Automotive photography helps people celebrate and share their rides. Get advice on how to make car photos shine and bring out the best in unique automobiles.
What is Auto and Vehicle Photography?
Wonderful Machine defines this specialty as photography primarily about cars, yet it also includes vehicles like motorcycles, boats, trains, etc. Auto/vehicle photography usually falls under the “product photography” umbrella, but in some instances, it can also focus on the culture surrounding the vehicle. In these cases, automotive photography bleeds into the lifestyle and even brand narrative specialties.
Both commercial and editorial clients regularly seek auto/vehicle photography. The industry is massive, from racing and branding to manufacturing and insuring, which means there’s no shortage of avenues (ahem) for a blossoming auto photographer to take. The chassis on which it’s built, however, typically consists of product photography.
Cars and trucks are big, fun, sexy products, so it was the natural next step.
Lighting, of course, is a key factor for any photographer. In Automotive photography, there is a particular emphasis on it that even the common person will notice. San Francisco-based shooter MJ Sugrue says that auto photography is the perfect combination of “real-life beauty and computer magic.” Typically, gorgeous retouching makes the lighting of these shoots stand out for the viewer from brand to brand and car to car.about:blank
There is also a very specific story-telling aspect to the specialty. Any car, train, or plane represents the ability to move freely. Freedom, adventure, family road trips, and singing along to the radio are all classic auto tropes, and successful ones at that.
Auto photographer Peter Dawson, who is based in Los Angeles, views this side of car photography as his way in. The story behind the car, why you want the car, what you’ll be able to do with the car, these are what’s important. Well, that and the beauty of a carefully crafted vehicle in tune with its surroundings.
Cars to me are about exploration, and that is a good match for my photography. Car Photography often involves beautiful landscapes and aspects of modern architecture and design. I got into car photography through my landscapes and conceptual work.
He began by presenting his landscape photography to a few ad agencies as the perfect environment for cars instead of beginning with the vehicle itself. This brings us to where you should be taking your car photography.
What are some Auto/Vehicle Publications?
There are countless publications consistently featuring auto/vehicle-based stories and imagery. There’s Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics — plenty of great automotive hubs. However, finding your niche will most likely be the best way to start. You should be able to shoot the entire story of a car, including both detail and hero shots, to make your portfolio adaptable to both a publication like Car and Driver to an all-inclusive car brochure.
What are some Auto/Vehicle Brands?
We, of course, have our classic car manufacturers — Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, all big fish in a decent-sized pond. Because of their size, though, catching those fish might be tricky. Don’t discount other companies and brands like Nascar or Speedway. Sure, manufacturers need imagery, but so do Midas International and Carstar.
How to Be an Auto/Vehicle Photographer
As stated above, Auto Photographer Peter Dawson began his journey in landscape photography, utilizing the skills and experience from that specialty to start exploring automotive photography. This is possible because auto photography is inherently pretty broad. If you have a solid foundation in lifestyle, adventure, architecture, or landscape, you should first begin your education by incorporating vehicles into your photography.
The more integration you do, the more you can begin familiarizing yourself with the technical side of car photography. Peter says,
Car photography is inevitable highly technical. The more you learn about car retouching, compositing, and CGI processes so that it is second nature, it will become liberating rather than constraining. There’s a lot of technical know-how needed, but don’t get caught up in it.
One nugget of advice all our photographers agreed with was that experience was vital. Doing these shoots again and again will be the best way to build your skillset (sadly, not by reading this article). Another Los Angeles based auto photographer, Kelly Serfoss says,
Just do the reps and let your craft build daily. Experience is key. Before that? Small failures, and a bit of luck to avoid the big failures.
How to Hire an Auto/Vehicle Photographer
Clients looking for an automotive photographer should have a few essential requirements. The first is style. Within the automotive industry, style not only distinguishes between cars and brands but stories. When you’re selling a car, you’re selling an experience. You want to ensure that your photographer understands that experience and can represent it well.
The second is flexibility. Not only should you be able to roll with the punches, but you need to make sure your photographer can as well. During a big shoot, there can be an overwhelming amount of things a photographer needs to think about — the talent, location, weather, lighting, and deliverables, so being able to adapt and think on your feet if something isn’t going as planned is crucial.
