Photographing Your Beautiful Car
by Terry Walker


There is no need for elaborate and expensive equipment to produce beautiful photographs of your beautiful car.

I can say this with a certain amount of confidence. I'm not a professional photographer, but I've been pressing the little button on the side of the box since I was about 12. From time to time I've taken the occasional pretty good picture, and I can usually work out why its a pretty good picture.

I've discovered that cars are surprisingly hard to photograph well. Until you learn a couple of simple tricks. Mind you, the simple tricks won't guarantee a great photo, but they will greatly reduce the probability of a lousy one.

As for kit, all you need a reasonably sharp lens, and a reasonably fine grain film. In the case of digital cameras, you need a fairly high pixel number, say 5.1 megapixels, but it depends on how big you want to print your photo. A 3.1 megapixel point-and-shoot will do a fine job if you only want your photo for, say, wallpaper on your PC screen.

My photos, which I use as examples in this article, were all taken with simple point-and-shoot digital gear.

The Light Fantastic

The first trick is to get the lighting right.

Whenever you see a "pro" photo of a car used for advertising, the thing that often strikes you first is the dramatic lighting. Pros know that brilliant direct sunlight is just what you don't want for a great photo. The perfect light is at dawn or dusk, and the pros often use quite long exposures to capture the image in low light. It's not unusual for them to use a five or ten minute exposure when it's almost dark! To see what I mean, look at the outdoor pictures of the Bentley Continental Flying Spur further down this article.Most of them were taken at dusk, I think.

Well now, we amateurs might not have the right gear to do long, long time exposures at dusk. My own point-and-shoot digital camera won't do any sort of time exposures longer than about a second. Happily, a 10-10ths overcast winter's day is a really good substitute for dusk or dawn. Solid overcast gives you enough daylight, but no glare.

Compare these two photos, both taken by me with cheap autoexposure, autofocus digital point-and-shoot cameras.



The handsome Mulliner Park Ward Phantom 5 (pic 1) has photographed very badly, not because it is not a beautiful car, but because very bright, direct sunlight has produced pronounced flares from the brightwork, and has also made for high contrast, washing out detail. The cluttered background hasn't helped. This is the sort of "snatched" photo we all take most of the time, which records the moment OK but is not exactly frameable.

The equally handsome Park Ward Phantom 5 (pic 2) has photographed rather better. The pic was taken after a rain shower, which accounts for the damp look of the brick paving. The slightly rustic look of the background doesn't distract, and the soft light means there are no flares, and not too much contrast. The overcast sky, and the background, reflects softly in the shining bodywork. The two cars were clearly photographed from almost exactly the same angle, but look at the difference the overcast sky made!

This was, by the way, a "snatched" snapshot, not a set-up. I suddenly realised that the light and the location were just about right for some good pictures, and I reached for my point-and-shoot. It's not a prize-winner, but it's frameable.

So Lesson No 1 is to wait for an overcast, grey day. Even a showery day is fine. Droplets of rain gathering on the paintwork can enhance the result.

Reflections on a Theme

Background is important. That's because a shiny car is also a complex mirror.

We all know enough to avoid photographing the family laundry hanging on the Hills hoist in the background. Unfortunately, it's easy to discover later that you have an overflowing garbage bin clearly reflected in the left front door panel! This is the key reason why photographing cars is so tricky. They reflect. The most stunning car photos are those which make the best use of the reflections.


In pic 3, I made two classic blunders.

The background clutter on the left really messes up the photo. If the stepladder and the van hadn't been there, I could have got away with the brick pillar and the shed doors. But reflected background enters into it too. Behind me was dense, very dark shrubbery, which has reflected in the elegant grille of Nathan Dixon's Silver Cloud 2 (SZD289), making it too dark. What I needed was a couple of volunteers to stretch out a plain old white bedsheet behind me, so it could be reflected in the grille and sheetmetal, lightening the front aspect. You wouldn't see a sheet; you would just see more light. A fill-flash might have helped. That also applies to a lesser extent to the picture of Mike Dixon's Phantom 5: the radiator is also too dark.

White cars are notoriously difficult to photograph, and are all but impossible to photograph in bright sunlight. So you have to have overcast, and a dark background, to make the car stand out. Pic 4, Silver Shadow (SRH8098), isn't bad for a point-and-shoot, taken just after a rain shower. It would be better if I'd thought to park the car further to the left so that the black tree would be reflected on the bonnet and roof, and if there had been a red-brick wall out of sight to the right, to put a bit of reflected glow in the car's flat side. But it's the best photo yet I've managed to take of my Shadow.

Two pro shots

These two photos below are of course Bentley publicity photos taken by talented and no doubt high-priced professional photographers using, no doubt, high-priced equipment.

But the important points in both of them are that the light is soft and the background gives no unwanted reflections. In pic 5 the soft light comes from the sky around dusk, in pic 6 it comes from what looks like a long exposure at sundown (you can just make out the last glimmer of sunlight on the rear quarter). These are of course classier than my photos by far, but they rub in the lessons: avoid bright sunlight, and take care of the background to get the right reflections.

So what to do in practice?

Before you decide to take that great photo of your great car, scout suitable locations well in advance. Look for uncluttered backgrounds on all sides. Look for a site where you won't have too many rubbernecks getting under foot. Trying to get that ace photo in King Street at 5 pm on a Saturday is asking for trouble. An open paddock is fine. A deserted beachfront carpark, with the late afternoon storm clouds glowing with light and colour, would be even better.

Then wait for a rotten winter's Saturday or Sunday with wall-to-wall cloud cover. That'll keep the crowds away, too. You have more chance of being the only one there. Take your car to the site, along with your kitchen steps, and maybe a bedsheet and a couple of helpers in case you need a light reflector. Remove any chip packets, cigarette butts and empty beer cans lying about in camera-shot. Park your car so the three-quarter front angle gives a nice background, and fire away. Oh, and make sure your discarded camera bag isn't in the shot (been there, done that!)

The classic three-quarter front view might be unimaginative, but it works a treat. Most great car photos are 3/4 front. You can fool about with creative angles as well, but do that after you've got the ace 3/4 front shot. Even the Bentley Arnage photo above is not absolutely dead-on frontal. You may have to move the car around until everything is just right (and to hide that immovable orange litter-bin in the distance) , and even turn it through 180 degrees if you want that elegant 3/4 rear view as well. Use an ordinary lens length, you don't need a telephoto lens. Wide angle exaggerates perpective, because you have to get in close to fill the frame, and makes that long Silver Cloud bonnet look longer. Tele flattens perspective, as you have to stand further away.

Oh, and if you are going to use your camera in seriously low light, don't hand-hold. Bring out that tripod. I know a tiny point-and-shoot looks silly on a tripod, but you can't hand-hold reliably below about 1/8th of a second exposure. Even my little digital P+S will do no better than about 1 second, which is definitely tripod territory.


You don't always have to photograph the entire car! Some of the nicest pics are just of the details.