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MARTINSR 05-31-2005 08:17 PM

"Basics of Basics" Photographing your car.
I post things like this over on the body forum, thought you all might find this one of use.


"Basics of Basics" Photographing a car.
By Brian Martin

When you see a car on the front cover of a magazine, it was chosen because of photo quality, NOT the car. This is not to say that the cover car is not a nice car. All it says is that covers sell magazines and they will pick the most pleasing, eye catching photo, be damned the car. You cannot see the thousands of hours of detail the car has (or lack of) in that photo. There are millions of cover worthy cars photographed but only a few are cover worthy photos.

This is not to say that you even want your car on the cover of a magazine. But if you want a nice photo of your car or anything else for that matter on your living room wall these tips may be helpful.

I am not a professional photographer. I have studied photography and film and I have an interest in marketing. Marketing is exactly what you are doing when you take a nice photo, "Selling" the subject to the viewer.

I have had a few multipage shoots in magazines and even a front cover. As I said, I am no pro, but have found a few basic rules that make my photos much better. No talk here about light meters or aperture setting, I remember little about that stuff. These are just no nonsense basics.

1. Don't be too "artsy"

You have to remember, you want your subject to look it's best. If you try strange shooting angles or settings, you have missed the point. You want nice, clear, well lit photos. The viewer should see the car in it's "best light." The photos should show off its attributes. A "creative" shot from up on a ladder is not going to show off that beautiful stance the car has. You may be bored with this car, you have seen it a million times and know every single nut and bolt. The viewer has never seen it, don't distort what you worked so hard to create. Don't get me wrong, the shot from the ladder is great for shooting the bare frame in the driveway. I have done that and got very good results and comments from an editor. In that case, NOTHING in the background is the key. Just concrete and your chassis are all that should be seen.
There are times when you can show off or even exaggerate a quality. A shot looking right down the length of a '59 tail fin from an inch away or a shot from ground level up at the 68" tires on a monster truck are examples. Go ahead and get a few of those, but your main focus should be on, nice, clear, well lit photos.

2. Lighting

Lighting is probably the most common problem with our photos. That is not to say that you don't have enough light. The point is you need the right light on the right things in the photo. You need the ENTIRE subject well lit in most cases. Because YOU know the detail back in the darkness of the interior, that doesn't mean that the viewer seeing the photos will see it. You have to remind yourself that the viewer has NEVER seen your car. If you are shooting through an open door you REALLY need to lighten up the interior. If you are using a flash, the light can bounce off the door or quarter right back at the camera. You can run drop lights in from the other door and place them under the seat shining up. Of course you don't want to actually see where the light is coming from, just soft glow. And for sure you don't want to see the lights them selves. I have found that a florescent light works well for this. So, you have a nice sunny day? That is the worst time to shoot. You want an overcast so as to avoid shadows. If you do have bright sun, shoot when the sun is directly overhead to reduce shadows.
Just remember, the viewer needs help. He doesn't know that shadow on the rockers is covering in the bottom of the car. To him it looks like the car is a foot higher off the ground. The viewer has NEVER seen your car.
Use the flash more, set it to manual to kill those shadows. If the sun is shinning you won't over power it with your flash. The flash will illuminate the areas from the angle that YOU (read that the viewer) will be see the car. The sun is up looking down so from that angle it is well lit, BUT, you won't be seeing it from that angle. You need to be sure it is illuminated from the angle that YOU are seeing it through the viewfinder.

3. HEY, what is growing out of that car?

I have been drilling into you that the car is the subject, that doesn't mean you just ignore the background. The viewer has never seen your car, that telephone pole behind it may look like a strange custom accessory to him. You want a uniform look across behind the car. A building what ends half way does all kinds of strange things. It can make one end of your car look taller, lower than it really is. Lot's of vertical or horizontal lines around the car will make it look longer, shorter, taller or thinner.
You don't want trash or any garbage in the photos. Oil on the pavement or even parking lot stripes look horrible. You want the car level, NOT in a driveway. You do not want your car among other cars. YOUR car is the subject.

4. Is the car somewhere in that photo?

This is one that I still have a problem with. You need to remember what the subject is. For goodness sakes get in there and take the photo, don't be afraid to move in close. The car should be across about 75% if the photo. Having a photo of the whole Golden Gate bridge with your car sitting in front of it is not going to do it. Having your car with a portion of the bridge peaking out behind it, now that works. If you want a photo of the engine, get in there and take it. Don't have the fenders and grill and hood in the photo. What is the subject, the ENGINE. The engine is, so get in there and take it. Fill the frame with JUST the engine. Believe me, even if you try, you will somehow end up with more than that. This is fine, but you really have to force yourself, at least I do. If you are taking a shot of the interior, DON'T get the quarter and open door in the shot. It will be boring and more than likely be dark back in the car anyway. Remember what your subject is and that the viewer has never seen it. He has never seen that detail from time spent on the dash, show it to him.

So, you want your car to be in a magazine? If you plan on submitting photos to a magazine, give them a call first. Some do not accept any photos from outside their regular pros, but most will. Some have a strict guideline of what they will accept for submission. Some want high resolution color slides and black and white photos with a proof sheet and negatives.

Most any 35 MM camera will give you good enough photos for most magazines. All slide film and black and white film will work in any 35 MM camera so you don't need any special equipment. The basic rule is the lower the "speed" film the higher quality reproduction you will get from it. The higher speeds like 400, 500 and the like are for low light and moving subjects. They do not enlarge or reproduce well. This is changing though, it seems that these higher speed films have improved a lot over the last few years. The real low speeds I use to use like Kodachrome 64 color slide or Ectachrome 24 black and white are not even available.

My final tip is shoot many, many photos. Use different settings, different lighting, etc. As an amateur you will find that when you have a few rolls of photos spread out across the your dining room table, you will instantly see the great ones and the junk. Believe me, there will be lots of junk.
To test these tips I recommend you do some trial shoots. I have taken numbered cards and put them out so they can be seen in the test photos. I then kept a log with each photo's number and the details on the photo. The lighting, distance from subject, settings the camera was one, etc. I found this to be very helpful when learning what these changes do.

Above all, have fun!

MARTINSR 05-31-2005 08:23 PM

I just realized something! I wrote this a few years ago before digital cameras where the norm. I have since when to the camera store to find some of these high resilution films are not even available anymore. So check with the magazine first to see what they want you to submit.


RCastle 06-01-2005 04:32 PM

Great advice. I have been taking a few more shots of my car from different angles.I am by no means a photographer,but it is fun to take shots of your ride and familys rides then go back and admire the shot you just captured.

BarryK 06-01-2005 05:25 PM


This is a master Piece!
I have read it twice and you have pointed out a lot of things that I have never taken into consideration.

I'm not a professional photographer at all but do take volumes of every job I do for the buyers of the cars and for my own personal use.

The two goats I just finished, I have 33 CD's for the ram IV and 26 CD's for the other. So thanks for your advice.

I have a 1-CD of the vette frame but since body is not on yet I think I will start over and do it the right way!

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