8 Steps to a Great Photograph of
Your Collector Car
By Ken Orwig
This article offers a systematic, yet simple, eight-step plan for making photos that reflect the beauty and value of your collector car. First, we’ll explore your photographic vision. Next, we’ll talk about prepping your classic.
Lighting is the critical element in creating photographic atmosphere so we’ll look at your options. And while great photos of classic autos can be made with simple equipment, we’ll talk about cameras and lenses.
We’ll help you find a location that reflects the personality of your classic, then explain how to subdue distractions.
Finally, we’ll consider how your choice of camera angle – high, low, front, or rear -- will affect the tone of your shot
and how styling details can be photographed separately.
A brief history of automobile photography.
For centuries, the horse provided personal transportation. Owners took pride in the handsome lines of a well-bred animal – its stature, musculature, and coloring.
Once the pioneers of the automobile industry overcame technical challenges, they realized that buyers would seek the same qualities of beauty, grace and fine breeding in a motor car. Automobile styling was born.
The vehicles we love and collect are a blend of engineering achievement and physical beauty. Design is woven into the passion we feel for a nameplate or model.
As we discuss the object of our love with fellow collectors, we speak of horsepower and headers, torque and trannies, but the essence of the vehicle's personality is often embodied in the photo we carry in our wallet.
How can we make that photo sing like the ads from Detroit? We don't have their budgets, but we can create a striking image of our collector vehicle. Here's how:
1.) Start with a vision.
Great photographs begin with good planning. Start by getting an idea of what you'd like to see in a photo of your car. What are its special features?
The great portrait photographers say that every person has a unique feature — engaging eyes, beautiful hair, or expressive hands — that makes them exceptional.
Collector vehicles do, too. It could be fluid body lines, a handsome grille or an exquisite paint job. Think about your car and as you do, study images in books, magazine ads, and TV commercials to see how professional photographers emphasize similar features.
While you're doing this, consider where your favorite car photos were made. Think about similar settings near your home that you might use.
You may not be able to pose your car on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, but you might have a scenic lake nearby. If you can photograph your car from a high angle so that the opposite shore doesn't show, it might as well be posed in an ocean setting. Take a Sunday drive to look for beautiful settings in your area.
2.) Prep your vehicle.
If you're a guy, think of what your wife (or girlfriend if you're single) would do to prepare for a portrait. Definitely a hair style. A new outfit or at least a visit to the dry cleaner. Perhaps a nail job. Definitely makeup. Your steel and aluminum baby needs pampering, too.
A good wash is imperative. Beyond that, perhaps some wax and Armor-All. Nothing helps a car to photograph better than a lustrous, pristine finish, crystal clear glass, and sparkling chrome. And please – no dried water spots.
If your ideal location is farther than your back yard? If it's on a dusty road -- you might want to pack a touch -up kit with clean, soft rags, cleaning solutions in spray bottles, etc. to take to your shooting location.
3.) Lighting — your car is a mirror.
Photography about light — not cameras. When you understand how light defines your car, you are an automotive photographer.
Like most collector cars, your vehicle is likely waxed – probably highly-polished. Even if the finish is a little rough, it is a reflective surface – a mirror. When you photograph the hood, roofline, or deck lid, you are making a picture of the reflection of the sky.
Conventional wisdom holds that you should shoot your car in the early morning or late afternoon when the sunlight has a warm, orange cast and shadows are long. The sun should be at your back as it will throw interesting highlights on the vehicle. This is generally good advice; however, rules are made to be broken.
The professional photographers in Detroit use giant white fabric diffusers and well-placed reflectors to create large seas of whiteness that reflect from a car's important surfaces. Then they add small spotlights – generally at a non-reflective angle to add sparkle and highlights.
Good car photos can be made on an overcast day as was the one of the black Corvette shown here. Obviously, the Detroit studio shots are much smoother than this natural one, but this is a good daylight shot of a beautiful car.
If you're into shooting at dusk, turn on the parking lamps. And, always if you want that big "imported from Detroit" look, hose down the pavement as they do.
4.) Pick your photo equipment.
While many great car photos are made with the simplest cameras, your choice of equipment can be helpful. Here are a few pointers:
Camera and Tripod - You will probably use the camera you already own (unless this shoot makes a good excuse to launch into another expensive hobby). Although great photos are hand-held, many pros prefer to mount the camera on a tripod. This lets you plan your shot and return to the camera for checks from the position you will shoot. You can see the image as you make adjustments to the car and the environment. There's always a stray leaf or Big Mac wrapper that blows into the scene just as you're ready to shoot.
A good tripod will be stable, however, on a windy day, you might want to anchor it with sandbags or 5-10 lb. weight-training plates duct-taped to the base of each leg.
In low light situations, you may have to use the tripod and a slower shutter speed. If your camera will accept a cable release, use one. This is the modern equivalent of the "ball and tube" assembly photographers used in the old days when flash powder went "poof." It keeps you from jiggling the camera and costs about as much as a spark plug or two. If your camera has a built-in timer, you can use it in place of the cable release.
