Car Shots

1962 Cadillac Interior, Costa Mesa, CA

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 1⁄15 sec., ƒ/16. There’s nothing like the interior of an early ’60s Cadillac. This image was part of a job for a car collector in California. To accentuate the deco design and colors of the Caddy, I parked the car in front of an appropriately painted diner wall. Since it was a cloudy day, no flash was necessary. I braced a superwide-angle lens on top of the front seat from behind, making sure the perspective remained rectilinear.

Automotive art is favored by those immersed in car culture. Photographing these rolling objets d’art can be rewarding, both personally and professionally. Access to photogenic vehicles at local car shows, club events and racetracks is possible in most metropolitan areas. Portable lighting is more compact and more powerful, and DSLR capture, processing and output have made this driving pursuit available to anyone with the necessary circumstances and desire. Being able to get inspiring automotive photographs gives you some interesting imagery for your portfolio, as well as another service to add to your repertoire.

Car photography is specialized. Big auto company ad shoots are expensive propositions with an army of assistants, art directors and stylists. There are whole studios purpose-built to photograph cars, trucks and motorcycles. Here, we’re focusing on a more modest type of car shoot. It’s still specialized photography, but the scope of this article isn’t to show you how to work in a 20,000-square-foot facility with 50 lights. Instead, we’re showing you how to approach these challenging subjects to get professional images for inclusion in various aspects of your work. For example, it’s good for a wedding photographer to have the ability to get great car shots when a car figures prominently in the event.

1973 Porsche 911 RSR Tribute, Virginia

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 1⁄60 sec., ƒ/16. The apparent motion blur, which is integral to this image, was produced entirely in postproduction using Photoshop. The car was parked in position, and the shot was previsualized. I wanted it to look like I had used an automotive rig, so I worked in layers, masking back those parts of the image I didn’t want blurred. In addition to the motion blur, the glint of sunlight reflected off the rear glass makes the shot. Don’t be afraid of a hard sunlit reflection when it helps you create an effect. This shot was handheld during a magazine assignment in Virginia.

With this in mind, let’s consider some important elements when approaching professional automotive photography. Cars incorporate all of the classic lighting problems in one package. In particular, they’re complex glass and reflective metal subjects with glossy paint that reflects everything, especially on dark-colored vehicles. So, unless your location and background are clean and well thought out beforehand, you could be left with an image that needs a lot of complicated retouching.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume an outdoor location will be used. Shooting cars on location brings with it the potential of magical moments and unexpected obstacles. You could experience stormy skies, dramatic lighting and an extra element that elevates the photograph to one that exceeds your expectations. The unpredictability of location work also means that good preparation, planning and anticipation will put the odds in your favor. Having your batteries charged, the car detailed and a half-dozen nearby locations in mind all are recommended.

Special consideration should be given to the photo concept and any subsequent usage. A feeling of drama, power, speed, grace or beauty can be accentuated with postprocessing software in Photoshop, but it pays to capture as much of this ambience as possible beforehand. Careful previsualization of the appropriate setting, lighting and perspective will allow for the best results. An elevated view, a tilted camera angle and shooting from the ground all can provide for dramatic results. Focusing on car details, implementing selective focus or using framing elements to allow for storytelling vignettes can be aided by strong composition and design. Fog can lend a dreamy atmosphere, and nighttime lighting from industrial buildings, parking areas and freeway tunnels or overpasses can produce an otherworldly appearance.

Each make and model of car has its own look, personality and purpose. How aggressive or menacing does the vehicle appear? Is it more of an elegant, softly sculpted classic design? Perhaps its character is humorously vintage? Choosing a backdrop that either complements the look of the car or contrasts with it sharply can be an advantage. For example, race cars are usually best shot at the track or in a rally-type setting. Or, you could try placing them against an industrial backdrop.

