It's a Setup
If you’ve ever excitedly snapped a picture of a car and been disappointed by the result, you’re not alone. I remember walking around car shows as a kid; armed with a disposable camera and working the shutter as fast as I could to capture the experience for later. Inevitably, the pictures would get developed and look––there’s no other word for it––lame.
What was happening between the beautiful cars I saw and the dreary pictures I was left with? Even though smartphones and digital cameras make this disappointment cheaper, most of the car people I’ve talked to struggle with the same problem.
“I suck at taking pictures,” they say. “Mine never look good.”
If this sounds familiar, don’t be so hard on yourself. Car photography is an endless journey and it can be huge amounts of fun. Hopefully, by sharing a few tips that helped me, I can make your experience a little more enjoyable, too. Assisting us in this will be our model for the day, the beautiful and talented Chewie.
This is how most of us start. I saw the car, raised my camera, and fired away on auto. Yes, there is technically a car in this picture but it’s not very interesting to look at. This was shot at an aperture of 5.6, a shutter speed of 1/100, an ISO of 400, and a focal length of 35mm. It’s said that 35mm is the focal length that most closely represents what the human eye sees, so it looks very natural in photos.
The reason pictures like this are so uninspiring is because they’re very close to what we see every day. Some people call this look “pedestrian” and it fits. Mix things up by changing your perspective––climb things, crawl on the ground, and look for creative ways to frame the car or objects you can place in the foreground or background. The weirder you look when taking the picture, the better it will turn out.
In this case, I liked the trees in the background but the stairwell needed to go. By squatting down and moving closer to the car, I cleaned up the background and got to see the car from a different vantage point. The camera was still in automatic mode so the settings remained the same.
One of the biggest advantages of using a camera instead of a phone is the ability to control your settings. For this picture, I wanted to blur the background to keep viewers’ eyes on the car. To do that, I opened the aperture up to 4.0. Going lower than that creates beautiful blur, but it also narrows the depth of field so much that only a tiny sliver of the car would be in focus.
As you can see, opening the aperture lets in more light. This picture is a touch overexposed, so I needed to start adjusting other settings. I started with ISO because, without motion, I could afford to be flexible with shutter speed. Reducing the ISO will darken an image but it also makes colors more vibrant. I changed my camera’s ISO to 100 and slowed the shutter speed down to 1/60.
Improvement. Remember that dark pixels can be lightened to some extent, but blown out pixels can’t be salvaged. This image is similar to the last one shot with automatic settings, but the extra blur in the background makes a subtle difference. At this point, I was ready to get the image onto my computer and start editing. I shoot all my photos as raw files, meaning the camera records all the information available and doesn’t attempt to process the image on its own. That gives powerful computer software more room to work before reducing the file to a usable JPEG.
These adjustments are nothing fancy. Every photo requires something different, but this gives you some ideas. A lot of people jump straight to the curve panel, but I like to start by flattening the image just a little with adjustments in the basic panel. Think of it this way: the curve allows you to manipulate highlights, lights, darks, and shadows; the basic panel defines what those categories include. This method will make your changes softer and more natural-looking. Finally, I reduced the saturation in a few colors to simplify the color palette.
And there we have it. The whole image is more interesting and easier to look at. The car was parked for less than five minutes and it took another five to edit. I stayed away from heavy lifting, so you can do this kind of work in Adobe Lightroom or even some of the more basic software that’s available for free.
Food for Thought
A camera’s automatic setting is a useful tool, but it almost never gives me what I’m looking for. I recommend sticking to manual mode. That will help you understand the balancing act between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If you get stuck, switch to auto to see what the camera recommends, then adjust from there. If your flash pops open, start asking questions because there are usually better solutions.
Next time you practice, play around with focal length, too. I shot this car with similar composition (where the car sits in the frame) at 35mm, 70mm, then 24 mm. Stretch your own telephoto lens to its extremes and see how the image changes. Going long is a good way to compress the background and really focus viewers’ eyes on the subject. This approach will also allow the camera to peek around objects to show more of the sides. Wide-angle lenses do the opposite. They create a dramatic look and work really well in tight spaces like car interiors, as long as you’re ok with that kind of distortion. When you’re shooting for fun, play around and use every trick you have. If you’re listing your car for sale, the closer you can get to what the human eye sees, the better.
At the last cars and coffee I went to, I met a young guy who was practicing with a used DSLR he bought as a kit for $200. That’s a fantastic buy and got him everything he needs to start developing his skills. As long as you have manual control over your settings, you’re headed in the right direction. Don’t get caught up in chasing the latest, most advanced, or most powerful equipment. Some of the best professional photographers I’ve met were using gear that the internet considers antiquated––and their work blew me away.
Finally, for all its faults, social media is a tremendous tool for aspiring photographers. Do some exploring to see the range of visual looks people achieve. Follow them, engage with them, and never be shy about posting your own work and asking for feedback.
That’s enough rambling from me; you have photos to take!
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Madison, Wisconsin. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.