Taking Photos of Cars

The most important facet of catalog style images is consistency – the angles and most importantly, a static background. On open air yards this can prove tricky but never impossible. In practice this means moving the car for every shot, instead of walking around the car.

There are mainly two schools of thought regarding the height from where to take photos from:

There is a special variety of salesman that espouses the virtues of having an adult’s perspective, by virtually walking around the car looking down upon it. In practice this means never bending and by the necessity of having to look down at it, being close to it as well. I could almost make peace with this if the car was re-parked for every individual angle but for some glaring problems:

  • From a standing position your most dominant background will be the ground upon which the car is parked. Whether it’s on tarmac or on the tarnished floor of your photo booth doesn’t matter – I am hard pressed to imagine the ground being more attractive than a distance behind the car (at least to allow for some depth of field).
    The lower down you are the more diminutive the ground becomes.
  • By having to be more up close and personal with the car you invariably start straying into the world of the exaggerated fish-eye lens: The car becomes rounder and bulges…this is only attractive if you’re focusing on some specific detail. Think of it this way: You’re doing a portrait session with a person who has a rather large nose – you’re not going to go there with a 35mm lens. You’re going to try flatten the image out by using anything close 70mm. For car photography this also means the cars become easier to ‘level out’ or ‘straighten’ with a pseudo horizon.
  • There is the one ethical virtue of being up close and personal approach that I cannot fault: It’s honest. Looking down at a bulging bonnet reveals small scratches, stone chips and blemishes to be much more than they really are.

Which brings me to an important note: Most dealerships have their own workshops which involves servicing cars as well as doing painting touch-ups. Numerous third party service suppliers also attend to interior vinyl, radios and small dents – they spend a lot on upgrading cars. For a car upgrade to become a priority then there must be a customer showing serious interest in a car (usually in the form of a deposit). Your job as car photographer is primarily to make cars look attractive in order to seduce feet onto the yard – what this means is that we gloss over small scratches, stone chips and blemishes. More often than not this is applicable to the North Shore branch – the manager will more often than not inform you of a specific car which is of interest.

Important notes: Photographing Cars

  1. Put as much distance as is possible between yourself and the car
  2. Re-park the car for every of the 8 individual corners of the car
  3. Always shoot with as low as low aperture setting as you can – f5,6 and less (exaggerated depth of field)
  4. Shoot from the same height. As a personal rule I always try level the camera at the same height as the headlamp, or rear lamps when shooting the boot side..
  5. Don’t be scared of upping the ISO. It’s highly unlikely that the image will be printed in a huge scale so ‘white noise’ is of little concern. The bigger concern, due to of shooting from as far away as possible and not using a tripod, is reducing the effect of ‘shake’. The only way to do this is to shoot at faster speeds. Upping the ISO makes this possible.
  6. The car must be as big as possible in the image ie. crop anything that isn’t the car Ratio 3:2
  7. All images must be the same size
  8. The only shortcut you’re allowed is not having to use a tripod…other than that – there are no shortcuts.
  9. Make use of the grid lines in your view finder – levelling a car is one of the trickier things to master in Car Photography, especially when the car is parked on an uneven surface. Making use of the grid lines goes a long way to getting it right before the editing process.
  10. 99% of the photos you take are destined for online publication and not for printing purposes. This holds three ramifications:
    1. Size doesn’t matter, you’re not printing at 300 dpi.
    2. 70 – 80% of browsers on the website are from mobile devices (Trademe = 65% of browsers). This means that screens are generally smaller and consequently darker. To compensate you need to slightly overexpose the photos.
    3. You don’t have to worry too much about high ISO settings and the resulting ‘white noise’.