The photographer will also ideally have access to a flexible and efficient crew that prioritizes doing things well rather than quickly. The process from mood board to finished product might seem hectic, so you’ll need people who can keep their heads and stay organized on a shoot with so many moving pieces.
And that brings us to pre-shoot, shoot, and post-shoot etiquette! Before the shoot, make sure to deliver a well-thought-out mood board and take the time to have a creative call with your photographer. This is an excellent opportunity for both you and the photographer to collaborate and gain insight. Then the photographer should meet with the producer to create an estimate, outline, shot list, and even scout or secure the location(s).
During the shoot, as stated above, try and stay flexible and trust your photographer. Give them clear and consolidated feedback so that you can both move forward quickly. Kelly Serfoss says
90% of my images are made in 10% of the time I’m on location. Going from brief to delivery is about listening and understanding the client’s needs and whether the job is about their taste, your taste, or a partnership.
After the shoot, post-production begins. This feedback and level of responsiveness will be invaluable to the photographer and the retoucher to refine the color, reflections, and other details.
The fast and the photogenic.
From vintage muscle cars to a luxurious Mercedes or the newest Lamborghini, people are passionate about cars. To capture everything from automotive advancements to car culture meetups, professional car photography has picked up speed to become an art of its own. It’s a love letter to rides and whips, a mix of product shots and ways to immortalize the space where craft meets engineering.
“You’re trying to find the right angles on the car. You’re trying to match it with the correct background, the right light — there’s a lot that goes into it,” says photographer Aedan Petty.
Whether you’re into cars for the speed, the looks, or the souped-up modifications, car photography can put you in the pits with beautiful machines and the like-minded people who love them.
“Car photography captures what car enthusiasts really love — the styling, the aggressive looks, all the modifications that people do, and people’s builds,” says Petty. “It’s a way to capture the beauty of the machine, and it’s also about capturing action, whenever you get moving shots.”
Car photographers need to start with networking.
You can take great car photos of any kind of automobile. But if you want the exciting experience of shooting luxury cars or special vintage models, you need to connect with their owners. And that’s all about cultivating and showcasing an appreciation for these vehicles. “If you’re doing automotive photography, you definitely need to be passionate about cars,” says Petty.
Unless you already have friends with Ferraris, Porsches, or modified Mazda racing models, you’ll want to head out to car shows and meet other car enthusiasts, car owners, and people in the industry, from garage owners to specialty product salespeople. Find car shows or vintage vehicle meetups near you and bring your camera.
How to get car photography clients.
“A lot of people are scared to reach out to car owners, because they’re afraid people might not want to shoot with them,” says photographer Brooks Li. “But that doesn’t matter.” Going to car club meetups or car shows with your camera will attract car owners who want to work with you.
Car owners are typically very proud of their machines, and that’s common ground you can bond over with any car lover. Anyone who can help car owners get great shots of their baby should find it easy to make those connections.
“I suggest people go to local car shows, like Cars & Coffee. Talk to owners. All of them are super friendly. That’s how I started,” says Li. “Be as outgoing as possible and try your best to get more practice in.”
How to prepare for an automotive photography shoot.
Once you’ve made the right connections and have scheduled a shoot, a successful session will require some research on timing and location. Talk with your client about the make, model, and color of their car so you can plan ahead. They may have special modifications and details they’d like you to capture during the shoot.
Pick a location that complements the car.
Different terrains and settings will work better for different cars. If you’re photographing a Jeep that does well off the beaten path, you might want to take it onto some rocky terrain, safety permitting. On the other hand, a car built low to the ground might look best on a smooth city street or in front of an old brick wall by a factory.
The color of the car will also help determine the best setting for the shoot. “Black and white cars are really the only ones that you can take pretty much anywhere. If you’re dealing with a special color, those get tougher,” says Petty. “I’d say the hardest paint coat on a car is probably purple. Purple is a really challenging color to capture. You have to find the right lighting.”
Aim for a background that offers contrast to the car’s hue and shade. “Darker cars look great against brighter backgrounds,” says Li. “If I’m shooting cars that are brighter — like an orange car — I would shoot in a darker spot, either during sunset or where there’s a shadow.”
