Photographing Your Own Car

OK, so maybe photographing car races isn’t your thing, as discussed in the first blog. But you do have your own car—pretty much everybody in PCA does, by definition, and you probably like it pretty well. You might even like to have some pics of it to show to other people, to frame, as a historical reference (yes, that was the ’58 Speedster I sold in ’65 for $750), even for insurance purposes. Might as well have great pictures instead of mediocre ones. Here are some ideas that may help.

Setting: Well, there’s the car in my driveway shot, and that’s good. Show the car with the house, the family pet, your significant other, whatever. But we’re looking for something a bit more special here. Think of some complimentary background that will enhance the picture without overwhelming it. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to photograph your Carrera GT in a sales yard for used double-wides or on the lawn of the White House, but it works—or rather doesn’t work—both ways. If the background is too spectacular or outlandish, it may distract from the main thrust of the picture, to show the car at its best without too much distraction. The car is the star. Often a simple setting works best, maybe a park, a shaded area in the trees, a visually interesting stretch of untraveled road. 

Turning the front wheel gives the car a more dynamic stance in a traditional three-quarter front shot.

 

You don’t need me to tell you the car should look its best going in, clean paint and glass. A lot can be done with photographic technique and post processing to improve on the appearance of a less beautiful machine, but that’s for another time. Think about the details of the setting as well; I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found a gum wrapper, a cigarette butt or worse in the foreground of a picture that I’d spent a long time planning and shooting. Background risks include elements like poles or signs that at first glance look like they might be part of the car. Our eyes and brains ignore a lot of extraneous things, but the camera can’t. 

Lighting is something often taken for granted: if it’s daytime, it must be ok. But this is often the one thing that separates an average snapshot from a great photograph. Porsches, particularly 911s, are difficult because of the reflected light glare off the hood; it’s easy to lose color and detail in this area and wind up with something that looks almost like it came from another car. A polarizing filter can help, but having good, even light is ideal. Start with the brightest light coming from behind the camera, and try shooting early in the morning or late in the evening. Avoid the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. time frame if at all possible. Some pictures that excited me most came from shooting in light so low that a tripod was required for a very long exposure. 

Shooting very early or very late in the day, this time with filtration to add color and take away some of the brightness of the sky, can enhance the beauty of your car.

 

Position your car in a dynamic way, usually with the steering wheel turned so that the front wheel is visibly angled. I like to shoot from several positions, typically a 3/4 frontal (positioning myself in front and slightly to the side of the car), a full side, and a 3/4 rear view. Often a head on view—particularly with a telephoto lens—can be exciting, as can variations off a 6 or 8 foot ladder. Low angle views are fun as well, but using a wide angle lens and sometimes even a “normal” lens makes for unpleasant distortion. A low angle 3/4 frontal shot with a short telephoto lens and the car positioned on a hill above the camera is difficult to arrange but implies power and performance like no other.

A shot from a ladder can give a different perspective when adding to your collection of beauty shots.

 

A low angle shot with the car framed against the sky emphasizes its presence and power (hardly necessary in a car like the Carrera GT).

 

detailNext, think of the details of the car that are visually exciting. The crest, the brake caliper peeping through the wheel, details of the lights and reflectors, whatever things you find particularly appealing about your car. Interiors and engines can be best shot off a tripod to get the depth of field provided by an f-stop of f11 or thereabouts; this can be done with flash instead, but the shadows are distracting and the harsh light unappealing. For interiors, opening both car doors and using a reflector—something as simple as a piece of white poster board will do—to add light to dark areas will give a much more satisfactory effect. Position your car so that you can hold the reflector in the sun and turn it in different directions until the soft reflected light goes where you want it. If you’re doing this by yourself, you may want to use a remote release so that you can operate the camera while you are holding the reflector.

Diffuse lighting without heavy shadows is accomplished by parking in the shade, opening both doors and possibly using a reflector.

 

Finally, try some action shots just for fun. Find a small, little traveled street with convenient turn-around and a neutral background like a park or trees, and have an assistant drive your car back and forth slowly at a constant speed, say 15 or 20 mph. Sit in a safe location, perhaps on the curb, and either lock the focus on where the car will be when it is directly in front of you or use a continuously focusing setting on a camera equipped to do this. Practice moving the camera with the car as it passes; it helps if there is a line or a small box in the viewfinder that you can aim like a gunsight at some part of the car (try the outside mirror; practice keeping it in the “sight” as the car goes by). Follow through with the camera; don’t stop your swing as you make the shot. Push the shutter release gently until it fires; don’t worry if the actual picture is made a little before or after you think you’d like, smooth shutter release is what counts. Take at least a couple of shots at 1/15th, 1/30th, 1/60th, and 1/125th of a second. As you practice this, I’ll bet you like the slower shutter speeds more.

Slow car speed, a slow shutter speed, and a steady swing of the camera while maintaining one specific part of the car in the exact center of the viewfinder can produce the impression of speed.

 

Until next time, keep shooting and let me hear from you at leonardt@pca.org.