How To Do Car Photography On The Cheap

Car photography, is there really much skill involved?

Above: Jess’s Panda Spec Initial D Styled Toyota 86. You can see the effects of the multi-fired speed light technique that I will cover in this tutorial.

On face value, many would say no. Grab a car, maybe a nice background, plonk down your tripod and snap away. How hard could it really be?  Well, after my first attempt failed miserably I quickly realized that there’s plenty more to the shots you see published online and in import magazines. There’s thousands of dollars worth of lighting, lighting stands, diffusers, power generators, speed lights and remotes. Also let’s not forget, you’d also want some pretty sharp glass and a full frame camera for the work too.

But what if you don’t have another kidney to sell and you want professional looking results? Surely you can have your proverbial cake and eat it too right?

Above: One of the first shots I produced that really got me into car photography and it’s been a steep learning curve since then.

Lighting, lighting, lighting

The first problem you’ll come across is lighting. Cars are highly reflective and to top it all off, they are really, really large objects to shoot. Like most outdoor photography, car photography is best done either in the golden hours or at night where as a photographer, you won’t need to make the choice between under exposing the foreground and over exposing the background.

So it’s either evening or night time and you’ve parked the car, framed it up and got the angle you want. If the lighting on the car at this point is absolutely perfect, hit the shutter, process the photo, send it to street cover or top gear magazine and wait for a fat cheque. If on the other hand the lighting is poor on several parts of the car, be sure to follow the simple steps below to create some inexpensive, professional looking results.

What you need:

  1. A Camera with at the minimum, a manual mode and a shutter timer. I currently use a Sony A7.
  2. A decent Tripod. Check to see if it has three legs and if it does, it’s decent and it’s also technically a tripod. My tripod of choice at the moment is a Promaster xc525 tripod.
  3. One external Speedlight or Flash. If your flash doesn’t have a manual fire or “test” mode, you went far too cheap.
  4. A diffuser, a few layers of baking paper folded over a flash works if you’re on a budget.

Setting up:

Step 1: These are merely suggestions but you should be shooting in RAW and because we are on a tripod, use ISO100 for the best quality images. Use whatever aperture setting you feel comfortable with and you’ll want between 5 and 15 seconds for the shutter because we are going to be doing some light modifying within this time period with our speed light or flash.

Step 2: Find a good angle and mount your camera onto your decent tripod. Around this time you should be doing some test shots at different exposure times till you’re happy with how exposed the background is. Once you have found this point we can then focus on lighting up your subject within that exposure period.

S15 with no light

Above: This is why front firing flash doesn’t work with car photography. Cars are simply too big to light with a fixed angle speed light and quick exposure. I’ll show you how to turn this into a professional photo with just one speed light. 

Step 3: Hit the shutter timer and wait for the shutter to actuate. When that happens, run around the car whilst repeatedly firing the flash manually. The aim of the game here is to light the darker parts of the car. Some flashes have inbuilt diffusers and if yours does not have this life changing function, use baking paper over the flash for the same effect. Light only the areas that you want and you can also use a bit of cardboard to aim the flash to prevent the floor from being lit up more than your car.

S15 Work in Progress

Above: Making progress. The background is exposed well enough and all we need to do now is light up the foreground subject. Be sure that your flashes are out of the frame and that you are manually aiming your fire to highlight the most important areas.

Above: I ran and jumped into the car to flash up the interior before jumping out and lighting the rest of the shot. Experimenting with light can be fun and will give dramatic results.

Step 4 and 5: Keep experimenting and once you’ve got your “money shot”, the real fun begins. I’ll do a Lightroom tutorial at a later date but basically it’s all about playing with your shot in post process until you have a result that you’re happy with.

Above: The end result. I needed around 10 to 12 flashes to get the lighting how I wanted it for the final result.

Top Tip: Getting feedback from other photographers helps you become a better photographer. Here’s a few shots I have done with my single speed light technique.

Garage 88 GT86 Garage 88 GT86

As mentioned, lighting is everything and cars are large objects. When going out specifically to do car photography, you’ll soon realize that the already present ambient or artificial street lighting is coming from above, often casting soft dark shadows on your subject. All it takes is a few diffused flashes from the side to really emphasize and highlight certain aspects of a car and you’ll start getting radically different results. If you can see the flashes on the reflection of the car, try moving the flash further from the diffuser or simply fold on a few more layers of baking paper if you’ve gone with this technique.

I hope that this brief tutorial has helped you realize that the barriers to entry with car photography can be lowered with some of the light modifying techniques I’ve covered above. If you’re looking to get into car photography, simply attend a local car meet and rock up with a tripod, camera and flash. Often the owner will be more than happy that his pride and joy is being photographed, especially if his car is hard parked or stanced.

If you want to see some more of my car photography work, please join my Facebook here

If you want the high resolution images of everything you’ve seen in this tutorial for wallpaper, head to my Flickr.

As always, have fun shooting and I’ll see you guys next article.

Daniel Kennedy is a professional photographer who has had his work published online by Century 21 Real Estate and with Hot 4’s Car Magazine. As a contributor of F-stop Lounge, feel free to ask him any technical questions in relation to car photography or photography in general.

I specialize in corporate events, sports photography, car photography and portrait work.

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