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Written by "Vector"
Managing Director, Vector Trust / USA
Original member of the team.

   No matter what type of car or truck you have, You can create great photos that look like they came from the pages of MotorTrend, CAR, Street Rodder or Hot Rod. Follow this step by step process and youíll have photos to be proud of. These are the same procedures professionals use, when shooting magazine feature pieces. Iíve just listed the steps in order and simplified the process for the average automobile enthusiast. Grab your car keys, a camera and lets get to it, but first:

Dress your "model" in her finest wardrobe.

   There is more to taking great pictures of your car than clicking the shutter. Before the camera comes out of the bag, we need to do a little advance planning. First, take the time to make your car look its best. Wash and detail the car. Buy some car polish and wax. Shine those wheels, clean the rubber, and donít forget the inner wheelwells while your down there. If youíve customized a street rod, polish the chrome stacks or the blower. Lifted 4x4ís need lots of work on the frame and suspension pieces. The new spray protectants can do wonders for "ordinary" leather interior parts. Think where you are going to focus the camera and get it ready ahead of time.

Set the "stage" for your film shoot.

   Finding a flattering photo background is something you need to do in advance. Everywhere you go, look for interesting settings. Matching the background to the vehicle helps too. I wouldnít pose a Mercedes SLK with a wheel up high on a boulder, but a "lifted" Ford F-350 SuperDuty might look good that way. Backgrounds are a creative choice from what you have available near by. In the heart of a big city? Try to find an office park with pretty landscaping. Big shopping malls and college parking lots have landscaped islands, and most are empty on Sunday morning at 6 AM. < We will get to the subject of when to take your photos in a moment.> In more rural areas, find a nice split rail fence on the side of the road. A look-out scenic area on the top of a mountan might be nice. You are looking for a simple, attractive canvas to place your "model" in front of. Avoid chain-link fences, street signs, parking lot paint stripes and other clutter. Simple and plain is the best background.

Select the right film for the job.

   Even the most novice photographer knows that film comes in different ďspeedsĒ. Hereís a simple primer about film if you donít know what those numbers mean. All film sold has an ISO number. The most common consumer film is 100 - 200 and 400 speed film. Even 800 speed film can be found in retail stores, under the Kodak imprint of MAX film.. The speed rating is an indication of how sensitive the film is to light. ISO 200 film is twice as sensitive, or "fast" as ISO100. A film with a rating of 400 is not four times as fast, but 16 times as "fast". Itís ( 4 x 4 )= 400. ISO 800 is ( 4 x 8) = 32 times as fast. That is close enough for our discussion here. Slow film requires longer open shutter time, called exposure. Fast film needs less time, because the film will get the image quicker. The difference is in the tiny details. Like pixels on a computer screen, ISO 100 has a more detailed resolution, but requires more time to get the image on film. I recommend you use the film that delivers the correct end result. If you are going to use the photos on a web site or in 4x6 and 8x10 size prints, then ISO 200 or 400 will do. If you are going to ever need bigger prints, a printed poster and calendar, or if you are ever going to put these photos in print, either in a newsletter or a magazine, then you must shoot ISO 100 or even a slower ISO 50 film. Many of the photos you see in the major magazines are shot with ISO 25 film. There is also a difference between slide film, and the print film that most consumers use. In your pictures, use regular print film, and weíll save a paragraph of explanation. No amateur photographer needs to use slide film to get the pictures they want in a frame and on the wall.

Select the correct "light" for the job

   Just as there are different films, there are different types of daylight. At sunset on a rainy day, the sky glows orange. At mid-day in the summer, the sunlight is harsh, making you squint. With this in mind, the best light of the day occurs in the 45 minutes around sunrise and again at sunset. Professional photographers call this the "golden hour". The sun is low in the horizon, the light is indirect and has a pleasant tone. The shadows are softer and colors look their best. Plan ahead though. You must be ready to shoot when the light is right. In my experience, the light is "right" for about 20-25 minutes at most. While we are talking about the light, let me mention "posing" our "model". The ideal photographic situation is to position your car so that the sun is low in the sky behind you, as you look through the view finder. Never shoot the camera into the sun. If you want a picture of the front of the car, and then the rear view, rotate the car, not the camera. A variety of poses is best, but keep that "good" light over your shoulder. Keep this in mind when scouting for background locations too.

Select the right "tools" for the job

   Itís not necessary to have expensive camera equipment to take great photos of your car. Cameras are just tools. Will a vise-grip® turn a lugnut? Yes, but a "spinner" makes the job easier, because itís the right tool. Point and shoot cameras can take great photos, but the margin of error is higher. Now might be the time to purchase a decent low cost 35mm SLR camera, or borrow one from a friend. SLR cameras more accurately show the finished image through the viewfinder, offer greater shutter and exposure control, and give you the ability to change lens. Different lens will alter the perspective view of your "model". As you take photos, (during the "golden hour", remember?), Use your cameraís flash unit too. Your car should be well lit in the soft natural light. A flash will fill in remaining areas of small shadows and give your chrome a sparkle. The longer exposure times I mentioned above, need lots of light on the film. When you concentrate the light on your car, It becomes the "center of attention" in your photo. Thatís a good thing. To get those long exposures, Use a tripod to hold the camera. Not every professional does this, but youíll get better results if you do. Personally, a tripod forces me to remember to "plan" my photos. Look through the viewfinder and really see what youíll get on film. If the photo isnít right, Donít waste the film, fix the scene first.

Lets go take some pictures.