Plan your shoots for golden hour.
The time of day can make a big difference.
The most common mistake people make when shooting cars? Heading out during the middle of the day, when the light is harsh, unflattering, and just all-around bad. It’s a surefire way to end up with poor automobile shots, and it certainly isn’t going to impress your clients.
Instead, the best time to do car photography is a few minutes after sunset (or a few minutes before sunrise). The light is soft, there’s no direct sun, and you can capture a beautiful, almost ethereal, effect. Use a tripod – the light won’t be particularly strong, so a remote release is also a good idea – and get that perfect soft light on the paint.
Note that you can also shoot cars during the golden hours – an hour or two before sunset and an hour or two after sunrise – but be careful; the more direct the lighting, the harder it is to create a flattering image. For close-up images, consider using a reflector to deal with pesky shadows.
As with most types of outdoor photography, direct sunlight can lead to glare, drastic shadows, or washed-out colors. Shoot cars during golden hour — the hour after sunrise and before sunset — to limit the intense glare and shadows caused by midday sun. If you have to shoot midday, work around harsh light with the help of trees and buildings that provide shade over the car.
This photo was taken a few minutes before sunrise:
Be on the lookout for reflections
If you’re after professional car photos, you must carefully control what reflects in the car. One of the most important things you want to show in your car pictures is the design lines, yet reflections can spoil these lines very quickly. So before you capture a single photo, have a look around you, then look closely at the car and see what reflects off its surface.
You see, a car (especially a new, shiny one) is like a mirror. So if you shoot with buildings or trees in front of the car, they’ll reflect off its surface and appear in your photos. Instead, aim to have an open space behind you, like a field or an ocean. If you’re stuck in a location with busy surroundings, you can always try to change your perspective; by getting down low, you may be able to get rid of the distractions and instead come away with a sky reflection in the car (which looks way better; see the image at the end of this section).
Pro tip: Be very careful not to include your own reflection in the photo. If you’re struggling, it’s best to put the camera on a tripod, set the self-timer, and move out of the shot. Just look at this photo I took of a dark, shiny BMW 428i; behind me was nothing except the horizon. In fact, you can clearly see the horizon reflecting in the car:
Take driving shots
Here’s one of my favorite tips for creative car photography:
Shoot the car out of another moving car. (Please be super careful when doing this; make sure that both you and your camera are well-secured before even thinking about taking a photo.)
Unfortunately, you can’t just hop into your car, zoom along, and take some photos out the window. Instead, you’ll need to carefully select your speed, position, and settings. Here are my recommendations:
-Get a driver, so that you’re in the passenger seat and free to concentrate on the photo shoot
-Secure your camera to the inside of the car or your body using a strap
-The two cars should match speeds, with your car slightly ahead and in the adjacent lane; 60 km/h (37 mph) is a good starting point, as you’ll get some nice movement on the road and on the wheels, but you won’t be going so fast the shoot becomes difficult
-Set your camera to its continuous shooting mode and set your shutter speed to 1/100s or so. A little blur is good, as it communicates movement. You can even decrease the shutter speed further, though this will decrease your ratio of keepers to duds.
-Shoot on low-traffic roads. You do not want to frustrate or distract other drivers with your photo shoot.
Because this type of shot involves so many (literally) moving parts, you’re going to come away with plenty of failed images. But if you use burst mode, you experiment with different shutter speeds, and you put in the hours, you’ll start to capture some genuinely stunning photos.
Pay attention to the color of the car
Different types of paint react differently to changing light. I know I said that you should avoid direct sunlight, and it is true, but you’ll occasionally find colors that handle direct sunlight really well.
Just look at this baby blue Beetle shot in the middle of the day:
So don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting conditions. And always review your shots carefully afterward, making mental (or physical) notes about the color and how it looks.
Pro tip: If you want to jumpstart your understanding of lighting and car colors, head to a parking lot at different times of the day, then go around and (discreetly) take photos of cars. Obviously, you should use good judgment and be careful; don’t do a full car photo shoot while the owner stands and watches, and look out for cars driving around that might accidentally run you over.
