Car Photography 101 - Five tips for amazing pictures

DriverMod was started by writers. I’ve always seen cars as not just a collage of metal and glass, but as a story. That said, the best cars are always jaw-droppingly gorgeous and live to be photographed. That’s where photos come in. At that point we quickly realized that photography is far more than Instagram filters and expensive cameras – people go to school for years to properly understand this stuff.

On that note, this article is in no way a conclusive. Rather, I enlisted the help of photographers Andrew Zhang and Milan Svitek to try and put together a list of basic tips for amateur automotive photographers like myself:

1.       Learn the Lingo

In order to get 80% of the quality of professional photographers, especially when you’re taking simple pictures in a well-lit area, “auto-mode” with a high-quality DSLR camera will do. But, if you want to take your photos to the next level, you need to understand things like ISO and exposure, and how to manipulate them. Keep in mind that this guide was written with only digital in mind.

ISO – The light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor.

Low ISO means low sensitivity, and the high ISO means higher light sensitivity. Different ISO setting will have different results on different cameras. Generally use ISO 100 or 200 when you’re shooting in bright conditions, like a sunny day. In darker conditions, you might want to fall back to ISO 800, 1200, or higher. But, using high ISO settings comes at a cost. The higher the ISO setting used, the more “grainy” and “noisy” the photo will be. Post processing (we’ll get to that) can help eliminate some of that, but at the expense of resolution. Cameras with ‘noise reduction’ can reduce graininess automatically. Some cameras can handle low light shooting with a higher ISO better – Andrew Zhang recommended the Sony A7S.

This picture was taken in low light, with too high of an ISO setting, resulting in a grainy photo.

Aperture – How large the opening in your lens is.

 A high aperture, like f/16, will result in a tiny hole while a lower aperture, like f/1.4, will result in a large opening. Aperture is generally used to adjust depth of field; a term used to describe how sharp the background of a photo is. A small depth of view will leave the subject of the photo in focus, with the background out of focus. Likewise, a large depth of view will leave both the background and the subject in focus.

 The higher the f stop, the smaller the hole.

The higher the f stop, the smaller the hole.

A lower aperture results in a larger lens opening, a smaller depth of field and a blurrier background. Photographers call this effect “bokeh”.

Basically, low aperture results in bokeh. High aperture results in no bokeh. Simple.

No bokeh.

Light bokeh

Mild bokeh

Lots of bokeh.

White Balance – How warm or cold your lighting is.

The goal is to make the photo look as close to real life as possible. Therefore, if the photo looks “colder” (think of the light from an LED lamp) than real life, you can set white balance to a warmer setting (like the light from a fire). Most cameras will automatically white balance, and you can manually adjust white balance before shooting or during post processing. Cameras will give you a value in Kelvin, literally referring to the temperature of the light. Increase the ‘K’ value to make a picture look warmer, and decrease the ‘K’ value to make it colder.

This light is too cold

This light is too warm

Shutter Speed – The length of time the “shutter” is left open.

Between the light sensor in the camera and the lens is a window that opens and closes, known as a shutter. The longer that window is open, the longer the light sensor is exposed. A slow shutter speed means that the window is open for a long time, letting lots of light in but blurring any moving object. A fast shutter speed will capture fast moving object with clarity (like cars at a track day), while allowing less light in.

Too slow of a shutter speed blurred this photo

A faster shutter speed captured this moment with clarity

Exposure – Exposure is the brightness of a photo based on aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.

We know how ISO effects brightness, but aperture and shutter speed do as well. Along with creating a “bokeh” effect, a low aperture will make a picture brighter, because a larger camera opening lets more light in. Likewise, a high aperture will make a picture darker as a small opening lets less light in. Shutter speed effects brightness. A slow shutter speed will allow lots of light to enter the camera while a fast shutter speed will let less light in. All these factors will provide you with a given exposure.

Under exposed

Over exposed

2.       Use the right gear.

Sorry Instagram fans, if you want seriously high quality pictures then you really need to invest in a decent DSLR camera. Milan is shooting with a Pentax K50 today, which will cost you around $500 on amazon, while I usually shoot with a similarly priced Nikon D90. For slow shutter speed shooting, you’ll need to invest in a tripod, which can usually be picked up for fairly cheap. Other things like polarizing filters and flashes can come in handy , though their use extends past the scope of this article. Both Andrew and Milan suggested against the use of “pop-up” flash when shooting cars as they will only illuminate whatever is closest to the camera.

3.       Composition is key.

Composition refers to the way you set up an image. This is the simplest way to improve your pictures. For example, notice we’ve placed Brandon’s NB off center, to the bottom left corner. Photographers use something called the “rule of thirds” in order to make a photo look more natural and balanced.

Notice the pink grid over the photo. Studies have found that people’s eyes are naturally inclined the intersections of the lines instead of the center of the picture. The basic idea is then to try and place the subject over one of the intersections, rather than smack in the center of the picture. Most DSLR cameras will have a setting to produce this grid, to help you arrange your picture.

4.       The background is important.

I made this mistake in the early days of DriverMod. If you have the opportunity to plan a photoshoot and move your subject car around, take the time to find somewhere eye-catching. Dave’s Miata was shot in a parking lot behind his shop. That didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time, but later when we reviewed the pictures we noticed all sorts of unwanted clutter in the background. Everything in the picture is important, so if you have control over the background, there is no reason to have bystanders or econoboxes in the background. When I shot this picture of Randy’s M3, I later realized that there were two garbage cans in the background, and we couldn’t use the picture for our feature.

5.       Get Creative with Post Processing.

You can adjust a lot using photo editing software such as Adobe Lightroom or Topaz Labs Restyle. “RAW” images, as opposed to JPEGs, will save loads of data from a picture, allowing you to adjust things light balance, exposure, and colours. Even graininess resulting from high-ISO shooting can be reduced. Your computer has far more processing power than your camera, so utilize it. You can still adjust JPEGs during post processing, but not to the same degree. Here’s an example. Milan shot this gorgeous shot RAW and adjusted exposure in post process.

Because JPEGs store so much less colour data, the result would have looked something like this:


Over exposed

Happy shooting!

Thank you to both Andrew Zhang and Milan Svitek for your guidance, and for providing this article with amazing photographs. 

Edit: Bokeh is typically used to describe the quality of the blur, however we've simplified it to describe a shallow depth of field in this instance.