You don't need to own a supercar to shoot striking automotive shots, as Phil Hall reveals
Even if you only have a passing interest in cars, you’ve probably flicked through the pages of glossy car magazines and looked on enviously at some of the striking car photography on display.
Of course, not all of us will have access to an Aston Martin or Ferrari, but that shouldn’t put you off. We’re going to show you how it’s possible to get great shots, regardless of the car you have, while there are also a number of events that will let you get up close to a host of impressive vehicles.
For creating a sense of speed and movement in a car shot, panning is invaluable. It’s one of the best ways to convey motion, and you’re not restricted to a specific car, as you can apply this technique at motoring events or simply by sitting next to a suitable section of road.
You may have had a go at panning in the past, but it’s worth a recap. Panning is where you follow your subject with a slow shutter speed to blur the background, but keep the point of interest sharp as the subject passes in front of you.
The shutter speed you opt for will depend on the car’s speed, so be prepared for a bit of trial and error. A good starting point for a car travelling at 30-40mph is around 1/80sec, although shooting in daylight conditions will often mean dropping the ISO down to 100 or 200, and stopping the lens down to f/11.
Opting to use your camera’s AF can produce mixed results – if it gets it right, it can’t be faulted, but you may find that your camera can misfocus or settle on the wrong point of the car. An alternative is to focus on a point in the road where you know the car is going to pass, then switch to manual focusing. As you’ll probably be shooting at a relatively large depth of field, you can ensure your focusing is spot-on and concentrate fully on your positioning relative to the car.
Where possible, you want to get as far back as you can from the passing car, while also ensuring you have plenty of space in the frame as it passes – this will also be useful later when cropping as you may want to tilt the image slightly to accentuate the sense of speed.
Avoid moving your feet, so position them slightly apart facing forwards, using your torso to twist from left to right as you follow your subject. As the car approaches, follow it in one smooth, fluid movement, only firing the shutter once the car is close enough. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it bang-on first time – panning requires plenty of practice and patience.
While panning requires you to move your lens at the same speed as a moving vehicle passing in front of you, an alternative is to shoot alongside it in a secondary moving vehicle. As with panning, you’ll need to shoot with a slow enough shutter speed to introduce that feeling of movement, but by matching the speed of the two vehicles, the car you’re shooting remains pin-sharp. However, this shouldn’t be tried on public roads.
Cars don’t always have to be moving for successful automotive photography – a static location shot can be just as striking, and the set-up is just you and the car. The location you choose is really dependent on the car you have, so whether you opt for urban and industrial or rural and quaint, it needs to complement or contrast with the styling and age of the car you’re shooting. Wherever you decide to shoot, though, it’s important to check whether you are allowed to do so.
Once you’ve got the location sorted, you need to think about lighting. You can opt for natural light, or you might want to think about injecting some additional lighting such as off-camera flash to really light up your subject.
While dedicated location lighting is useful, you’ll still be able to do this effectively with one or two flashes, along with some lighting stands and modifiers. Results can be very impressive, especially if you purposefully underexpose the background by a couple of stops and get the flash spot-on the car – a combination that makes for a striking look.
While you can go for a wider view, a telephoto can also be a useful option. Get down low on the ground – even try lying flat – as the compressed perspective will produce a dramatic image. Try a three-quarter view of the car and think about tilting the angle to add a little more purpose to the shot. Shots from a higher elevation also work well, as it’s an angle that we don’t often view a car from. You may be able to find a higher spot to shoot from, but as this isn’t always possible it’s worth taking a small step ladder with you.
Details and interiors
Rather than trying to shoot the whole car, take a different approach and focus on interesting details, as more often than not these are what makes a car unique. Arm yourself with a standard zoom, or a fast prime like a 35mm or 50mm if you have one, and gradually move around the car looking for points of interest. This could be a badge, a radiator grille or simply a curve in the bodywork, but once your eyes are drawn to a spot, look to get the best angle, whether that’s getting down low or to the side.
The car you shoot doesn’t have to be in pristine condition, either (although it does need to be clean) – more often than not a car that looks like it’s had some faithful use will make better subject matter. Just be careful when working close to the car as you’ll need to keep an eye out for reflections, especially if the car is dotted with chrome. Weather also plays an important part – an overcast day can work really well as the soft diffused light means you’ll avoid hard shadows, while the warm glow of early morning or at the end of the day can add an extra element to your shot.
As with the outside, you may want to focus on specific details, opting for a fast aperture to not only put the background in relief, but also to shoot at workable shutter speeds when shooting handheld.
Alternatively, you might want to achieve a brighter, airier look. A large piece of white card (A1 or A0 size will do the job and can be found in art shops) is perfect for lighting shadows, while some remotely triggered flashguns do a good job of sculpting light.
Painting with light
Almost like modern-day pieces of sculpture, cars lend themselves perfectly to painting with light, as it really allows you to reveal the shape and form of the bodywork. You don’t need a huge amount of expensive kit, either, as a flashgun or torch will do a decent job to get the ball rolling. For more control, though, you can look at using an LED panel. For this shot we used the Gloxy Power Blade that has 298 LEDs grouped together in a strip, but there are a range of options to suit all budgets. While different light sources will produce slightly different results, the principles for a successful shot remain the same.
