From dramatic Top Gear-style shots to arty close-up images, Ed Godden shows you how to get the best from your car photography
Whether you choose to shoot your family hatchback or a precious vintage vehicle, photographing cars is all about creating images that make them look their absolute best.
You might just want to capture a picture of your pride and joy to hang on your living room wall, but if you’re thinking about selling your car you’ll need to make it look super smart.
Nobody’s going to want a buy a car that looks like a pile of junk, so photographing it in an idyllic setting and lighting it well can be the difference between making a sale or not.
Simply by using a reflector to shine light back onto your vehicle or a polarising filter to eliminate reflections on the paintwork, you can transform your shots from average to amazing.
Another way of adding interest and drama is to tilt the camera. Creating wacky perspectives, and capturing lines from the bonnet, side panels and grill will make your car look more impressive.
Zoning in on these areas with a wide-angle lens can distort the perspective for a powerful effect. Or, to capture the detail on show in the chrome or the dashboard area, try using a macro lens.
Using a wide-angle lens is fine for close-up shots, but be careful if you use one to shoot the car as a whole. A wide-angle can distort the perspective so much that the car could appear much larger than it actually is.
Keep it in proportion and even consider using a standard lens such as a 50mm, or a telephoto like a 70-200mm, and shoot from a distance. This not only throws the background out of focus and makes the car stand out, but will also keep the car in perspective.
Get in close
Don’t forget to shoot the smaller details. This blue Ford Mustang was bursting with colour and crying out for us to shoot its finer details with a macro lens.
Try honing in on interesting details like the badge on the bonnet, the shiny chrome handles and alloy wheels and any interesting switches and knobs on the dashboard.
Here, shooting on a bright sunny day was great for crisp shots – but we also had to deal with lots of reflections on the car’s bodywork. By holding a large, collapsible diffuser below the reflective surface – the chromed number plate on the right, for instance – the reflections of the gravel were instantly removed and left a perfectly detailed shot without distractions.
A diffuser is also a great tool for stopping the bright sun from hitting the area of the car you’re shooting. Simply get someone to help you out by holding it high and blocking the rays of sun from over-powering your shot.
Placing the car in the shade will give a more subtle and soft light to work with. If you don’t have a circular white diffuser, a simple white sheet of card will do the trick.
A polarising lens filter can also be a useful piece of kit when shooting cars. Rotating the circular filter will cut out any glare or horrible reflections, removing images of clouds or trees from the paintwork.
The bigger picture
So you’ve captured some cracking detail shots of the car as a whole – now try something different. To get an impressive and dramatic shot of your car within a landscape, it’s important to get a sense of perspective.
Here we used a wide-angle lens to squeeze as much of the car’s surroundings into the frame as possible.
The yellow TR6 looked right at home placed in a countryside setting, the summer sun hitting the car and the crisp blue sky helping to give the overall image a vibrant glow – with the yellow of the car blending in well with the green grass and the blue sky. The dirt track gives a great perspective and leads the eye in.
By using a large silver reflector we were also able to bounce some light onto the side of the car that was in shadow. This location was perfect. Being right at the top of a hill meant that we could use the fantastic expanse of sky as a dramatic backdrop. This also gave us the opportunity to use a graduated filter on our lens to further enhance the sky.
Graduated filters will give your shots a Top Gear feel. With a burst of colour dominating the frame and bleeding into the car in the foreground, the shot has instant impact and real wow factor.
I experimented with a selection of blue, yellow and tobacco-coloured grads to see which one was most suitable.
The yellow was just too much for the overall scene.
The blue was good but not quite natural enough.
The tobacco coloured grad was perfect – blending well with the other colours in the frame and giving the sky a stormy feel, yet keeping the bright sunshine on the car and the foreground.
Tilt your camera
Try tilting your camera to a funky angle for a completely different and more dynamic image. Your horizon will now be skewed, so you’ll need to move your graduated filter too so that it’s still parallel with the horizon.
If you’re shooting a convertible, why not try framing the distant horizon through the windscreen, which will make it stand out more against the sky in the background.
By using my 70-200mm lens at f/2.8 and shooting from close to the ground I could throw the foreground out of focus, leaving just a block of colour instead of distracting detail.
Selling your car? Read this!
Even if it’s just for a little classified ad, a great car shot will lure buyers. Give your car a good clean and a polish, wait for a sunny day and take it out into the countryside to find the perfect setting.
Shooting this Mini with a 70-200mm lens on a wide aperture of f/4 has thrown the background and foreground out of focus. With trees in the background and vibrant dandelions in the foreground, the frame is filled with colour.
Don’t forget the close-up shots too. If the car has nice features, a prospective buyer could be won over if you add some detail images. This Mini had the Union Jack painted on the back of each of the wing mirrors.
The basics of racing shots
To breathe more life and energy into your car images, try catching a car in action – perhaps by photographing your car as someone else drives it past you.
Alternatively, a classic car show at a race circuit will normally have some kind of competitive event or procession.
Even beginners can get great shots with the panning technique – set a slow shutter speed such as 1/50 sec and shoot as the cars race past you. Remember to continue the motion by swinging your hips from right to left (or vice versa depending on the direction of travel), moving the camera to follow the movement as you press the shutter.
This will freeze the movement of the car but blur the track and background, giving your shots a dynamic, professional-looking finish.