Choose your background carefully
A beautiful background adds that perfect finishing touch to a car photo, while a bad and/or distracting background can instantly ruin the shot.
What counts as a good background? Anything non-distracting. Ideally, it should emphasize the main subject and even complement the car (and suit the theme).
Bad backgrounds, on the other hand, are distracting, they draw the eye, and they don’t make sense given the car color, shape, or theme. For instance, dustbins, power lines, and other cars can kill a picture. You can remove these in Photoshop sometimes, but it’s best to avoid them in the first place (plus, it’ll save you time in the long run).
For this Aston Martin shot, I used a simple background. The yellow paint matches the car’s color:
Pan for motion blur
I’ve already talked about shooting cars from a moving car. But if you want a beautiful motion blur effect and you don’t like the idea of photographing out a moving car window, why not try panning instead?
Simply stand next to the road and let the car drive past you. Follow the car with your lens in one smooth action and set the shutter speed to 1/125s. You will be amazed by how easy this is!
Of course, you’ll end up with plenty of failed shots, but the good ones will make it all worthwhile (and you can maximize the number of good images by using your camera’s burst mode and firing off a series of shots with every attempt). Also, you can try this technique after dark for some very interesting night car photography results.
This Ferrari was shot at 1/125s at 200mm. The car was driving roughly 37 mph (60 km/h):
Let the car interact with nature
Here’s another way to capture a photo that speaks to the viewer:
Don’t just park the car in a parking lot or along a road and snap some shots. Instead, make the car interact with its surroundings.
Examples of this could be a car creating dust or a 4×4 driving over an obstacle. Look at this Chevrolet Trailblazer climbing over a rock:
The car/rock combination emphasizes the ruggedness of the Trailblazer. Plus, by using a wide-angle lens and shooting from down low, I made the car loom, like it’s the king of the mountains.
Here’s another example, this one of a G-Class AMG drifting on loose sand:
Shoot at night
Night car photography might sound daunting, but you will be amazed by how easy and awesome it is! The biggest secret here is to find a spot where it’s completely dark; any streetlights or even a full moon could make life tricky.
When the shutter opens, take a strong constant light source and walk around the car, “painting” it with the light. A normal household flashlight works for this.
There are no rules here. Paint the car in different ways to get different effects, and you will be blown away by the results! Here are some examples of this technique:
This is an Opel Astra shot next to Table Mountain with Cape Town in the background.
This is a Dodge Charger with the skyline of Detroit in the background. The photo took me no longer than five minutes to set up and capture.
Helpful gear to have on hand.
To be a successful car photographer, you’ll want to master different angles and types of shots. Here’s some gear to have on hand at a car shoot to help you capture everything from beautiful BMWs to fast-moving cars like street-racing Chevy Camaros.
A tripod to capture steady shots is always a valuable tool, especially to keep your camera steady at night. It’s also worth looking into a basic reflector kit to manipulate the sunlight.
“I shoot with a 24mm to 70mm focal length lens. It’s super versatile and super easy. You’ve got your wide-angle — then you’ve got the telephoto on the other end of it,” suggests Petty. “And I’d say 35mm and 50mm are the most popular for automotive photography. That’s what I see a lot of people starting out with.”
For outside shots, a reflector to capture natural light sources and direct them at the car may be all you need. But car photography often includes shots of car interiors as well. “I have a camera flash, and I also have a light bar,” says Petty. “It’s super helpful to have a flash just because that really lights up the interior and shows the colors of different details.”
But make sure you use a softer flash so you get good lighting without harsh shadows. “Don’t use too powerful a flash, because then you’ll get white lines on all the leather,” explains Petty. “You want to try and keep the interior looking smooth.”
Most car paint catches and reflects light, which can be a problem without the right equipment. A neutral density filter limits light, almost like a pair of sunglasses for your lens. You can also use a circular polarizer, which specializes in reducing glare.
“If you don’t have a circular polarizer, you’re going to have a bunch of reflections coming off the windshield and the side of the car that definitely won’t look as good,” Petty says.
Unless you’re shooting an off-road vehicle, dirt and smudges aren’t going to make a nice addition to any car shots. Make sure to bring polishing cloths and detailing spray. “If you’re getting up close to the wheels, sometimes just moving the car a couple feet means you get dust and dirt,” explains Petty. “Definitely have that on hand just in case you need to clean.”