Pick your background. In this case we opted for an old farm building to contrast with the clean, defined lines of the car, but an urban background could work just as well. Also remember that you need to consider the amount of ambient light in the area – you want as little as possible, otherwise it risks encroaching on the scene and ruining the image.
Once you’ve got your location sorted, it’s time to set up. If you can, bring a friend to help out. Not only can they collaborate on the shoot (life’s a lot easier with someone firing the shutter), but it’s always good to have some company if you’re working in the dark at night.
With your camera placed on a tripod, working in the dark can make focusing tricky, so get your friend to throw some light on the car while you set the focus. Once you’re happy, lock it off and then dial in the exposure. Set the ISO at 100-200 and then, as a starting point, set the aperture at f/11 and an exposure at 30secs.
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you’re not going to get the perfect shot in a single capture. Instead, you want to build up elements of the shot that can then be merged later in Photoshop, so it makes sense to pick out the elements you want to work on. One could be the cabin, another could be the side panels and another the wheels, while you might also want to bring in elements of the background. If you want to include the head and tail lights, do this separately first. Then switch them off and start your light painting. Try to keep your movements as smooth as possible and shield them from the lens. Once you’ve taken a variety of shots, it’s time to pack up and head home to blend them together.
Keep it clean
When shooting cars, the most important thing to do is to make sure the car is clean. However good you are at Photoshop, you’ll struggle to ‘clean’ a car digitally. Get it cleaned thoroughly before you shoot and take some cloths with you to get rid of any dirt that might have built up on the journey.
Step by step guide
1. Select images
2. Layer mask
3. Fill to black
Gloxy Power Blade
With a long beam of solid and neutral light, this is a great piece of kit to use for illuminating a car.
While not quite as precise as an LED light, your humble flashgun can still deliver decent results.
If you don’t have any LED lights, try using a torch for a similar effect, although be prepared for a slightly warm result.
Using a car mount
If you want to take things a little further, you can look at using a camera rig. By temporarily fixing a rig to the car in this way, you’re allowing the camera to move at an identical speed to the car, introducing motion blur into the shot while keeping the car pin-sharp and adding a real sense of movement to the image.
You’ll find camera rigs in all shapes and sizes, but a popular choice is to use a couple of Manfrotto pump cups, Manfrotto super clamps and a telescopic pole with a Manfrotto magic arm attached, onto which you can then lock the camera. Because you’re shooting relatively close to the car, you’ll need a fairly wide focal length – something like a 16-35mm on a full-frame DSLR fits the bill perfectly. That’s not forgetting a whole lot of faith as you let your camera kit dangle from the car as it moves along. But don’t worry, it won’t actually be travelling that fast. More on that in a moment.
When setting up a shot with a rig, front or rear three-quarter images tend to work best, although you should discount detail in front or rear shots. Just remember that there is no getting away from having the rig appear in your shot and it’s going to have to be removed later in post-production. One thing you can do to make life easier in Photoshop is to position the camera upside down so the telescopic arm is rising from the camera, as it’s much easier to clone a pole out against a sky or background than it is to have to rebuild sections of the bodywork.
This can make composition a little tricky, especially as you’ll potentially be working at awkward angles. However, this is where live view becomes extremely useful, as it makes it much easier to frame your shot. Once you’ve got your focus, it’s best to lock it off in manual to avoid the camera’s AF shifting focus inadvertently when shooting.
Just like panning, getting the right shutter speed is the real key to the success of the final image. You need to be slow enough to introduce blur into the shot, but not so much so that you risk compromising image sharpness.
If you’re shooting in daylight, start by dropping your ISO down to 100-200 and in shutter priority mode, experiment with shutter speeds of 1/15-1/60sec as a starting point. You’ll find that the car only needs to be moving at around 5-10mph to introduce blur and make it appear as if it’s travelling much faster. If you’re struggling to achieve a balanced exposure – it may be too bright, for instance – pop a neutral density filter on the front. When it comes to night shooting, try a shutter speed of around 1-1.5sec as this will render lights as long light trails.
With a long telescopic arm protruding out from the car, it will be no surprise to hear that vibration can become an issue, introducing loss of sharpness in the image. Some photographers like to attach guide lines from the telescopic arm to the corners of the car for extra stability, but simply holding the camera as the car moves can help. It is important to look for smooth roads and make sure the car maintains a consistent speed.
Alternatively, rather than shooting with the engine on, you can simply push the car to minimise the effect of engine vibration. If you try this and you’re still having trouble with unwanted vibrations, one trick is to shoot a static shot and then blend it with the moving image later.
Finally, triggering the shutter. You can use a remote trigger such as PocketWizard Plus IIIor, if your camera has one, you can use its intervalometer to fire a series of shots in quick succession as the car moves along.
Hague SM11 telescopic mount rig
You can build your own rig from individual parts, but Hague’s all-in-one solution is a great option at £276.
Manfrotto Magic Arm
The Manfrotto Magic Arm with a super clamp (£112) offers a bit more flexibility when it comes to framing your shot.
To fire the shutter as the car moves along, a remote release is essential. Happily there are numerous options available on the high street.