Looking to elevate your car photography? Prepare to learn the secrets of the pros.
There’s something undeniably magical about cars. The sleek curves, the gleaming paint jobs, the raw power under the hood, not to mention the amazing features and utility; it’s no wonder that so many folks are passionate about – or even obsessed with – automobiles.
But for car photographers, the situation is a little more complex. Automotive photography is exhilarating, but it also comes with a host of challenges: Cars are reflective, they’re fast-moving, and they can easily blend in with both urban and rural backdrops.
Fortunately, as a professional car photographer, I’ve spent hundreds of hours behind the camera, and along the way, I’ve developed powerful techniques that essentially guarantee top-notch shots. In this article, I share 18 practical tips, including:
- How to capture breathtaking images of moving cars
- The best lighting for car photoshoots
- Plenty of ideas for amazing car pictures
- Common car photography mistakes to look out for
- Much, much more!
Whether you’re an aspiring car photographer or a seasoned pro looking to enhance your skills, this article is your roadmap to success. So grab your gear, buckle up, and prepare for a wild ride!
1. Spend some time researching each car
Every car has a story to tell, and as a car photographer, it’s your job to unveil that story through your lens. Of course, you can’t tell a story if you’re unfamiliar with its details, so in the days leading up to each shoot, take the time to research the car you’ll be photographing
Start by digging into the car’s unique features and selling points. Look for advertisements or brochures that highlight these key aspects. Familiarize yourself with what makes that particular model stand out from the crowd.
Once you have a solid understanding of your subject, be sure to keep all the key information in mind during the actual photoshoot. Capture photos that draw the viewer’s attention to the standout features you researched. If the car is known for its lightning-fast speed, think about creating some dynamic shots that incorporate motion blur. For a car with a sleek design, emphasize those lines and curves by getting up close.
But don’t stop with individual car research. Expand your knowledge beyond specific models; if you aren’t already a car enthusiast, work to become one. Familiarize yourself with essential specifications, understand how different features work, and learn to speak the language of the automotive world. This not only helps you communicate better with car owners during your photoshoots but also boosts your confidence and credibility as a photographer.
2. Pick the right car photography gear
Capturing breathtaking car images requires having the right gear in your arsenal. Think of your camera and lenses as your trusty companions on this photographic adventure. While certain types of car photography may demand more specialized equipment, in general, you’ll need a powerful mirrorless camera or DSLR and lenses covering a range of wide-angle and standard focal lengths.
When it comes to cameras, any modern mirrorless camera or DSLR can do a commendable job of capturing stationary car exteriors. However, to freeze the action and create sharp shots, you’ll need a camera with fast autofocus and high continuous shooting speeds. Look for models that can handle at least 10 frames per second, giving you the ability to capture every exhilarating moment.
For optimal image quality, consider cameras with full-frame or APS-C sensors, providing solid high ISO capabilities. This ensures that you can capture detailed shots of car interiors without worrying about excessive noise ruining the image.
Now, let’s talk lenses. You can opt for a selection of fast prime lenses covering focal lengths from around 24mm to 85mm. These primes offer excellent image quality and versatility in various shooting scenarios. Alternatively, a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens provides convenience and flexibility, allowing you to adapt to different situations without constantly swapping lenses.
If you plan on delving into night-time car photography, consider adding a tripod to your gear collection. It enables you to capture stunning long-exposure shots that showcase both the car and the surrounding elements, like mesmerizing light trails or the gentle flow of water.
With the right gear in hand, you’ll be fully equipped to unleash your creative vision and capture striking car images that leave viewers in awe. Remember, investing in quality gear can significantly elevate the impact of your photography.
3. Shoot at the right time of day
The most common mistake people make when shooting cars? Heading out during the middle of the day, when the light is harsh, unflattering, and just all-around bad. It’s a surefire way to end up with poor automobile shots, and it certainly isn’t going to impress your clients.
Instead, the best time to do car photography is a few minutes after sunset (or a few minutes before sunrise). The light is soft, there’s no direct sun, and you can capture a beautiful, almost ethereal, effect. Use a tripod – the light won’t be particularly strong, so a remote release is also a good idea – and get that perfect soft light on the paint.