If you prefer to hand-hold your camera, use a fast shutter speed to avoid blur. With a standard 50mm lens on a typical camera, your shutter speed should be at least 1/100th. 1/200th would be better.
Lens – If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses, here are some pointers. The easiest, least expensive and most useful bet is the "standard lens" that came with your camera. It is designed to give the normal view that the human eye would see from your shooting distance.
Telephoto lens – generally over 70mm for typical camera formats – will give a closer view from a distance, as a telescope would for the naked eye. It will also "flatten" the perspective, reducing the 3-D feeling of the shot.
Wide angle lenses have the opposite effect. They increase the perspective. For example, if you were a photographer for Goodyear and wanted to emphasize the tread on a front tire, you'd choose a wide angle lens and shoot from a very close, low angle, which would make the tire and front end of the vehicle large.
Polarizing Filter – This is possibly the most interesting tool in the bag of a photographer who shoots outdoors. You should try one if your camera is a single lens reflex (SLR) that lets you view the image through the camera's "shooting lens" and accepts filters.
As the polarizer is rotated, daylight reflections will be eliminated from surfaces depending on their geometric relationship with the axis of the sun. It can make the hood of your car the deep, rich showroom blue you saw when you painted it – not the washed out, reflection-filled blue of a sunny day.
If your camera will accept a polarizer, you will be absolutely blown away by the effect.
5.) Choose a great location.
As in real estate sales, collector car photography is about "location, location, location." There are many considerations. First, is the setting appealing? More important, does it compliment the spirit of the vehicle?
For example, an antique can be effectively posed on an unpaved road with only greenery behind it, but a muscle car would be more at home in an edgy street scene. An exotic might best be photographed in front of a beautiful home, a swank hotel, convention center or downtown high-rise. Use your imagination.
An automobile is a complex mechanical device. In most cases, your background should contrast with this. Most automotive advertising uses this approach. The car is often photographed in a peaceful forest, a pristine desert, or on a lonely country road. This makes it the star because it controls its environment.
The other approach is to reflect the aggressive spirit of the vehicle. Chevy, Ford, and Toyota shoot their pickups in gritty industrial settings. Be creative.
There is also color to consider. A green car resting on black asphalt in front of a white home "pops" out of the photo. Not so much if the same green car is sitting in a grassy field.
6.) Eliminate distractions.
Clutter and distractions detract from any photograph. Unfortunately, most settings have plenty of them. They include the car across the street, power poles and lines, a grease spot on the pavement, blowing trash, or a dead patch of grass. Pick an area that is free from distractions.
Remember, your car is the star. Everything else should blend away or provide a backdrop for the vehicle.
Sometimes angle can help. We all know that if there is a garbage dump in the background, we should take a few steps to the left to change the view to a beautiful wooded scene.
Analyze the situation. If you are photographing your classic in front of the local lake and Mel's Crab Shack is on the other side, try shooting from a higher angle. This will make the beautiful blue of the lake your background.
7.) Experiment with angles.
Many auto photos are what pros refer to as "a ¾ shot." This is the classic view that places a front or rear corner of the vehicle nearest the camera and shows mostly the driver's side with a look at the front or rear end. Obviously, if your vehicle has great grille-work, you emphasize the front-end. The 'Vette at left had a classic tail.
Angle choice can also be therapeutic. You can position the car to hide a damaged rim, scuffed tire -- or heaven forbid – a dent.
You might take the camera off of the tripod for this, explore the car, and shoot hand-held..
Higher angles - An artistic approach would be to shoot down on the vehicle to provide an image that emphasizes the hood, roofline, scoop or spoiler. Rarely can you achieve the drama necessary for a view like this from a ladder, but photographed from a balcony or a short climb up a hilly slope, many cars are beautiful.
Low angles – This is the much more typical "power" angle that emphasizes the strength of the vehicle. It will probably not be what you will use as a primary view to sell your vehicle, however, your low angle shot can add a lot of sex appeal that might close a deal.
Shoot up at the grille if that is a feature. Or lie on the pavement four to six feet from the front bumper to create a sexy, low angle front ¾ shot that emphasizes the power of the vehicle. A wide angle lens can help.
8.) Shoot your vehicle's details.
Many collector vehicles have beautiful ornamentation that is worthy of documentation. After you have photographed your car, look for exceptional details. For small items like hood ornaments, you should use the widest aperture setting your camera will allow. This will defocus the background.
You might also place a neutral backdrop like a piece of sky blue poster board behind the shot. Obviously, you don't want to see the edge of the poster board so hide it behind the fender opposite your camera position. If you have a camera with adjustable aperture, you might want to try setting it wide like f2.8 to hold the foreground subject in focus while blurring distant details.
Share your photo on our website.
If you are a LaRueClassics client, we'd like to include a photo of your collector car on our website. When you have the perfect picture, click on the "Gallery of Our Client's Cars" link, then click the silver "Submit your vehicle" button to upload your photo.
Ken Orwig is a marketing strategist and former photographer who supervises projects for international, national, and local advertising, PR and web development. When he was an active "shooter," he photographed automobiles, fashion spreads featuring world class Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Elle cover girls, home furnishings, and industrial equipment.
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