How to Photograph a Car (and Any Other Vehicle)

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Good Photographs Could Mean Getting More for Your Car

You don’t need to be a professional photographer to photograph a car. The basic skills needed to photograph a car well are simple to master and will help sell your vehicle faster. Sure, you might have more to learn if you want to submit your photos to a magazine, or make a profit at local art shows, but some good looking images to help sell your car are easy to produce.

Choose Your Equipment.

A smartphone produced in the last couple years will likely have a camera sufficient for the kinds of photographs you’ll want.  You need clean, crisp pictures. If you don’t have a cutting edge camera phone, then use a point-and-shoot digital. A dSLR will give you the most options when you photograph a car, but is by no means necessary to produce some good photographs of a car intended for sale. A good deal of the work that goes into making amazing photographs happens in the world, not in the camera.

Clean the Car

It shouldn’t even need to be said, but there it is. Clean your subject before you photograph it. Get it washed, take out any clutter or garbage and clean the carpets. Clean any glass. You want buyers to visualize how good it will feel to be sitting in this car. It needs to be clean.

Some exceptions (to a degree) include project vehicles or vehicles that buyers expect to be dirty. A rough-and-tumble off-roader looks pretty good with mud splashed across the sides, but that should be only one photograph in a series that includes a cleaned up shot as well. A rusted heap being sold for parts, or a vehicle needing restoration should be cleaned as thoroughly as possible. It won’t look pretty no matter what, but there’s no need for it to look worse than it is.

You don’t want a buyer feeling anxious when looking at your ad photographs. Whether they know it’s because of the clutter or not, that feeling will be enough to turn off some buyers, and could result in you settling for thousands less than your car is worth.

Location

An important rule when you photograph a car is that the background is free of distractions.  You want the viewer’s focus to remain on the car. They also need to be able to see the vehicle clearly. A large empty parking lot may not be very interesting, but it’s an easy way to make sure your car doesn’t get lost in the background. It also gives you the option to move the vehicle as needed to catch the best light. If you feel like being creative, just make sure the background doesn’t distract from the vehicle. You can see some excellent use of locations in the composition section below.

Lighting

Lighting is even more important than location. Exceedingly bright days result in photographs where the glare becomes distracting and lighter colors wash out the rest of the image. Too dark, and your subject gets lost in a sea of muted darkness. Indoor lighting is rarely a good substitute for natural lighting unless you have studio-grade lights and the ability to manipulate them.  Most florescent lighting makes vehicles appear drab and dim. The easiest way to get the right lighting when you photograph a car is to take it outside. By choosing the time of day, or the correct weather, you can achieve some great lighting.

car photography setupThe hour just after sunrise or before sunset is called “the golden zone” and can be the perfect time to photograph a car. The lower light of the sun during this time makes it difficult to overexpose an image, and the light often has a warmer hue.

For nice, even lighting, a cloudy day can’t be beat. The clouds diffuse the sun’s light, resulting in even lighting from almost any angle.

Avoid photographing during mid-day, as the sun bearing down directly overhead is too harsh.

Choosing the correct angle to photograph at is the next component to taking advantage of good lighting. Most often, you’ll want to place yourself with the sun at your back and the car in front of you. Angle the vehicle so that the sun is illuminating both the front of the car and one side. Now you have your perfect front 3/4 shot.

Composition

Here’s a list of shots you may want to include.

Front 3/4 - The most important image.

Front 3/4 – The most important image.

Rear 3/4

Rear 3/4

Full Side

Full Side

Full Front

Full Front

Full Rear

Full Rear

Engine

Engine

Dash

Dash

Interior

Interior

Special

Special

Special

Special

Each of these helps the viewer get a more complete vision of the vehicle. Be sure you are getting the entire car in the frame. If necessary, step back to be sure the entire car is in the frame, and crop out the excess background digitally later. Some photographers suggest standing away from the vehicle, about 20-feet, and using optical zoom until the subject fills the entire frame. This reduces the forced perspective that occurs when photographing too close. Alternatively, shooting with a larger lens, like a 70mm, will allow you to get photographs similar to what you’re seeing with the naked eye.  Options like these are not available on a phone camera, which is usually only equipped with digital zoom. Never use digital zoom. It stretches the image to make it appear closer, but introduces pixelization or distortion when doing so. Always move yourself in relation to your subject whenever possible.

color-wheelUsing color can increase the appeal of your photograph. It’s simple to do in most cases too. You just need to be aware of your color wheel.

There are two types of color combinations that most people find pleasing to the eye: analogous colors, which are colors that appear next to each other on the wheel, and complimentary colors, or colors that exist opposite each other. When you photograph a car, you want to maximize the contrast so that details of the car stand out. Using color is a great way to do that.

Here’s some examples of sellers that used color to great effect in their ad photography:

 

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1956-GMC-Custom-Pickup 55chev71721-2

You don’t need contrasting colors. Everything goes good with black or gray, and that’s what you get with most empty parking lots.

Don’t be afraid to take dozens, if not hundreds of photographs while trying to get the best shots. If you’re using digital equipment, you don’t need to worry about waste, and you can sort through the photos taken later to make sure you get the best ones.  You may feel like getting creative, but try stay on that fine line of unique and useful. Getting in close, or taking a shot at a strange angle might make for a good abstract composition, but most buyers will probably just find it annoying. It’s not easy to get a good look at something they’re thinking of spending money on when they have to tilt their head 45-degrees to do it.

Often, a tricky photography can lead potential buyers to think you’re attempting to hide something about the vehicle. Not including a full-body front 3/4 shot could mean the front end is banged up and you don’t want a viewer to see it. Be honest about the car, even taking close-up shots of problem areas. This can work in your favor by letting a potential buyer know they can trust you.

Wrap-up

Lighting, location and composition are the best ways to create some stunning photographs, without digital modifications or expensive photography equipment. It could mean your car will spend less time in the “for sale” listings and even fetch hundreds or thousands more than it could have otherwise. Take some time outside, with a camera and a car and have fun with it!

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