Note that you can also shoot cars during the golden hours – an hour or two before sunset and an hour or two after sunrise – but be careful; the more direct the lighting, the harder it is to create a flattering image. For close-up images, consider using a reflector to deal with pesky shadows.
Another option is to work on overcast days – the clouds do a good job of diffusing the light – but since the weather is difficult to predict, this isn’t really something you want to bank on. Instead, work close to sunrise and sunset whenever possible!
This photo was taken a few minutes before sunrise:
4. Match your camera settings to the scenario
In the exhilarating world of car photography, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to camera settings. It all depends on the situation, the desired effect, and the story you want to tell through your images. So, buckle up as we dive into the art of experimenting with different settings to capture breathtaking car shots.
When you’re aiming to freeze the action and keep the car tack-sharp, crank up that shutter speed to at least 1/1000s or higher. This might require widening the lens aperture or increasing the ISO, depending on the lighting conditions. To maintain exposure control without worrying about unexpected light changes, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode will be your trusty companions.
Interior shots, on the other hand, call for a delicate balance. You’ll want to keep the shutter speed relatively low to maintain sharpness, but also fast enough to prevent blurring. Boosting the ISO slightly and widening the aperture will come in handy here. And don’t forget to steady yourself against the car to avoid any unwanted camera shake.
When capturing motionless cars in all their stationary glory, Manual mode is your go-to. Set your ISO to its base value, select the aperture that suits your desired depth of field, and then fine-tune the shutter speed to achieve the perfect exposure. Remember, these settings are not set in stone! Feel free to mix it up, play with wider or narrower apertures, and explore the creative possibilities.
In this ever-evolving journey of car photography, experimentation is key. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries, step out of your comfort zone, and discover new settings that bring your car images to life.
5. Confidently seek out new cars to photograph
Let’s face it, unless you’re already drowning in client requests, the cars won’t come knocking on your door, begging for their portraits to be taken. But fear not, my fellow photographers, because I’ve got some ingenious strategies to help you uncover your next gem.
Start close to home. Reach out to friends and family who own eye-catching rides and kindly ask if you can photograph their prized wheels. Not only will this give you a chance to practice your skills, but it’ll also help you build a portfolio that’ll attract larger opportunities down the road. Put your heart and soul into those shots, and let them become the bait that lures in even more impressive catches.
Once you’ve mastered the basics and have a solid repertoire of awe-inspiring images, it’s time to spread your wings and approach strangers. Picture this: you spot a breathtaking car on the street, your heart races, and you can’t resist the urge to capture its essence. Summon your courage, stride over with confidence, and pay the owner a genuine compliment. Politely inquire if they’d allow you to photograph their automotive beauty. You’d be surprised how often people are willing to say yes, especially when you present yourself as a consummate professional armed with business cards and a dazzling website showcasing your automotive masterpieces.
Car shows are another goldmine for encountering passionate car lovers and finding an abundance of subjects in a single location. Join the automotive congregation, armed with your camera and a keen eye for detail. Strike up conversations, make connections, and let your enthusiasm for cars shine through. The more you put yourself out there, the more doors will swing open, leading you to coveted opportunities and remarkable vehicles begging to be immortalized through your lens.
6. Be on the lookout for reflections
If you’re after professional car photos, you must carefully control what reflects in the car. One of the most important things you want to show in your car pictures is the design lines, yet reflections can spoil these lines very quickly. So before you capture a single photo, have a look around you, then look closely at the car and see what reflects off its surface.
You see, a car (especially a new, shiny one) is like a mirror. So if you shoot with buildings or trees in front of the car, they’ll reflect off its surface and appear in your photos. Instead, aim to have an open space behind you, like a field or an ocean. If you’re stuck in a location with busy surroundings, you can always try to change your perspective; by getting down low, you may be able to get rid of the distractions and instead come away with a sky reflection in the car (which looks way better; see the image at the end of this section).
