Automotive Photography / by Brenda (Hartshorn) Licitra

Automotive photography is great, and I really do wish I had the opportunity to do more of it.  I'm not exactly into cars, I just like slick designs.  Even though some cars may already look pretty, they don't just automatically photograph that way.  That nice shiny paint presents challenges to photographers.  That perfectly polished surface reflects everything in its environment like a mirror.

The Beauty Shot

When shooting outdoors, the best location is one with a clean and flat horizon.  If you have a lot of trees or buildings in the area, it is going to reflect into the car and intersect the body lines of the car.  You want a horizon that flows with the lines of the body.  When doing this you help emphasize the design of the car.  If you have a great backdrop for a beauty shot but it  has an unfortunate foreground all is not lost!  A large sheet or two of 4'x8' white foam core can provide a nice reflection into the side of the vehicle instead.

Also remember that the wheels are the jewels of the car.  Make sure that they are turned slightly towards the camera to show them off.  Don't have the driver crank the wheel all the way over though.  You want to be able to see the entire face of the rim without it being hidden by the wheel well.

The direction the sunlight and time of day will have a huge effect on the look of the car.  I would recommend planning ahead by doing some test shots at sunset and walking around the car to see how the light looks coming from behind, the sides, and the front.  If you have not done this before with a critical eye, you should.  I think the test is essential for understanding automotive photography and being able to achieve the desired look.  If you are going for a calm appeal, you probably want the direction of the light to be coming from the front side of the car.  This will create a flatter look.  When the light comes from behind, it will wrap around the body lines and make it look hot!

Action Shot

There is no need for the cars to be speeding by to make it look fast.  Simply increase the length of your exposure.  Since you will likely be panning, you can close down your aperture all the way while still getting a blurry background.  You want to pan instead of just doing a high-speed stop action shot so the background will blur more, show movement, and push the car to stand out against the background.  You can also use ND filters to increase the shutter speed even more if desired.  You can even shift the car into neutral and have people push it from behind if you want to get a closeup or maybe a hood ornament or something.  If you plan on shooting car to car, keep in mind that you need a permit for this.

General Tips

  • Do not use Armor All on the tires, they will photograph green instead of that deep black that your eyes see.  It is better to use Windex to touch up.
  • Make sure to turn the headlights on when appropriate to add extra interest
  • If you can, remember to take the plates off of the car when shooting.  They look ugly and distracting.  Taking 5 minutes to remove them will save you a lot of time in post.  If you are going to be doing shots on a public road (and it is a small production for a private owner, not commercial) I believe you can stick the plate on the dashboard or back window out of frame of your camera while still legally (in some states) being identifiable.
  • Tell the driver not to look at the camera.  Your viewer wants to look at the car, they aren't looking to make a connection with the driver.  Eye contact is not only unnecessary but unwanted in this case.  The photos also look really awkward that the person isn't looking at the road ahead.

Have fun and good luck!