Here's how you can get some truly unique shots of a much-favoured photographic subject
Humans love cars. For some they’re about adventure and for others they’re about status, but either way they’re a hugely popular subject for photographers. We’ve all seen thousands of images of cars, from the latest luxury models to rusting skeletons laying abandoned in fields.
Either way these icons of human endeavour can be photographed in myriad creative ways. Here are some of our top tips to get you started …
1 Get your angles right
All cars are different and will look better from different angles. However, it pays to know the angles to try. The most common angle to shoot a car is from one of the corners. That way you’ll get as much of it in your shot as possible. You’ve obviously got two corners to choose from, and beyond that you should experiment with the exact angle to take your shot from. What works best is going to depend on the design of the car. Another popular angle is from directly in front of the car, though it works best when the car in question has an attractive-looking – or dominant-looking – grill across the front.
Think about the statement the designer of the car is trying to make. Is it a car that’s all about being big and impressive? So make it look big in your photos and let it fill your composition. If it’s a small car then consider making it look compact and space-efficient. Use a zoom lens from a distance if you want to include backgrounds, which will look much bigger than if you use a wide-angle lens.
Anywhere you shoot cars – but particularly if you’re in rural locations – aim for the ‘golden hour’. Taking place an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise, the low Sun coming through lots of atmosphere creates a soft, golden light that’s warm, colourful – and reflects off cars’ bodywork. If you’re lucky you’ll get a gorgeous sunset, too, which can add some drama to your shot (and more stunning reflections). Read our guides on golden our photography.
2 Capture the detail
Any car worth photographing will have a distinct character, but while designs come and go most brands have signature styling of some kind that’s unique to them. It’s often the logo. For a Rolls-Royce it’s the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ ornament, for Bentley it’s the 'Flying B' mascot and for Ferrari it’s the ‘Prancing Horse’ logo. Don’t obsess about it, but a collection of photos of any new or classic car should definitely include some images of its signature styling.
Make your subject is as sharp as possible because it’s the stark contrast between sharp and blurred that catches the eye and makes bokeh such an effective tool.
A good way of making a logo, a wing mirror, a wheel or indeed any detail on a car standout is to indulge in a little bokeh – a soft, out of focus background. It’s achieved by manually manipulating the depth of field in an image and requires a ‘fast’ lens with as wide an aperture as possible (f1.8-f4) and using a fast shutter speed. Keep a relatively short distance between your subject and the background.
If you’re using a smartphone then try the portrait mode, which will typically automatically use an artificially-created special effect that blurs the background for you. If you’re using a smartphone then try the portrait mode, which will typically automatically use an artificially-created special effect that blurs the background for you. However, do make sure your subject is as sharp as possible because it’s the stark contrast between sharp and blurred that catches the eye and makes bokeh such an effective tool.
3 Mix it up
Avoid cliches, which abound in car photography. Don’t shoot in car parks and try to limit your images taken in lay-bys and on the sides of roads, both of which are overused and familiar to viewers. Forget about eye level and shoot low or high for unique perspectives. Experiment with using portrait-oriented images, which are unusual for car photography and work better on smartphones. Mount a GoPro on the bonnet and drive around a city at night, then extract images.
Don’t forget the dashboard. If you want to capture a car’s interior then consider using a fisheye lens or a 360º camera. Only with a spherical lens will you be able to capture what it’s like to be inside the car. For stills photography consumer-grade 360º cameras are quickly increasing in resolution, with 50 megapixels now possible. Upload the results to Facebook and viewers will be able to scan around the car’s interior.
Since cars are all about motion it makes sense to capture them while they’re moving – and make them look like they’re going really fast by slightly blurring the background. The easiest way to do that is by setting your camera to shutter priority mode; manually use a shutter speed of 1/40 to 1/125 and your camera will automatically select the aperture.
Also try the panning technique; tracking with your camera so you’re moving in-sync with the car as you take the shot. If you want to freeze a fast-moving car start at 1/500 and check the sharpness of your images.
4 Embrace car kitsch
If modern cars leave you cold then consider trying to capture cars with a story to tell, whether they’re newly restored vintage classic cars or rusting old cars left abandoned in fields. Offering an opportunity for a unique kind of car photography is Carhenge. A few miles north of Alliance, Nebraska, it’s a replica of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK, but made from 39 vintage American cars all painted grey. It was built in 1987 and has become an iconic roadside attraction. It’s open from dawn to dusk and has various other car art sculptures scattered around it. Another option in Goldfield, Nevada is the International Car Forest of the Last Church, an outdoor exhibition of over 40 cars in various states of disrepair.
If you want to try your hand at photographing brand new cars then get yourself to the International Motor Show in Munich, Germany. Held on odd numbered years only it premiers new cars from the likes of Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Other options include the New York International Auto Show in Manhattan each April, the North American International Auto Show each September in Detroit, Michigan and the Goodwood Festival of Speed each June in West Sussex, UK.
5 Think about a night shoot
We’ve all seen thousands of photos of cars, so how do you make your standout? It’s all about backgrounds. Choose something that you don’t normally see in car photos, such as a night scene (in paricular the night sky). For the latter the car must be stationary and your camera must be on a tripod wearing a reasonably wide-angle and fast (f1.8-f4) lens. For a simple shot requiring no stacking or compositing try 25 seconds, as wide an aperture as possible and ISO 1600. Always shoot in raw.
It might look simple, but to capture the Milky Way streaming down behind a car requires timing and patience. The Milky Way will be in the southeast-southwest and is best photographed between Last Quarter Moon and New Moon (plus a few evenings after) between May and September.
For a night shoot find a place on a light pollution map or visit a dark sky place. An alternative is to shoot under moonlight; with a bright Moon in the night sky the car will be surprisingly well lit-up if you use a long exposure.
- AuthorJamie Carter
Jamie Carter is a journalist and author focusing on stargazing and astronomy, astrophotography, and travel for Forbes Science, BBC Sky At Night magazine, Sky & Telescope, Travel+Leisure, and The Telegraph.View all articles