Pro tip: Be very careful not to include your own reflection in the photo. If you’re struggling, it’s best to put the camera on a tripod, set the self-timer, and move out of the shot. Just look at this photo I took of a dark, shiny BMW 428i; behind me was nothing except the horizon. In fact, you can clearly see the horizon reflecting in the car:
7. Work each car from a variety of angles
In the exciting realm of car photography, it’s crucial to approach each subject with a fresh perspective. Instead of settling for shots from a single direction, let your creative instincts take the wheel and explore the full range of angles. Capturing a car’s essence requires a well-rounded approach that encapsulates its unique details and character. While the temptation to focus solely on the front or profile shots may be strong, don’t limit yourself—there’s a whole world of possibilities waiting to be discovered.
Consider the captivating three-quarters angle, which can add a touch of intrigue and showcase the car’s sleek lines. Experiment with capturing the rear of the car, revealing its distinctive features and personality from a different viewpoint. Play with vantage points by elevating your position, whether it’s from a ladder, balcony, or even a parking garage, to provide a fresh perspective. And don’t be afraid to get low, allowing the car to loom powerfully in the frame, commanding attention and conveying a sense of strength.
Keep in mind that not every shot will be a winner, but by exploring a variety of angles, you open yourself up to the possibility of capturing outstanding images that truly showcase the car’s allure. It’s all about finding the perfect balance between creativity and technical skill, ensuring that each angle enhances the narrative you want to convey.
8. Don’t forget to capture interior images
In the electrifying world of car photography, it’s easy to become captivated by the mesmerizing exteriors of these four-wheeled beauties. But, hold your horses, my fellow photographers! Don’t let the allure of sleek curves and shining paint distract you from a crucial aspect of the automotive experience—the interior. Yes, my friends, it’s time to venture inside the cabin and capture the soul of the car from within.
Picture this: the supple leather seats beckoning you to sink into their embrace, the polished dashboard gleaming under the warm glow of ambient light, and the intricate details of the steering wheel waiting to be admired. These elements hold the key to telling a complete story, showcasing not just the external aesthetics but also the essence of comfort, luxury, and performance that lie within.
When it comes to photographing car interiors, a few pointers will set you on the right track. First, ensure that your client understands the significance of these shots, especially if they intend to use the images for listings or advertisements. Encourage them to prep the car by giving it a thorough interior clean and tidying up any loose items.
Car interiors can be notoriously challenging to capture due to their relatively dim nature. Seek out opportunities to park the car in well-lit areas or position it strategically to allow natural light to flood through the windows, illuminating the space with a touch of magic. If needed, don’t shy away from adjusting your camera settings, such as cranking up the ISO or lowering the shutter speed, to maintain sharpness while capturing the cozy ambiance.
9. Take driving shots
Here’s one of my favorite tips for creative car photography:
Shoot the car out of another moving car. (Please be super careful when doing this; make sure that both you and your camera are well-secured before even thinking about taking a photo.)
Unfortunately, you can’t just hop into your car, zoom along, and take some photos out the window. Instead, you’ll need to carefully select your speed, position, and settings. Here are my recommendations:
- Get a driver, so that you’re in the passenger seat and free to concentrate on the photo shoot
- Secure your camera to the inside of the car or your body using a strap
- The two cars should match speeds, with your car slightly ahead and in the adjacent lane; 60 km/h (37 mph) is a good starting point, as you’ll get some nice movement on the road and on the wheels, but you won’t be going so fast the shoot becomes difficult
- Set your camera to its continuous shooting mode and set your shutter speed to 1/100s or so. A little blur is good, as it communicates movement. You can even decrease the shutter speed further, though this will decrease your ratio of keepers to duds.
- Shoot on low-traffic roads. You do not want to frustrate or distract other drivers with your photo shoot.
Because this type of shot involves so many (literally) moving parts, you’re going to come away with plenty of failed images. But if you use burst mode, you experiment with different shutter speeds, and you put in the hours, you’ll start to capture some genuinely stunning photos.
10. Pay attention to the color of the car
Different types of paint react differently to changing light. I know I said that you should avoid direct sunlight, and it is true, but you’ll occasionally find colors that handle direct sunlight really well.