Using existing natural light without flash means that choosing an appropriate time of day is important. Light-colored cars, especially those in metallic paint, need some directional light to give them sparkle, definition and contrast. Dark-colored automobiles look more interesting in soft late-afternoon sun with blue sky and clouds. Light at dawn or dusk can be especially flattering to a black car. A cloudy day will allow you to shoot for a longer time period and provide a uniform treatment when shooting a collection of cars individually. Having a flash unit ready to go gives you more options. If time is limited and the weather suddenly turns cloudy or dark, or if the chosen background proves to be too cluttered, auxiliary lighting can separate a car from its surroundings. When it comes to photographing interiors, trunks and engine compartments, then open shade, diffuse lighting or low-angled sunset light usually excel. Fill-flash or "painting" with a modeling light also can add needed highlights. Don’t forget to straighten the steering wheel before shooting interiors.

1960s Steering Wheel In Porsche 911, Monterey, CA

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-35mm lens at 35mm, 1⁄6 sec., ƒ/19. This is a straight image of a vintage MOMO steering wheel and interior shot during a magazine shoot on a foggy morning at Monterey’s Laguna Seca Racetrack. Only natural light was used. I sat in the driver’s seat, braced the camera against my body and shot with the lens stopped down to ƒ/19 at 1⁄6 sec. I got clean reflections on the gauges by positioning the camera to reflect the overcast sky. Overcast is like Mother Nature’s softbox, and it’s often ideal for automotive shooting.

Lamborghini Gallardo, Seattle, WA

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm lens at 100mm, 1⁄100 sec., ƒ/14, portable flash. This Lamborghini was photographed at a car show in Washington state and self-assigned. I chose a cloudy day and brought along a small portable flash, which I placed on the ground and fired remotely. Small, remote flash units are excellent to have with you for exactly these sorts of situations.

1973 Porsche 911 RSR Slide Valve MFI Motor, Monterey, CA

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 1⁄60 sec., ƒ/16. Engines can be difficult to photograph. This one proved to be visually interesting with its rare slide valve injection and thinly screened thr
ottle bodies. I used a wide angle to create a more dramatic, albeit distorted, look. Because I was able to use the directional, hard sunset light, I didn’t need any artificial light.

Action photography of sports sedans, SUVs and exotics allows several options. You could simply park the car on a deserted road and create all the desired "at speed" effects in Photoshop using a motion-blur filter in several layer masks. Or you could enlist two drivers and shoot car-to-car from a truck or convertible or through an open car window or sunroof. Another option is to use panned action photography from the side of the road. Or you can get really complicated and attach a camera to the car with a window mount, body mount or underbody automotive rig.

The advantage in using an automotive rig is that the camera moves at the exact same speed as the car being photographed. This gives a blurred look to the background while keeping the body in perfect focus. Long shutter speeds and coasting often are necessary for these shots to be successful. Just be aware that most rigs need to be visually removed from the final image in Photoshop.

Shutter-speed selection will determine how much blur is needed in action photography. Try using everything from 1⁄250 to 1⁄4 sec. initially to see what works best. By monitoring your progress and image sharpness in the camera’s review monitor, you can be guaranteed of good results. Always ensure that you have authorized access, and enlist all safety requirements when shooting from a vehicle, using a closed track or driving on any public road.

It’s a good idea to obtain property and model releases for all your automotive shoots. That way, you can continue to market your still images and video at a later date.

I try to work with the minimum of equipment, making sure I have a sturdy tripod and enough charged batteries and empty memory cards on hand to complete the shoot. My gear currently consists of a couple of Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and 15mm, 17-35mm, 50mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm and 500mm Canon lenses. My lighting case holds a Canon flash with a Quantum turbo battery, an umbrella, a light stand and an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra Kit.

What makes any photograph memorable is nuance combined with colors, shapes and lines that strike a universal chord in the viewer. The photographer who has a deep connection with his or her subject is more likely to be ready to fire the shutter when a special moment appears in his or her viewfinder. The challenge is to make every car photographed look unique.

See more of Randy Wells’ automotive images, as well as a range of his other work and blog, at

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