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Desmond Louw shares tips on how to improve your car photography.

This blog post features tips from renowned automotive photographer Desmond Louw. In order to show how accessible these tips are to the rest of us, we asked our Director of Media Relations Chuck Ellis, who recently completed the restoration of a 1964 Plymouth Valiant, to use the tips to take some photos of his own car for this post. His commentary can be found on each photo’s caption.   – Editor

Putting a camera in every cell phone has made us all photographers. And if you’re passionate about cars, you’ve almost certainly used your phone to photograph them. But were you satisfied with the results? Most likely not. Capturing magazine-quality images of cars is hard.

Judging light and composition is second nature to professional automotive photographers. They’ve spent years honing their skills, but you can learn the basics of car photography in far less time. These eight steps will get you started.

Get a good camera.

A DSLR or “mirrorless” camera will serve you best, especially if you’re after artistic shots. The latest top-of-the-line smartphones can produce impressive images too.

Choose a location.

Gritty industrial decay, pretty village, rural red barn, deserted beach? The backdrop should complement the car and convey something of its attitude and purpose. A Jeep might look best off-road, while a Fiat 500 perhaps needs an avenue of upscale stores. Try to avoid the parking lot though, and stay off the grass. The car should be somewhere that makes sense, and your lawn doesn’t.

Front end of the car, dead on center
If your car is like mine and has a lot of great horizontal lines on the front, a dead-on photo can give an interesting perspective. Use the grid on your viewfinder or preview to line up the lines on your hood or grille.

Pick a time of day.

Stunning photographs are often taken just after sunrise and before sunset. The low angle light is softer than at midday and highlights textures and shapes. You will need to watch for shadows though. Cloudy days often produce better pictures because there’s less glare from gleaming paint and chrome.

Keep the camera steady.

You can do this by using a tripod or resting it on something. This is especially important if you’re shooting in low light as your exposure times will be longer, accentuating any camera shake. (And you should avoid using the built-in flash as that rarely yields satisfactory results.)

Car from an interesting angle
I usually do level ground images, but my tripod was at an odd angle and I liked the angle. The tree canopy was pretty bright, so I did a heavy vignette in SnapSeed to bring the the light focus down to the car.

Compose your shot using the “Rule of Thirds.”

Imagine the view through the viewfinder split into nine equal-sized rectangles. Together, they form four intersection points. Put the focal point of your image at one of these. It creates a far more interesting picture than placing the subject dead center.

The driver's side rear bumper
The cool thing about wide angles is you can get right up on a car and still have the whole vehicle in frame. I like how the super wide plays off the curve of the Valiant’s CB antenna.

Choose your viewing angle and pose your car.

Here are four specific tips:
Crouch down and aim up. It’s a cliché in automotive photography, but by keeping the camera low, you’ll give your car more presence and authority.

Another cliché – go for the front three-quarters shot. Basically, shoot from the corners, not head-on or side-on. It’s more natural and shows off your car’s lines and styling features better.

Rear of car from 3/4 angle.
This ¾ angle was taken with my Canon Rebel T6 with a 18-55mm lens. I imported it into the SnapSeed for color correcting and a vignette effect. I like adding vignettes to photos of my car because it draws the eye toward the vehicle.

Angle the front wheels away from the camera. You’re trying to display the rims you spent so much time cleaning, not the tread.

Turn the lights on. Especially in low light shots, this adds a lot more interest. Besides, many modern cars have made a real feature of their lighting. If you’re behind the car, have someone press down on the brake pedal.

Don’t forget the interior.

To photograph the dash, recline the driver’s seat, then climb in the back. Small details like a finely knurled knob or precise leather stitching make for eye-catching pictures!

Interior shot of car
Interiors on cars are best shot in a wide angle or fisheye to give an open and roomy feel. These two were taken with an iPro Century Wide lens on my iPhone 6 and touched up in SnapSeed.

Pan for speed.

Ever wondered how fast a car has to travel for those blurred action shots? The answer is, not very. It does take two people though. One drives the car – slowly – while the photographer gets the car in his viewfinder and pivots to keep it there. You’ll need a fairly long exposure and some practice, but the results are dramatic.

Car in motion
My friend Benjamin Simons is a much much better photographer than I am. He was doing some motion photography and generously grabbed a few photos of my car in motion in exchange for helping on the shoot. Standing in the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler he was able to capture these moments going no more than 15 miles an hour, but the result looks much faster. Simons used a Canon 5D mark III with an EF16-35mm f 2.8 lens, settings with 1/25 sec shutter, f22, ISO 125. “The shutter is long-ish, a very small aperture is used to extend the shutter, and the low ISO is used to enhance color.” -Benjamin Simons

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can level up even more.

Turbocharge your car photo engine.

Reflections: Be on the lookout for reflections on the car. A car is like a mirror. Look closely at the car to see what reflects on the surface. Try to have an open space behind you; avoid shooting with buildings or objects in the background. One of the most important things to show in your car pictures is the design lines of the car or, as I like to call them, her curves. Reflections can ruin these curves.

Color: Different kinds of paint on the car react differently at different times of the day, depending on the light. Most colors don’t do well with direct sunlight, but some colors do work really well with it.

Light painting: This might sound daunting, but hear me out. Light painting is actually pretty easy. The biggest secret here is to find a spot where it’s completely dark. Streetlights or even a full moon could cause problems. Once you find the spot, set up your camera on a tripod. Set the ISO to 100, the shutter speed on 30 seconds and the aperture to f/9. When the shutter opens, take a strong constant light source and walk around the car ‘painting’ the car with your light. A flashlight works for this, but the best tool is a big softbox. ‘Paint’ the car in different ways to get different results. This technique can be used on anything that’s not moving. There are no set rules, so feel free to get creative.

Photoshop: Post-production is where your pictures come to life. Photoshop allows you to correct the little things and put the finishing touches on your photos. I have used Photoshop extensively for many years, and sometimes it still feels like I’m a beginner. There is always something to learn on Photoshop.

Work at it.

Taking great photos of your car involves a whole lot more than snapping away with your phone. Consider location, lighting, and composition, then get out and practice! Your car photography will quickly go from blah to wow.

Photo: Desmond Louw

Show off your best car photos below!


The Author

Desmond Louw

Desmond Louw

Desmond Louw is a creative, Cape Town-based photographer for DNA photographers, specializing in automotive photography.