   Get to the pre-selected photo background early. Youíll need time to get organized, set up the camera and "pose" the car. Iíve done a hundred of these, and I need time to think through the process each time. Donít be afraid to come back a different day, if the weather is not cooperating. You have all the time in the world. Professional photographers may not have that luxury. Magazine editors are like 2 year olds, they want it now! Now! NOW!
    Remember we have positioned the car so the sun is coming over your shoulder. The soft light is covering the car. Use a flash on these photos too. Itís called "fill flash" by photographers, but this extra bit of light will remove the last few shadows in the picture, brighten the colors and focus the viewers eye on the center of your picture. Take photos from down low at bumper height and up high on a step ladder. Watch for your own shadow in the picture, but try different viewing angles. Hereís where the pre-planning comes in handy. If you know the poses ahead of time, when you take out the camera, you are taking photos not figuring out what to do.
    Fill the view finder with your car. In most cases, you want as little background as possible in your pictures. The larger the car is in the viewfinder, the bigger it will be in the finished print. Taking photos of your car at a specific or identifiable place requires a compromise. You still want to fill the viewfinder, but need a wide view to encompass the location or landmark you want to include. Trial and error in this situation is best. Film is cheap. Try lots of different poses and angles. Experience and some luck will get you the picture you wanted. The same is true of close ups. Remember, if a wide view is interesting a close up can be too.

Learn from your mistakes, and the errors others make.

note here note here    Let me demonstrate some common errors that photographers make by showing you real "car club" photos. These pictures were submitted by the car owners for use on a group web site. I'll call this the " What NOT to do " chapter. The names have been removed to protect the "guilty".

   1.    The top two photos on either side are examples of poor car positioning. The red Mustang on the right needs to be moved out of the partial shade. Using a flash unit would remove some of the heavy shade. Shooting the car in this spot during the "golden hour" of sun light would help too. Do one or the other, not both. The owner of the brown Mustang on the left needs to watch the background he has chosen. It is distracting to see two buildings in the picture and a "tree-antenna" growing from the roof of this Mustang. People in your photos are a personal choice. We are all "car-nuts" and proud of our vehicles. I see nothing wrong with including yourself in your photos. Just don't expect publishers to think your girlfriend is a professional model. If you need a great model, hire a real one. If you've gotten to the point of needing paid models, it is also probably the time to hire a professional photographer. note here note here

   2.   The interior image and the engine photo on the right, are both nicely thought out pictures. The problem is poor lighting. Sticking a camera under the hood of your car guarentees a less than professional looking photo. Creating nice photos will require you to creatively add more light, especially in "dark" areas like engine bays and the backseat area of your car. Solve this problem by having a friend hold a large light reflector or a "shop" light nearby. Stay out of the the cameras view, but flood the area with additional light. Flash units can help, but tend to reflect "hot spots" off of random chrome pieces. This interior photo would be greatly improved with a fill-in flash, to equalize the bright sunlight shining on the seat face. Moving the camera lower... about two feet below this view, would creatively improve this pretty Camaro interior picture and allow the viewer to see all the way across both front sets to the custom door panels on the passenger side.

   3.   The next two pictures are close to perfect. The owner of the red mustang on the right needs some patience. He had a very nice and interesting, plain background. The car was posed correctly, but he was in a hurry and didn't wait for that soft, perfect early morning light or catch it at the end of the day. The result is the harsh, reflections in the glass and paint. The big shadows under the car would have faded too. The picture of the yellow convertible is a great one too, but practice makes perfect. I usually don't like paint stripes on the road in "parked" photos. I'll let this one go, because it matches the cars color. Again, the natural light is too harsh. note here note here See the glare on the hood and rear 3/4 panels. Yoda says "Patience !! Uhh, ...learn it you must, young one". Notice how the camera is low to the ground. With the car on a slightly arching rise in the road, the view is improved and the background is simplified too. This picture was also taken from a distance with a long telephoto lens, which flattens the image for better display.

   4.   Try a new perspective once in a while. Don't be afraid to get really close to your subject.... or farther away. The photo of the Jaguar XKE hood ornament is still one of my favorite photos. It was taken at an exotic/luxury car show. Because the view is so "tight", you feel the rain drops. The larger prints of this shot allow you to see the reflections in the chrome "leaping kitty" as well as the paint. Who doesn't recognize the lines of an XKE fender? Both images were taken with a crowd gathered around the car, making most other photos impossible.

note here note here note here

   5.   Going the other way sometimes is nice too. Wide angle shots will work depending on the view that is available. Any Ferrari is instantly recognized. The two pictured here were at the same rainy, exotic car show. This photo was taken early, before the crowds arrived. The new and old model Ferraris together is nice. The front car is reflected in the wet pavement across the image floor. I took this shot at 6:15 AM, during the "golden hour" I've mentioned several times. No flash lighting added. The subtle reflection of the car in the wet pavement would have been wiped out by a flash unit.

Finally, Use your great new photos, Donít put them in a drawer.

   One last note. Once youíve gotten the photos you like, put them to work. Any local discount or grocery store with a photo lab can make prints up to 14x20 in size. Watch the local newspaper for discount coupons. Rarely will these cost more the usd$5.oo. Monthly calendars can be made with your photos too. Ask about this service at "quick -print" shops that do business cards or the same discount retailers mentioned above. Larger format posters ( 48 x 30 inch ) require specialized printer services, but are not necessarily a great deal more expensive. Contact any camera retailer in your area and ask who they recommend. The real joy of great photos is the pride you can take in how great your car looks, and youíve gone it all yourself.

My Top 10 "Do It Yourself" Tips for Great Automotive Photos.

About the author:
     "Vector" is one of the founding members of
See some of his photography work and read other technical and "How to" articles on this web site.
His byline appears occasionally in motorsports and racing enthusiast publications, world-wide.