Just look at this baby blue Beetle shot in the middle of the day:
So don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting conditions. And always review your shots carefully afterward, making mental (or physical) notes about the color and how it looks.
Pro tip: If you want to jumpstart your understanding of lighting and car colors, head to a parking lot at different times of the day, then go around and (discreetly) take photos of cars. Obviously, you should use good judgment and be careful; don’t do a full car photo shoot while the owner stands and watches, and look out for cars driving around that might accidentally run you over.
11. Choose your background carefully
A beautiful background adds that perfect finishing touch to a car photo, while a bad and/or distracting background can instantly ruin the shot.
What counts as a good background? Anything non-distracting. Ideally, it should emphasize the main subject and even complement the car (and suit the theme).
Bad backgrounds, on the other hand, are distracting, they draw the eye, and they don’t make sense given the car color, shape, or theme. For instance, dustbins, power lines, and other cars can kill a picture. You can remove these in Photoshop sometimes, but it’s best to avoid them in the first place (plus, it’ll save you time in the long run).
For this Aston Martin shot, I used a simple background. The yellow paint matches the car’s color:
12. Make sure the car is looking its best
In car photography, the condition of your subject is nothing short of crucial. Nobody wants to see a snapshot of a car covered in dirt, scratches, and dents, so before you start snapping away, it’s important to ensure your subject looks its absolute best.
First things first, encourage the car owners to give their prized possessions a thorough wash before the photoshoot. A clean exterior will make those paint jobs pop and ensure a captivating visual experience.
Now, we must acknowledge that some issues may require more than just soap and water. Those pesky dents and imperfections can be trickier to handle. If you find yourself facing a less-than-perfect car, fear not! Strategically adjust your framing to avoid highlighting problem areas and instead focus on the car’s best features. Don’t let a few dings ruin the show.
And hey, let’s not forget about the magic of post-processing! With the right tools in hand, you can digitally transform your car into a flawless masterpiece. I encourage you to use programs like Photoshop to remove blemishes, but remember that every editing step will take extra time behind the computer, so it’s always best to get things right in the field.
13. Capture a mix of wide and close-up car photos
To truly showcase the essence of a car, you need to bring versatility to your photography game. Don’t limit yourself to just wide shots or close-ups—embrace the power of both! Wide-angle shots are like a sweeping vista, setting the stage and capturing the car in its environment. They allow you to paint a vivid picture of the scene, with the car as the charismatic protagonist. Think of it as the opening shot of a blockbuster movie, setting the tone and building anticipation.
On the other hand, close-up shots are all about the details—the intricacies that make each car unique. Zoom in on the sleek lines, the shiny chrome accents, and the finely crafted interior. Show off the stitching on the seats, the texture of the dashboard, and the gleam of the polished surfaces. These close-ups create an intimate connection with the viewer, inviting them to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into every automobile.
By incorporating a mix of wide and close-up shots, you’ll weave a compelling visual narrative that brings the car to life. It’s like telling a story through your lens, capturing the grandeur and the subtleties, leaving your audience in awe. So, equip yourself with lenses covering a range of focal lengths and explore the full spectrum of possibilities.
14. Pan for motion blur
I’ve already talked about shooting cars from a moving car. But if you want a beautiful motion blur effect and you don’t like the idea of photographing out a moving car window, why not try panning instead?
Simply stand next to the road and let the car drive past you. Follow the car with your lens in one smooth action and set the shutter speed to 1/125s. You will be amazed by how easy this is!
Of course, you’ll end up with plenty of failed shots, but the good ones will make it all worthwhile (and you can maximize the number of good images by using your camera’s burst mode and firing off a series of shots with every attempt). Also, you can try this technique after dark for some very interesting night car photography results.
This Ferrari was shot at 1/125s at 200mm. The car was driving roughly 37 mph (60 km/h):
15. Let the car interact with nature
Here’s another way to capture a photo that speaks to the viewer:
Don’t just park the car in a parking lot or along a road and snap some shots. Instead, make the car interact with its surroundings.
