So you want to become a better car photographer? You’ve probably seen all the cool photographs in magazines like Car and Driver and you are pumped at the prospect. Here's how they do it.
First, log out of YouTube. Most of the tutorials on YouTube are nonsense. I can tell you that after 25 years of photographing cars, trucks, snowmobiles, etc. most amateurs get it wrong because they listen to someone who has little to no experience in the field.
While I can't explain every trick of the trade in this post, I can get you on the right track. If you are shooting a car that is stationary, think of your subject as a huge mirror and the sun and sky as your softbox and that’s how to get the best images when shooting cars.
Let me explain. The car’s paint finish reflects everything around you, the trees, plants, people, the street, etc. So it’s extremely important to have the best possible light falling on the subject. The light temperature gets warmer in the later afternoon and that's what you want. You can almost get rid of most reflections if you shoot in the light at dusk. But if you shoot in the morning the color shift will be colder than later in the afternoon. It's totally dependent on what look you are trying to achieve.
Personally, I start shooting (in most cases) an hour before the sun sets and continue to shoot until well after dark. Obviously you need a solid tripod to do this because your shutter speeds get very slow and there’s no way to hand-hold it without blurring the subject. Almost all professional car photographers shoot in the very late afternoon, even with action shots.
Long exposures are great, they aren’t critical like in the days of film photography, so you can push the exposures tremendously without altering the color balance or shift called reciprocity failure.
I like to start with what’s called a 3/4 view off the front and then I spin the car around until the entire car is covered. The sun should always be at your back or off to the side (like in the image above) and if you are shooting in the correct light, there should be only soft shadowing off the car. If the shadowing is crisp or harsh, then you are shooting too soon, wait for the sun to get lower in the sky.
Expose for the undercarriage where the light drops off and then average the light hitting the exterior of the body panels. That should be your exposure setting. Do not shoot with any F-stop under F11 or you will see a dramatic drop-off in sharpness from bumper to bumper. If you want to blur the background, simply move the car further away from the background, don’t adjust the F-stop, keep it at F11 or F16.
This is where novice car photographers always go wrong. They don’t know where to focus. Always focus on the car’s side mirror facing you if the car is at 3/4 to your view. Then reframe the car while holding down your focus button and take the image. Focusing on the grille or the windshield will only create a look that is sharp in the front and soft in the rear end. Use you depth-of-field meter if you have one.
Try this from several different elevations, low to the ground and from a ladder, too. Add tree limbs, and other things in the foreground to create a dimension to your image. Experiment!!
If you are gettting it right you will see the sunset (or sunrise/clouds) in the car body, and nothing more. Use a slight telephoto (85mm to 135mm) to add a compressed feel and that smooth paint finish will pop even more.
Use a shutter release cable or lock up the mirror if possible when shooting long exposures for the sharpest images. Mostly, watch your background! It's important to keep the background free of obstructions like trees, poles, etc. Find areas that are wide open in the background so that the vehicle becomes the sole focus of your image.
Incidentally, if you have to go into PhotoShop of Darkroom and tweak the hell out of your image, you've done something wrong. While we've become a world of post-production addicts, a good photograph will need very little post work and should stand on its own.
Experiment and enjoy.