How to Plan a Car Photo Shoot

car_photo_shoot_AUTS (1)How to Plan a Car Photo Shoot: Taking Car Pictures Like a Pro

The sun is setting in the distance and reflections shimmer across the paint of a black luxury sedan. A team of assistants makes sure that not a speck of dust touches the hood, not a single streak mars the windshield. The photographer’s lighting assistants hold reflecting fabric in just the right places to enhance the light and minimize the shadows. And when everything is right, click! The perfect car photograph is made.

That’s how the professionals do it, anyways. But if you can’t afford a professional photographer and a crew of assistants, there are tips that will help you take impressive photographs of your own treasured vehicle.

“Cars make great subjects, but it is easy to take photos that look like simple snapshots,” says Photography Mad in its Car Photography Guide. There are simple ways to elevate those shots.

Before you do anything else, take out your car magazines or surf the internet and find examples of some of the best car photography you can. Look at these specifics:

  1. What’s in the background?
  2. Where is the light coming from? (If you’re not sure, look at where the shadows fall on the ground. The light is coming from the opposite side.)
  3. Look at the ground. Does it look wet? (Wet surfaces reflect light; think about the streets after a rainstorm, reflecting the glow from shop windows and stoplights.)
  4. Where is the photographer? (Does the shot come from above, below, or at equal height to the car? Is it taken to highlight a front or back corner of the vehicle, making the whole shot a bit of a diagonal? How does that angle enhance the photo?)

Now you’re ready to photograph your own car, by mirroring some of the techniques of the folks who do this for a living.

Car Photography Tips

  • First of all, make sure it’s absolutely pristine. This means no fingerprints on the paint or chrome, no dust on the wheels or hubcaps, no streaks or smears on the windows. You’d be surprised how much one streak or scuff can catch the light.
  • Second, find your location. Most likely it’s not going to be your street or driveway, because there will be things in the background that distract from the photo. You don’t want a tree growing out of the top of your car, or other vehicles or houses down the street pulling your viewer’s eye away. Your best bet is to find the back of an empty parking lot that bumps up against scenery, or a secluded place on a country road where you can pull over to the side. (Don’t forget to take your chamois, chrome cleaner, window cleaner and a couple of rags with you in case you get dust on the car when driving there. One great hint: “It should be a good picture without the car in it,” says professional automobile photographer DW Burnett, who has taken pictures for many publications, including Road and Track. Another thing to think about in terms of location: What kind of vehicle are you photographing, and where does it belong? A big Ford F-150 would look right at home on a dirt road in front of a ranch fence, but a Corvette might look silly there. An SUV looks great parked next to a wooded campsite, but a luxury sedan will look more impressive in front of a mirrored building on a city street. Andrew Hoyle, photographer for CNET and Roadshow, shares more about styling a car shot this way.
  • Plan the time of day. The best light for shooting is in the early morning hours or late evening hours, when the sun is closer to the horizon. This is typically referred to as the “golden hour.” There’s not as much glare, and the light that reflects off your car is much prettier. Sunset light, especially, tends to add warm golden tones. Shooting in the middle of the day makes the light too harsh and the shadows too sharp. The one exception? If you have a partly cloudy day. A blue sky with a lot of sculptural clouds floating by can create a beatiful image; just make you shoot when the sun goes behind one of those clouds.
  • If you’re near a hose, wet the ground around the car. It will darken the pavement, making it look less dirty, and it will reflect more light. The contrast will also help your car’s paint stand out and pop in the photograph.
  • Pick your angle. Take several practice shots of your car at different angles to see what they look like. A very successful angle is to shoot the car diagonally from in front of one headlight, from a vantage point a little lower than the headline — in essence, so you are looking up at the car.
  • Angle the front wheel. “Turning the front wheel so that the rim faces the camera gives the car a more poised and dynamic look,” says Photography Mad. “It also creates a more interesting composition than if all the wheels were facing in the same direction.”
  • Balance the image. Don’t forget the rule of thirds: Your subject should be in the left third or the right third of the photograph, but not centered. Photographer Burnett notes how important this is, especially if you want to suggest motion: “Putting the car dead-center in the frame may not be the right choice if  you’re supposed to be illustrating direction or motion,” he tells Gear Patrol. “If the car is coming in from the left, make sure you leave space on the right.”
  • Look for reflections. “A car (especially a new shiny one) is like a mirror,” says Digital Photography School. You can find reflections in the windows, in the paint of the car, and in the chrome. Try to pick photo sites where there’s little competing structure behind you, and be conscious of where your reflection is as you move around the car.

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