Examples of this could be a car creating dust or a 4×4 driving over an obstacle. Look at this Chevrolet Trailblazer climbing over a rock:
The car/rock combination emphasizes the ruggedness of the Trailblazer. Plus, by using a wide-angle lens and shooting from down low, I made the car loom, like it’s the king of the mountains.
Here’s another example, this one of a G-Class AMG drifting on loose sand:
Don’t you just love the movement it conveys? The whole photo is packed with energy.
16. Keep your images dynamic (even when the car is stopped)
In the realm of car photography, we often associate dynamism with shots of cars in motion, where the adrenaline is pumping and the excitement is palpable. But what about those moments when the car is at rest, waiting to unleash its power? Fear not, my fellow photographers, for there are ways to inject life and energy into your images, even when the wheels have come to a halt.
One trick in your arsenal is to approach your stationary subject from an angle. By tilting your perspective, you introduce a sense of movement and flow to the composition. Let the lines of the car lead the viewer’s eye on a visual journey, creating a dynamic path that draws them deeper into the frame.
Consider leaving space in front of the car, a breathing room that invites the imagination to fill the void with anticipation. This open expanse hints at the car’s potential to surge forward, igniting the thrill of speed and adventure in the viewer’s mind. It’s a visual cue that stirs excitement, even in stillness.
For the adventurous souls among us, going ultra-wide can yield captivating results. By incorporating the car as a prominent foreground element against a breathtaking landscape, you capture the essence of wanderlust and freedom. The juxtaposition of the stationary car against the vast expanse of nature adds a touch of awe-inspiring grandeur to your images.
Remember, my friends, dynamism is not limited to motion alone. It’s about infusing every frame with energy, intrigue, and a hint of the extraordinary.
17. Shoot at night
Night car photography might sound daunting, but you will be amazed by how easy and awesome it is! The biggest secret here is to find a spot where it’s completely dark; any streetlights or even a full moon could make life tricky.
When the shutter opens, take a strong constant light source and walk around the car, “painting” it with the light. A normal household flashlight works for this.
There are no rules here. Paint the car in different ways to get different effects, and you will be blown away by the results! Here’s an example of this technique:
18. Enhance your automotive photos with post-processing
Editing is an essential step that elevates your car photography to pro-level status. It’s your opportunity to fine-tune colors, accentuate details, and bring out the full potential of your shots.
Begin with the basics. Adjust the white balance to ensure accurate colors and make those hues pop. Tweak the exposure to find the perfect balance between shadows and highlights, revealing every intricate detail of the car. And don’t forget about minor color adjustments to enhance the overall mood and atmosphere.
But we can go even further. Cloning and healing tools are your secret weapons to eliminate any imperfections that might distract the viewer’s eye. Smooth out blemishes, scratches, or even unwanted reflections for a flawless finish. Additionally, consider adding a subtle vignette to draw the viewer’s focus toward the car and create a captivating visual experience.
As your skills progress, it’s time to explore more advanced techniques. Color grading allows you to unify the scene and evoke a specific mood, giving your images a refined and cohesive look. Dodge and burn selectively to add dimensionality, making the car truly come alive in three-dimensional glory.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to editing. Let your creativity run wild and try new ideas. Experimentation is key to discovering your unique editing style that sets your car photos apart from the rest. So, embrace the power of post-processing and unlock the full potential of your car images!
By harnessing the potential of post-processing, you’ll unleash the true beauty and impact of your car photography.
Tips for taking better photos of cars: final words
Well, there you have it! We’ve reached the finish line of our car photography journey – and now, armed with these practical tips, you’re ready to unleash your inner automotive artist and capture breathtaking car shots.
Remember that while automotive photography often seems difficult, even a beginner can get great results thanks to a few handy tricks of the trade. Make sure to choose the right lighting, do your research, choose your gear and settings carefully, and work each car from every angle. Then, once you’re done shooting, be sure to put plenty of time into post-processing so your photos really shine.
So find a worthy subject, then get out there and start practicing! Amazing car photos await!
Do you have any additional car photography tips or favorite images you’ve taken of cars? Share them in the comments below!
Authorship note: This article was originally written by Desmond Louw. In June 2023, the text and images were updated by the dPS Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.