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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.

MARTINSR 06-01-2005 06:49 PM

I have to tell you, I had been involved with street rods all my life, done a few pretty neat cars and always would buy the rod mags every month to see if one of them made the pages. When we did my brothers 22 Buick Roadster I knew it would get some attention and was so excited to see it in a magazine. But the day I went to the store and saw MY photo sitting there on the cover of a magazine for sale, I was so damn proud I could have screamed! To hell with all the work I did on the car, heck, I do that for a living, it should be well done. But the photos, that is just pure love for free, you know what I mean? It was very cool.


mrevil 06-02-2005 07:45 AM

Thanks for the info :D I can't tell you how many shots I've taken with a borrowed digi cam, only to get them onto the comp. and like, crap, too much shine here or there, too busy etc.
I'll keep this in mind the next time I take some pics.

phat48 06-02-2005 09:20 AM

Thanks for the great tips. When it comes to photography, I need all the help I can get.

pumpkin35 06-03-2005 08:22 PM

Some really good advice Martinsr. As a photographer for over 15 years, I agree completly with you. I'm currently working for an auto trader type magazine, and you wouldn't believe some of the shots I see every day. One thing that should be taken into consideration above anything else is "What am I trying to show with this photo?" If you are looking to get a nice profile shot to show the cars stance, PLEASE dont park in front of a telephone pole. It looks like a really wierd growth coming out of the roof. Also the angle that you use makes a big difference in the overall composition of the shot. Try shooting a few from eye level, then get down on one knee and do a few more. The difference will amaze and mystify you. All in all, just get out there and keep shooting. Trust me it'll get better.

powderbill 06-05-2005 09:05 PM

Two other tips:
1. Use a tripod and cable release. Hand held is OK for casual work, but it is well documented that sharpness improves by use of a tripod.
2. Use a polarizing filter. It will reduce glare and improve color saturation, among other effects.

MARTINSR 06-05-2005 10:55 PM

Good points both of them Bill. And Pumkin, thanks for the kind words. Like I said, I am no pro but I sure can appreciate the art it takes to create a good photo. It sure as heck is a lot more than pointing and shooting.


grouch 06-08-2005 01:02 AM

I wish you could preach to some about journal photos. It's a real pain to download a large image of mostly background. I like details but I'm on dial-up and it is extremely frustrating to spend 5 minutes waiting for an image only to see that about 75% of it is concrete.

Cropping to the subject is quick and easy. The software is free and works on every platform out there. That 2048x1536 or 1600x1200 image doesn't have to stay that way. If the real meat of the photo is a 431x177 chunk in the middle, then just crop the waste out of a copy and post the "odd" sized image. There are no laws requiring an image to be 640x480, 800x600, 960x768 and so on.

Thanks, Martinsr, for posting such good advice.

mickey1031 06-08-2005 01:15 AM

i also do potography.

i would also like to add somethign here for you

you always see the lil star effects on cars in mag. ads. this is done with a cheap filter called a cross cut filter you can get themin several points IE 6pt will have 6 points in the filter and so .

the thing is dont over due it. I will shoot a roll with and a roll with out then use some from each roll.

I never take the poloriser off my camera for anything but cleaning

I am shooting Digital with a 10 D Canon camera and a light kit but you can do alot with a point and shoot camera big things to remeber is this

watch the back ground,
watch out for what might come in to the photo i had one one time (before photo shop was the norm) of a really nice car and in the pass. side window of this car was a bird that flew threw the shot as i took it. made the bird look like it was inside of the car.

Watch your lighting. when you set up your lights know what your going to be shooting like the dash for exampel. look at the dash in several angels so tha tyou can see all of the gugage lenses etc. see if you can see your lights in teh reflection if you can MOVE THEM!! if you can see it the cmer will also.

another thing to remeber is a camer dont see dementions it sees every thing flat so if you want to add the thrill of demention then you have to look at it in two dementions to see what the camera will see. then change it to get the effect you want .

also dont get to far away from the car, dont be afraid to get close to it and at the same ime fill the frame.

als you can still get the flims you had mention above from a camera shop in your local area ut remeber the higher the number it willgather more light but also add grain and that will cuse the finish product to look worse with to much.
a good film for out side is the lowest number you can find and are comfortabel working with. the throw away cameras are not a good choice here. I shoot all the tiem out side with a100 asa film and normally will use Kodak gold. for B&W film i use Illford delta film and i will use 100 or less asa.

use a tri pod on all your photos and use a cael release to make sure you dont shake it. if your camera has a miorro lock up this is the tiem to use it.

but most of all go out with the idea of what your goign to do and want to see
then TAKE YOU TIME do not rush this.

someof us that do this allot will run around acar and shoot 300 photos in 5 min. this is nto always the best thing to do. some thingk well it is digital so who cares i can always shoot more. but rember you will ever have the light exactly the same as you do now. unless you controlled the lights and dont move them untill you are done and proofed .

also get nthe ssmae level is one of the best things someoen said here. this also works great with kids fo rgrand kids or your kids.
most of all have fun with it and take the shots.
If you have a women in the photo make sure you dont cut off her head LOL
and watch shine on her and the car to.

cornfieldcars 06-14-2005 07:55 AM

Some really good tips on this subject, and I might add one more. A couple of people have said to "get close". However, there is another way to "get close" without physically moving....use a telephoto or zoom lens. How many times have you been admiring a photo of a nice shiny car and seen the reflection of the photographer in the car? Stand back a little farther and use a "longer" lens. Instead of the standard 50mm lens, try using a 120mm and moving back a little. you not only can get the same perspective, but you can avoid distortion that can happen with shorter lenses. Optics are very good these days and aren't as expensive as they once were. Also in regards to polarizers...they are a great accessory, but ones used for photography vary on their effectiveness depending on the angle you are to the sun. Just my .02.

pumpkin35 06-15-2005 07:26 PM

My .02 for the day......
Cornfield had a good point about distance. If you use 35mm, you can get a pretty good medium range zoom lens rather cheaply. I use a 35-200mm as an everyday on my work camera, and it works relatively good as a general purpose lens. You can get close without seeing your reflection in the shot. Also they can come in handy when the subject of the picture is a little farther away, and you cant get close enough for a good shot. (The girl onstage with the big manifolds.) Some of the newer digitals have rather good zoom capabilities, and work just fine in the same situations.

cornfieldcars 06-16-2005 07:17 AM

LOL....Pumpkin, you gotta love those manifolds don't you. YOu said something in an earlier reply about keep shooting. THat is the best advice. Take note of what you did wrong and what you did right and just keep shooting. It's a huge thrill to see your pic on a cover or in an article, but just the satisfaction of taking some taking some great shots and putting them on your wall or blowing them up to give as a gift to the person who owns the car. Alot of people take pics of their own cars, but to have one given as a gift that's of really good quality means alot to those folks. A friend of mine has a 39, a 40, and a 35 Ford, I have taken pics of his cars for him and had them blown up or in one instance made a collage and had it printed on a t-shirt, he thought it was great. Car people helping car people.....the way it should be.

pepi 06-23-2005 05:25 PM

photo/ view suggestion
I am not a pro but I say try a shot of your ride as if you were in another care viewing it................... or a shot as if you were a possum , before the bump sound. You can really have fun with a camera, especially now that digital is here . I love the no waiting and the cost of processing. $00.00

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