I have to confess to being a bit of a petrolhead. I have had an interest in motorsport for many years and used to follow the Scottish Rally when it was in its heyday in the 1980’s and 1990’s and it formed part of the World Rally Championship. Needless to say I started to photograph cars at that time, but in a sporting environment when they were on the move and creating a sense of action and movement was the main aim. Times change and, as I have a background in construction, the design and form of cars took on their own values for me and I became fascinated with the challenge a car design team has – to create a visually desirable object that has function and reliability as essential properties.
This fascination made me start to look at cars in a different way, particularly in exploring the thought that goes into achieving the aesthetic aims of the designer while working round the restrictions of the aerodynamics, mechanics and ergonomics. To create a beautiful object in these circumstances is a huge ask and, I suspect, hugely complex these days given the variety of shapes on the road that use swage lines and curved panels to capture and reflect light in a way that enhances the visual impact of the car. Creating an image that captures these nuances and sells the brand is both technically and aesthetically challenging. It’s also too easy to end up with a photographic cliché given the number of automotive images there are around these days.
Assuming you are not working to a strict brief and the photograph is to be taken outside you need to think about what you want to achieve with the photograph. Firstly determine what angle you think best conveys the visual impact of the car and is most likely to render the curves and swage lines effectively. Take care when doing this as using the light to pick these details out will also show up any flaws in the metalwork or paintwork. Some of these will be correctable in photoshop but it is always best to avoid problems like this in the first place if it can be done.
Next you need to establish what kind of location you think best suits the car (obvious examples are city cars in an urban environment and 4×4’s in the country). Finding a location is the next step, which may take some research and time, making sure that you can access the site at the time of day that you intend to make the shoot . Remember when you are selecting a location to think about the weather you will be hoping for and the direction and nature of the light. Remember, also, that the timing of an outside shoot will be affected by the weather and that both you as photographer and the client need to be patient if you want the best from the shoot.
So, you’ve got the car, you’ve got you’re idea, you’ve sorted the location and the weather and light is all that you could wish for; what next? Have a good look round the car and make sure the wheels are pointing where you want them to be. Are the sunvisors up? Is there anything that could do with a bit of a clean (always take some cleaning equipment, including detailing fluid and glass cleaner)? Do you want the tax disc removed? Are there any stickers on the car? Is there any extraneous stuff around the site that will end up in frame? Are there any spurious reflections in the paintwork (including you and your camera) that shouldn’t be there? This last item is an easy one to miss and can be difficult to avoid. If it can’t be avoided do what you can to minimise the reflection so that it can be sorted in photoshop.
With regard to reflections, polarizing filters are essential, particularly if you want to see inside the car and reduce reflections on the glass and paintwork but, remember, they don’t work on metallic surfaces. Grad filters are also very useful, both for controlling the light and adding a bit of drama.
Photographing a car often results in a very contrasty image and the exposure range can exceed the latitude of the digital sensor in the camera, particularly if the headlights are on. To get round this it is necessary to ensure you take a number of images at different exposures to cover the full range from bright highlights to deep shadows. The photographs will be blended using HDR software or manually using layers in photoshop, so they have to register to the millimetre and a tripod is essential (this should go without saying for car photography). I have a preference for manual blending as it is more controllable and leads to more natural images. It is, however, more time consuming and requires more patience than HDR so might not suit you. HDR can also add drama if this fits with your vision – just be careful not to overcook the image though as there are few things uglier than an HDR image made with all the sliders turned to high.
Finally, quality is key. Do all you can to reduce noise and artifacts when recording and processing the image; don’t over-sharpen and don’t over-saturate. Do think about effects that might add to the final image (for example, a little vignette can go a long way) and do keep in mind what you set out to achieve at the very beginning of the idea. If you do all of these things you should be well on your way to making a memorable image of an impressive, thought provoking and controversial technological marvel.
So, there you are, a very brief overview of the thought process that I go through when making an image of a car. If photographing cars is of interest to you I hope this blog helps in some small way.