Six Quick Tips To Taking Better Photos Of Cars And Trucks

You’re walking the aisles of the car show looking at all of the beautiful chrome, paint, and style of the classic cars that populate the grounds. With your camera in hand and intent in your heart, you set out to take pictures like the professionals, but for some reason at home on your computer they just don’t look as good as you want them to. When you look at the professionals’ work there is something different about it that you can’t pinpoint, but you want to replicate it and can’t seem to get there.

We have a few pointers to offer, a few tricks from the countless hours of picture taking and post-process reviewing. While the professionals have thousands or tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera gear to make their job easier, fancy equipment doesn’t guarantee good picture, it just helps. This guide will give you the tools you need to “wow” people with the pictures you take at a car show or of your own personal vehicle.

Tip No. 1: The Best Camera Is The One You Have

This picture was taken on an iPhone 8 with no post processing done.

Some people believe that they key to good photography is good equipment, and while it’s true that it definitely helps, the best camera is always the one that you have, and if you check your pocket right now, odds are good that there is a nice camera there right now—or it may even be in your hand! Yes, we are talking about your cell phone!

All of these pictures were taken with an iPhone 8, and you'll notice that even the shadows are clear, that's partially because a cell phone camera is really good at balancing the light sensitivity to get an ideally lit image.

Phones cameras have come a long way and some of the high-end iPhones and Androids rival early DSLR cameras in resolution and image quality. The biggest advantage of a cell phone camera, other than its obvious small size, is how easy it is to use and how effective its auto mode is. A DSLR designed for a professional will have a point-and-shoot mode, but the auto mode on your cell phone is as good or better than what’s in the DSLR. The professional camera is designed with the professional in mind first, and consumers second. The auto mode does not need to be as robust, with a cell phone camera however, the consumer is almost always the end user, so they are really good at adapting to whatever situation you are in. They also have the benefit of a wide aperture for low light, the iPhone 8 going to an aperture of F/2.2, and being able to focus much closer to a subject than most DSLR cameras. The aperture is just how wide the lens can open and how much light can be let in.

Even with just a cell phone, the detail is incredible. It’s just about making sure that you frame your shot and get the details in focus! We’ll get into that shortly.

This is the number one tip we have to offer because some people get intimidated when it comes to taking pictures with a cell phone. When there are people out there with DSLR cameras and other fancy equipment, it can feel awkward when you are trying to take a picture and they are pushing you out of the way. Stand your ground! Just because your camera fits in your pocket, that does not mean that it can’t take a photo just as well, and the most important aspect of taking the photo is you!

Tip No. 2: Framing Makes A Shot

The key to getting a good picture is to ensure that you get the shot that you want. If you want to get the whole car, get the whole car, if you are getting a detail, focus on just that detail, make sure that you are not getting too much or too little. If you cut out part of the car on an overall shot you lose part of the effect, if you are taking a detail shot and the detail is too small in the frame, you miss the effect of that as well.

Compare these four images: the two on the top cut out portions of the car and show too much space on the sides of the frame, the bottom left is too far out so you're distracted by what's around the car, but the image on the bottom right focuses on the car alone and gets the entire subject in the shot.

Close up details like this can really highlight the cool parts of a car and add a little flair to your own show coverage. Take pictures you don’t see other people taking!

Tip No. 3: Manage Your Lighting, Or It Will Manage Your Shots

Which one of these pictures is more appealing?

The two shots above demonstrate the difference a little angle can make. The shot on the left has too much light and gets the reflection of the sun obscuring a good portion of the emblem, while the shot on the right is nearly identical and shows the whole emblem clearly.

This set of images shows how you can achieve ideal lighting. If the detail you are focusing on is in a shadow, make sure the entire frame is in the shadow so you don't get highlights or have the detail in the dark.

Tip No. 4: Focus, Focus, Focus! 

Focus is about more than just getting a crisp image. Once mastered, the art of focus can be used to put emphasis on a certain detail and draw the viewer’s eye exactly where you want it to go. When you are using a wide aperture or a camera that is close to the subject you can also use bokeh to your advantage. Bokeh is the effect you get where you have one item or subject in focus and the rest of the background is blurred out.