Don’t forget these tips for good car shots.
Come ready to capture all the angles.
Make sure to get the classic car “poses” before you get creative. Shoot the car from straight on at eye level, get side views, and capture shots at 45-degree angle views of each corner of the car.
“One of the biggest tips l give beginners is to know the angles of cars,” Petty explains. “Every car looks best at a three-quarters angle. That’s kind of like the go-to shot. You can practice with any car — it doesn’t even have to be a fancy car. It could be your own personal daily car. Just play around with the angles and find which ones look best.”
Once you’ve captured good angles of the entire vehicle, move on to cropped shots. You can shoot the side of the car from a low angle that starts at the front wheel, for example. Next, dive into the detail shots like close-ups of the headlights, front badge, arrow bits, side skirt, and mirrors — get in tight on any details that make the car unique.
If the location isn’t right or is affecting your ability to follow the rule of thirds (or other photo composition best practices), play around with where and how the car is positioned. Keep the scenery and your composition in mind. Just because your subject isn’t human, it doesn’t mean you can’t have it (and the owner) work with you to get the right pose.
Inside information on interior shots.
Whether it’s because of tinted windows or closed doors, the inside of a vehicle is often dim. A soft flash or light can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to open doors and windows to let more light in as well. And adjust your camera settings accordingly.
“For interior shots, most of the time, you need a slower shutter speed, because it’s darker,” Li says. “You don’t really have a lot of extra light to work with. And you likely can’t use a tripod, so you will need to master how to hold your camera steady.”
Interior shots can be easier with cars that have a back seat, but for two-seater vehicles, you might have to do some tricky camera placement to get the positioning that you want. You can also try taking interior shots from the outside — roll the windows down or open the door, and take it through the window.
“Don’t be afraid to raise the ISO, because the interior does get dark,” Petty says. “Knowing your camera is important, and knowing what ISO you can go up to in certain situations without getting too much noise and grain is important.”
Detail shots are crucial for interior images. Capture the steering wheel, the stitching on the seats, and any other special features. And don’t forget to snap shots of what’s under the hood too. Car fans love shots of stylish details, but images of the engineering that makes cars run is also key.
Photograph cars a quarter mile at a time.
While many car photos are of parked vehicles, you may want to capture cars as they showcase their muscle. You can take great shots of cars on the road by riding in another car. Set up a shoot with two different car owners. Have one drive you as you take photos of the other, and then switch. Shooting from a moving vehicle can lead to motion blur via camera shake, so aim to find some smooth roads for these shoots.
If you’re taking photos of moving cars from the finish line or another stationary position, panning photography is a great skill to learn so you can capture cars in motion. Panning techniques will help you focus on a moving subject, keeping it in focus, to deliver a still image that highlights motion with a blurred background.
Organize and fine-tune your shots in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
To find the perfect shots of any vehicle, you may have to sift through a number of photos. Lightroom makes it easy to organize your work and find your favorites. You can also apply filter-like Lightroom presets of your best edits to entire batches from the same vehicle’s shoot.
“In post, I play around with the image. I make custom edits to the car and the location,” Petty says.
You can also edit out distracting elements in your post-production work. “A lot of the time, I’ll take out different poles and things in the background,” Petty explains. Don’t let objects you can easily edit out draw attention away from your subject.
If lighting on car windows makes them too bright, you can darken them with a transparent gray brush. This will help even out the glass without making it look unrealistic.
You won’t know what types of edits you may need until you start shooting. After the rubber meets the road, you’ll learn what tips, tricks, and adjustments work for you. Get out there and snap as many pics of slick vehicles as you can until your skills and experience match your passion for cars.
Car photography may seem difficult, but with these handy tips, you’re well-equipped to take some stunning car photos of your own.
So pick your favorite technique from the article, get outside, and start shooting!
Adobe. Com, ” Put your car photography into top gear.”; photography-school.com, “8 tips for stunning car photography. ” BY Desmond Lauw; wonderfulmachine.com,, “what is Auto/vehicle Photography? By Shannon Stewart;