Viewfinder: How to Photograph Cars
The Lowdown on How to Photograph Our Treasured Trail Companions
In previous Viewfinders, we’ve discussed how to frame images and a documentary approach to recording our adventures. In this issue, we are going to delve into a subject near and dear to our hearts. How to photograph cars. Dependable partners in our travels and ones we trust with our lives on a daily basis. Unless we are encapsulated in the safety of their cocoon, they are rather inanimate objects, several thousand pounds of cold steel, plastic, and rubber.
But as you will attest, they are much more than an assembly of forged and molded metal. They possess unique character, that of a devoted trail companion. We know their rattles and creaks, when they are content, when they need attention, and when they are having a rough day. As you might surmise, we are talking about our beloved four-wheel drives. But how do we photograph cars? How do we bring their character to life via the viewfinder in a manner that pays them all due respect?
During the past 20 years I’ve photographed thousands of vehicles, ranging from magazine features to commercial shoots for auto manufacturers—and of course, my personal corral of rigs. This can be broken down further into competitive events, such as the Dakar Rally, and exploits like the recent BFGoodrich East-West Australia Expedition. But for this discussion, we’ll focus on feature photography.
The Feature Setup
My approach to photograph cars is similar to that of a model. I want to understand its character, present its most flattering side in the best available light and in an interesting environment. The first step is to inventory their distinctive attributes and develop a shot list. This will ensure you don’t overlook significant details.
When photographing a feature during a trail ride, do your best to clean the exterior but leave the undercarriage alone; it is what it is. If setting up for a dedicated shoot, ask the owner to detail the vehicle as if it were heading to the prom. In either situation, select an interesting setting that complements the make, model, or color.
Good photographers rarely skip morning coffee, but breakfast is reserved for those who sleep in and end up shooting in harsh, midday light. Do you recall our discussion on the magic hour? The magic hour is the 60 minutes that bookend sunrise and sunset, a brief window of prismatic hues of cool blue and magenta followed or preceded by warm palettes of gold and ocher. It is the best time of day to shoot features, so set your alarm, grab a cuppa joe and a headlamp, and get out there early. It is worth it to photograph cars.
TIP: Select an interesting setting that complements the vehicle’s make, model, color, and intended use.
The Beauty Shot and B-roll
As with a gallery of adventure photos, you’ll need an establishing shot. I start long, approximately 100 feet away with a telephoto lens, and look for several compositions, a full-frame, front three-quarter beauty shot and one of the bigger picture. For the former, reducing the depth-of-field (f-4.5 to f-7.1) will render tack-sharp bumper-to-bumper detail and allow the subject to pop from its out-of-focus background. For the establishing shot I like to place the vehicle off to one side (see rule of thirds in the November/December issue’s Viewfinder), letting the mind’s eye imagine it in its natural environment.
I then move in closer, reviewing my shot list and capturing what we call point shots, or B-roll. This includes full-frame images of the front clip and closeups of details such as the bumper and winch, roof rack or raised air intake, auxiliary lights, hood vents, or sliders. When it comes to wheels and tires, I prefer shooting long and low at about a 20-degree angle, cropping in as to only capture the intended subjects. Play with your depth-of-field (aperture f-2.8 to f-11) to make them both sharp or blur the rear.
TIP: For long-lens beauty shots, setting the aperture at f-4.5 or f-7.1 will keep the vehicle in focus while blurring the background.
From there I switch to a wide-angle lens and get intimate with my subject. I look for features such as graphics, exterior air supply, or reflections off the magic hour horizon. Visit the tires again with an ant’s eye view, low and wide. If you fly a drone, pull it out and capture overhead images of roof racks, solar panels, and accessories (drones have become standard issue in my kit). When done, turn the vehicle 180 degrees and repeat the entire process on its backside. You will need to work fast to capture everything in consistent light. This wraps up the eye candy package and it is time to get dirty.
TIP: Wide-angle lenses are great for capturing small details in a dramatic way. It’s a great way to photograph cars.
In and Under
Back in the film days, shooting an undercarriage or interior required a light meter and comprehensive knowledge of your camera, the use of strobes (flashes), and properties of your selected film—shoot Saturday and wait till Wednesday to get your results. Today’s technology, with instant review via the LCD screen, has made the process much easier. Managing contrast, the dark undercarriage with bright ambient light, is the trick. The below technique focuses on interiors but the same principles apply to undercarriages and engine bays.
You will need to be in full manual mode and have at least one strobe; preferably two with a wireless transmitter. Set your exposure for the bright, outside conditions and take a shot. Everything out the windshield should be properly exposed and the interior underexposed. Now just add light. Off-camera units (with a diffuser) work best, as you can reduce or eliminate reflections and hot spots on the dash. Review the results and “stop” the strobe up or down as needed, recompose, and try again until the interior is properly exposed. There are lots of other little tricks to this process, but the above method should provide reasonable results.
TIP: It is easier to shoot undercarriages and interiors before sunrise/sunset or with the vehicle in the shade—a stray cloud works great.
Bringing your Subject to Life
Now that we’ve nailed our beauty and point shots, let’s bring the subject to life by displaying it in action. This can be meandering slowly down the trail, blasting up a two-track at speed, or something as simple as a camp scene. If it sports a 6.2L Hemi, go fast is the ticket. If it has a rooftop tent, awning, and heaps of overland gear, go for the camp scene at dusk (don’t forget the campfire). The key is to share with the viewer what the vehicle was built for.
I like vantage points where the sun is to my back and highlights the front or side of the subject. If working in the magic hour, backlighting the vehicle can also provide exceptional results, but you need to be cautious of lens glare. Drones, again, have opened up a world of opportunities, providing perspectives previously unavailable without a considerable investment of time and energy (hiking up mountains to gain a bird’s eye view). While you are taking drone shots of the roof rack, gain some altitude, pull back a bit, and capture the big picture.
Lastly is the panning shot, which can make a slow-moving vehicle appear to be running like the wind. Choose a straight section of trail and position yourself approximately 80 feet to one side. Set your camera on shutter priority (at 100th of a second). The fastest frame rate is available, have the driver run the section at 30 mph (plus or minus). Bull’s eye the subject in the viewfinder and follow it. Just before it is perpendicular to your position, press the trigger for what I call a “spray and pray” shot. You’ll need to be rock-steady with your camera. But, if done correctly the vehicle will be sharp and the background will be laterally blurred.
TIP: Animating a vehicle, whether on the trail or in a camp scene, helps to develop its character. It’s key to photograph cars.
I carry a comprehensive selection of Canon DSLR bodies, lenses, and strobes. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t pull out my iPhone 11 Pro Max occasionally. In fact, with the exception of long-lens and aerial shots, the newer smartphones are quite capable of capturing most of what you need. Regarding drones, I use DJI products and we’ll have an in-depth discussion on aerial photography in an upcoming Viewfinder.
At the end of the day, our four-wheel drives are an integral part of our overlanding experience. More than just a rolling mass of metal and plastic they become our trusted friends; part of the family. Next time we pick up a camera to capture them in all their glory. Let’s exercise due diligence and a little forethought. Present them as if they were trying to land a date for the prom … they will reward you for your efforts.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Tread magazine March/April 2021.