These three images demonstrate the effect of a wide open aperture, F/1.8 to be exact, and show that the focus is clear, but the background is blurred. That's bokeh.

In the three pictures above, you can see that the focus area of a wide aperture is so tight that even the edge of the red flag on the corvette is starting to blur, while the checkered flag is clear. When using an open aperture or a really close shot, you want to be careful and review the image after taking it. It’s really easy to end up messing up and not getting focus perfectly on the subject.

Compare the two pictures above. They are the same car, the same angle, and the same shot, but one focuses on the cowl, the intake, and the windshield, while the other focuses on the top of the radiator cap. Both images have a completely different effect and a different feel. That’s the effect of bokeh and controlling your focus. It adds depth to the photo.

Here are a few more pictures that demonstrate the effects of playing with bokeh. If the entire picture were in focus with any one of these it would not have the same effect at all.

Tip No. 5: The Devil, Or The Beauty, Is In The Details

We’ve all seen hundreds of classic cars, so what attracts us to each car is the little details, the little things about it that can’t be shown in a picture that shows the whole car, so don’t be afraid to get close— but not too close— to get pictures of the little things that make a car special.

These are all close-ups of different cars that show a different little detail that makes that vehicle special.

Whether it’s a cool gauge, body line, blower, stack, or accessory, these close detail shots really make the coverage. Anyone can walk around and take snapshots of a car, but if you want to wow your Facebook friends or co-workers with your pictures. Make sure that you’re capturing more than just the big picture. We want to see what makes these cars (and this show) unique.

Tip No. 6: Zoom, Angle, And Awareness

When you have a camera that has a zoom lens, remember that focal length is about more than just getting closer without moving your feet — the focal length determines the look and depth of the shot in the same way that bokeh does! Check out these two pictures below of the grill on a Chevelle.

These pictures were taken at different focal lengths: left at 24mm and right at 105mm. We walked a little farther away for the 105mm shot to get the same frame area, but you can see the difference in angles. The zoomed shot at a 105mm focal length is much straighter and truer to the lines of the car while the 24mm focal length is a little bit distorted and extenuates the angle of the grill. This is a powerful tool that can be used to create different perspectives, and it’s important to recognize the different effects that different focal lengths carry.

The two pictures above clearly demonstrate the different effect an angle can have on the look of a picture. The left image is taken at almost standing height and the right image is taken from the wheel level looking slightly up at the car with the front of the Mustang pointed towards the top right corner of the frame. The angle makes a big difference, and the image on the right is more dramatic and appealing. Part of this effect comes from the fact that the angle is entirely unique and unfamiliar, when we look at a car we stand up and look straight at it or down at it, you seldom see an angle from the wheel level that looks up.

One of the last pieces of advice we have to offer is to simply be aware of where you are when taking a picture. While you may not mind your reflection in the mirror, it’s distracting to see in a piece of chrome or a wheel.

Check this out. There we are on the left, there we aren't on the right!

In the images above you can see how distracting it is that the photographer is crouched right next to the Billet Specialties logo and distracts from the shot. On the right, we have slightly modified our angle and now the Billet logo is in focus, making it clear focal point of the image. Also notice the effect of the slightly blurred Wilwood logo. In both images it’s blurred just enough to obscure it, but not so much that you can’t tell what it is! That’s one way you can add intrigue to a picture.

 

We hope that this little how-to-guide will help you take your own photos at car shows, and of cars that you are proud to show off. These are tips that we find to be helpful and a great way to improve the look of our shots at shows. Experiment with using one or more of these tips together and see what you can do. Most importantly, have fun!

About the author

Kyler Lacey

A 2015 Graduate from Whitworth University, Kyler has always loved cars. He grew up with his dad's '67 Camaro in the garage and started turning wrenches at a young age. At seventeen, he bought his first classic, a '57 Chevy Bel Air four-door, and has since added a '66 Plymouth Valiant and '97 Cadillac Deville to his collection. When he isn't writing for Power Automedia, he's out shooting pictures at car shows, hiking in the forests of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, or working on something in the garage.
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