you're shooting, a typical "3/4-view" shot, then not only the side of the car, but the grille, the "chin" and the tyre tread should be illuminated by the sun. Are we clear on that? Color photography is about LIGHT, NOT SHADOW. And if you're going to shoot different views of your car (rear, head-on/front, etc.), then STAY WHERE YOU ARE WITH THE SUN AT YOUR BACK and have a colleague "rotate" your car into the next desired position. Contrary to some peoples expectations, you cannot "walk around the car shooting photos" and expect the sun to follow you accordingly.


    Think of it this way: your camera MUST be aimed in the direction of your (dawn or dusk) shadow. You could mount your camera onto a tripod facing in the direction of the tripod's shadow, epoxy your tripod and the camera into fixed position, then shoot all of your views of your car by doing nothing but "rotating" your car. And you'd have ideal lighting every time.

  • Crouch down and shoot at headlight level. Take some shots with your headlights or parking lights ON. The doors and decks should be closed; if you're shooting for an ad, don't include models (i.e., people) in your photos.photo_tips
  • Use a "normal" focal-length lens, or set your zoom lens accordingly (avoid wide-angle and telephoto settings).photo_tips
  • Make sure you're close enough to your car to "fill the frame" with automobile, NOT real estate.photo_tips
  • Beware of ugly shadows and reflections on the paint surfaces (especially, avoid the chaotic shadows of shade trees!)photo_tips
  • Use your flash for ALL engine and cockpit shots. Steering wheel straight, tilt column down, in horizontal position. Spotlessly clean carpet and upholstery. Wide-angle lens okay for these shots.
Tips for mid-day/harsh sunlight photography:

1: use your flash

2: use a polarizer filter

If for some reason you MUST shoot in bright sunlight (at an outdoor show for example), use your flash to "force-fill" light into those dark shadows caused by harsh sunlight.

Any good 35mm or digital camera will permit you to "force" your flash to work in bright sunlight.

Professional photographers routinely use "fill flash" for their daytime shots, although I couldn't count the times someone at a race or carshow has asked me "Why are you using that big flash unit with all this bright sunshine?" The brighter the overhead sunlight, the more you need to employ "fill flash."

You're unlikely to get good photographs in midday sunlight without a good strobe flash attachment. That flash unit will serve to both lighten the shadows and reduce the intensity of the brightness in the glare areas.

Make sure that the backdrop is neat and appropriate. A fashionable restaurant or hotel or fountain or a '50s-styled drive-in restaurant or even a beach or dock scene can make an ideal backdrop. Make sure there is no signpost or tree "growing out of" the top of your car or a car park line jutting from a tyre.

Keep your car on clean, unlined/uncracked pavement and off the grass; a car photographed on grass or tree leaves tends to look like an abandoned vehicle. Above all, remember that it's your car that's the primary focal point of your photograph, not the background or the live models.

Take your photos from different angles and different camera heights, from ± headlight level. Amateurs tend to "stand up and shoot down" on their car. Not good. The most dramatic, even menacing, sportscar shots are low-angle and (relatively) close-up. Position yourself for 3/4 view, 3-dimensional shots that capture part of the front and more of the side. If you intend your photos to be used on the Internet, also shoot a few "broadside" shots; a broadside shot (with the decks and doors closed) enables you to display your car on the Internet at a larger physical size while the filesize remains relatively small, which means a bigger image/faster download for each person viewing your car. If you really want to get serious, mount your camera onto a tripod (adjusted down low) so that you can critically examine and adjust the composition of each shot.

Engine & cockpit shots

Use your flash. Repeat: use your flash. For cockpit shots, make sure the upholstery and carpet is vacuumed to spotless. Straighten the steering wheel; if it's a tilt wheel, tilt it down to driving position. Use your wide-angle lens for engine and cockpit shots.


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