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Car Photography Tips for Beginners

Useful advice for taking shots of your four-wheeled friend

Car photography is often viewed as one of the most thrilling and exciting genres to shoot. Although you may not necessarily have access to supercars worth more than your house, you can still have fun experimenting with this subject – even if it’s just taking pics of your family car. Here we offer some advice on how to get started with creative car photography.

Car photography tips: before you start

If you like, you can head straight outside and start photographing your family car. However, if your car’s just sat on the driveway, it’s unlikely to yield particularly exciting or different results. Instead, spend some time scouting for car photography locations that are going to work well.

Think about factors like: where would be a good backdrop, what location makes sense for the car (if you have a standard car, plonking it in the middle of a field makes less sense than if you have an off-road vehicle) and most importantly, where can you safely park and photograph the car.

Sometimes car parks can make for gritty or urban backdrops, but it’s important that you get permission from the land owner if you intend to start photographing on location – a simple call should do the trick.

If you’d like to photograph a subject that’s a little more exotic, you have a couple of options. You could consider renting a vehicle, but again it’s worth double-checking with the owner that it’s fine to photograph it. Alternatively, there are lots of car shows which you can attend – you won’t be able to move the car to a location of your choice, but it’s great for close-up and detail shots.

Track days can also be a good place to practise your car photography – a Google search of your local area should reveal your nearest locations. Once again, check with the owner that photography is permitted, and if there are any restrictions (such as the use of tripods).

Best camera for car photography

You can get started with almost any camera when you’re photographing cars, but for the best results pick something which allows you to change the lenses – whether that’s a DSLR or compact system camera.

There are benefits to each type of system, so try to go for the one which best suits your needs. If you intend to photograph moving cars, a camera which offers a fast frame rate can be a good idea.

For full-frame, the Sony A9 mirrorless model is perfect for fast-moving subjects as it can shoot at a remarkable 20fps including AF/AE tracking. You can keep shooting for up to 362 shots per burst, ensuring you never miss a moment.

Other compact system cameras that you might want to consider include the Fuji X-T2, which can shoot at up to 14fps, or the Panasonic GH5, with which you can utilise 4K or 6K photo to record at up to 60fps and extract stills.

Alternatively, if you prefer a DSLR, the Nikon D500 offers 10fps shooting, which should still give you excellent flexibility to capture the moment. If you prefer Canon, the 7D Mark II is a good all-rounder which also offers 10fps shooting.

In terms of lenses, there are a variety which work well for car photography. A wide-angle lens allows you to showcase the whole vehicle in its surroundings – something which offers 24-28mm is a good place to start. For APS-C sensor cameras, that equates to between 16 and 18mm, while for Four Thirds sensors, look for 12mm lenses.

As well as a wide-angle, a prime lens (especially if it has Macro functionality) is a good idea for picking out details – whether that’s a car badge, or dials and buttons on the interior. An extreme wide-angle lens will give you an unusual look, which can work well for some cars. A telephoto lens can be handy when photographing from a distance, such as during a track day or event.

Other equipment you should consider include a tripod, which can come in useful for a variety of reasons. Look for a light and portable model, as you might find you’re moving around a lot. The Vanguard VEO 235AB Aluminium Travel Tripod with Ball Head is ideal.

A monopod, such as the Manfrotto Compact Extreme Monopod, is also great when you’re attempting to take panning photos. A reflector is useful for directing light onto small details, especially on a bright day. A 5-in-1 reflector such as the Lastolite 75cm Bottletop includes a diffuser, which can be used to weaken the effect of problematic bright sunshine.

Best weather and timings for car photography

Although you may be tempted to photograph cars in bright sunshine, bear in mind that highly reflective surfaces can be problematic to photograph. It’s less of an issue with cars that have a matte surface, or if you can position the car so it blocks out any direct sunlight – but it’s still something to consider.

An overcast day can be the perfect conditions to photograph cars, as the bright sky will act as a giant softbox without the harsh light and shadows caused by the sun. Ideally it won’t be raining, but dramatic clouds can add impact to the background – and raindrops on a car’s surface or windscreen and windows can be used to create an interesting look too.

Just as with many other genres of photography, shooting at the golden hour (the hour or so just before sunset) can yield terrific results. You get a golden glow, while the sun is low enough in the sky to avoid casting harsh shadows.

Best camera settings for car photography

The camera settings you will use for automotive photography depend very much on the kind of car photographs you want to take.

If for example, you want to photograph your car in a static position against an interesting background, you’ll want to keep the ISO as low as possible, use a relatively narrow aperture (f/8-f11) and a quick shutter speed. Shooting in aperture priority is a good idea for this kind of shot so you can concentrate on controlling depth of field. Mounting the camera on a tripod is a good idea to remove any issues with blur from hand-holding.

You may find you also want to photograph some fine details of your car. For this, shooting with a wide aperture (for example f/2.8) will isolate the subject nicely from the background. If you can keep the ISO low that’s advised, but if you’re photographing a car’s interior, a tripod is less practical so don’t be afraid to up the ISO a little to make sure you still get sharp shots.

Car photography is the perfect excuse to give panning a go. This shows the car in-motion, and takes some practice to get right – but once you do, you’ll have dynamic action shots which show the car at its most natural. Track days and events are good for this type of photography, where you can stand from a safe distance to photograph the car.

In a nutshell, panning involves locking focus and following the movement of the car, resulting in a sharp car and a blurred background which conveys a sense of speed. For this, you’ll need to use a relatively slow shutter speed – start with something like 1/30, experimenting with even slower speeds as you start to feel more comfortable with the technique. As the car comes into the frame, press the shutter release button and move the camera across the frame with the car. It can help to pre-focus on an area which you know the car is going to arrive in, and switch to manual focus to stop your lens from trying to autofocus and missing the moment.

 

Best composition for car photography

It pays to experiment when it comes to car photography, and there’s no set right or wrong answer. However, there are some classic composition ideas when it comes to photographing cars which will show off your subject in its best light.

Placing the car according to the rule of thirds generally results in a pleasing image. Imagine your frame is split three ways horizontally, and three ways vertically. Compose so that the car is found where the lines meet for best results. Once you’ve given this a go, rip up the rule book and go off-piste – place the car in the middle of the frame and forget about the rules altogether.

Shooting from a very low point of view can result in a dramatic look, which is particularly suitable for powerful or particularly large cars. If you have a camera which has an articulating or tilting screen, use it to compose from as low to the ground as possible.

Try to get a selection of different angles and crops to make up a portfolio, gallery or montage of shots of your car. Don’t forget to capture both the interior and the exterior – especially for classic cars with vintage or antique points of interest. Lastly, always be mindful of what’s going on in the background of your shot  – a tree which appears to be sticking out from the boot (for example), can ruin an otherwise great image.

Will you be giving car photography a go soon? Share your shots via our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.