Part 2 -- Photography is Light
Remember that when you’re taking a photo, you’re capturing how light is reflecting off of everything in the photo. Light rules everything with an iron fist, and getting the proper exposure is key to a good photo. After all, if you can’t see anything, what’s the point?
Be careful with backlights
Generally speaking, you want to avoid backlights in automotive photography. Remember that typically you want your light source behind you, so that it lights up your subject. If you’re taking a photo of a car with the light source behind it, such as the sun or a streetlight, then you’ll more than likely get lens flare (the ugly green or brown series of circles that emanate from the light source in question) and your subject will not receive enough light. You can still make it work...
...but you just have to make sure you understand what problems might arise when you capture the photo. Another option would be to use artificial lighting such as strobes, flashes, or light painting, but those create their own limitations and don’t really fall under the realm of basic tips and tricks.
High ISO / high-speed film is no substitute for a tripod
A tripod solves almost all of your focus and noise issues, whether you’re using a digital or film camera. If you don’t have a tripod, get one! It will be one of the best investments you can make. Sure, you can turn the ISO up or use high-speed film to increase your light sensitivity, but only at the expense of more noise and graininess in your photo. Ideally, you want to set your ISO to your camera’s lowest base ISO that you need in order to capture your photo. Your camera’s base ISO numbers can be found in you camera’s manual, but typically it’ll either be ISO 100 or ISO 200. Make sure you check on your ISO settings before you start shooting, otherwise you might end up with something like this:
If you’re really getting serious about your photography, make sure you don’t go cheap on your tripod. Even a slight breeze can cause a cheap, flimsy tripod to move or vibrate enough to throw off the focus of your photos. You’ll want a tripod that will properly hold the weight of your camera and lens, and is adjustable enough for your tastes. Most good and stable tripod head and leg combinations will be in the $300+ range.
Avoid midday sun
If you can help it, try not to shoot in the middle of a bright sunny day. It will mess up your colors and create rather harsh reflections, especially from the windows. The best times to shoot by far are right before sunrise and right at or just after sunset. Cloudy days can be good as well, but you need to be mindful of your contrast and saturation. An overcast day can almost be ideal for even lighting, but just about any shot pointed upward toward the sky is going to have a very overexposed, ugly background. If you’re able to get a nice balance of blue skies, clouds, and soft lighting, then you can get capture something truly awesome:
Manage your reflections
Unless the car you’re shooting has a matte paint job, just about every car you shoot is going to act like a mirror. Managing reflections is vital to good automotive photography, since the last thing you want is for glare to ruin your photo. One of the easiest ways to help manage your reflections and glare, especially those given off from windshields and other glass, is to use a circular polarizer. The front of the circular polarizer rotates so that you can set it to remove the reflections of your choice. Here’s an example of the difference that the circular polarizer makes. The first photo shows how it looks without the polarizer, and the second shows what the polarizer does to the reflections on the windshield, hood, and more:
The circular polarizer will also help reduce glare when taking interior shots. I never leave home without my circular polarizer, and it should ALWAYS be in your camera bag. The only excuse not to have one is if you have a point and shoot camera that doesn’t support one.
Don’t forget to also be mindful of reflections that can’t be controlled by a circular polarizer, such as things in the area surrounding the car. Watch out for distinct colors, lines, and even people that will show up in the paint of the car, and try your best to position the car to minimize these things.
Part 3 -- Making the best of your equipment
You don’t need the latest and greatest DSLR to take good photos, but SLR cameras definitely have more of an advantage with their interchangeable lenses. However, that isn’t to say that you still can’t get good results out of a point-and-shoot. For example, this photo above was taken with my camera phone...
...and I took this photo with a disposable film camera:
In fact, many people end up spending a lot of money on a DSLR, but since they don’t take the time to really learn how to use it properly, their photos end up looking worse than if they used their camera phone. All you really need is the know-how to use what equipment you have properly, and this counts for DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras, and even your camera phone. It’s not as simple as fully comprehending the manual, but it definitely does help.
Tripod, Tripod, Tripod
‘Nuff said. If you don’t have one, get one. I cannot stress this enough. Using a tripod will not only help give you a good, stable platform to take pictures from, but it’ll also help you slow things down so that you’re not rushing your shots. Setting up the tripod will also give you time to re-examine the scene and your composition. Are there distractions surrounding the car? Is the lighting good? Are you shooting from a different elevation other than standing eye level?
There will undoubtedly be times when using a tripod will be impractical or even impossible, but I’ll still default to the tripod on just about every automotive feature shoot that I do.
Adjusting your aperture and how it affects shutter speed and ISO
Ever wonder how photos have one thing singled out, and the rest blurry? That’s because the aperture is adjusted to shoot wide open, creating a blurred effect away from the focus point. Shooting “wide open” means that you lower your aperture down to the lowest possible f-stop. Many lenses have a lowest f-stop of ƒ3.5 (more often written as f/3.5), but other lenses can go down to ƒ1.8 or even ƒ1.2. On the other hand, using a higher f-stop will keep more things in focus, but at the expense of letting in less light, which again leads to a tripod being a must. Experiment and see what kind of results you can get, since there is no right or wrong when it comes to your aperture. It all comes down to how you want to present your subject to your viewer. Switching your camera to aperture priority mode will help you play around with things. Also, remember that if you zoom in (in other words, use telephoto) for a photo and use a lower f-stop, you’ll get even more blurriness away from your focus point. I use my telephoto lens with a low f-stop very often to make a car pop out from the surrounding area. Here is an example of how different apertures can affect a photo, using an 85mm ƒ1.4 lens:
Also, remember that your aperture affects the amount of light going into your camera. A wider aperture lets in more light, which will consequently result in having to use a faster shutter speed to ensure proper exposure. Your ISO will also play a role here, since the ISO adjusts how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the incoming light. It’s this tricky balance of these three main factors that affect your photo, and really the best way to understand this triangle relationship is to get out there and experiment.
One filter to rule them all
I stressed the use of the circular polarizer filter in Part 2′s “Managing your reflections” section, so I’ll stress it here again. It really is a filter that I won’t leave home without, especially when it comes to automotive photography. The only other filter that I use often will be a neutral density filter, which basically acts like window tint to let in less light. This is helpful when you want to use a slow shutter speed, but the overall lighting situation is too bright. Otherwise, I prefer not to use UV filters or anything else that acts as another piece of unnecessary glass on the front of my lens.
Turn off your flash
There are certain ways to use a flash effectively on a car, but you usually need more than one, and it definitely won’t be the one attached to your camera. Thus, keep it turned off, and refer to the tripod rule above one more time.
JPEG vs. RAW and post-processing
It’s important to understand what happens after you take your photo on your DSLR, point-and-shoot, or camera phone. If you’re shooting in JPEG mode, your camera’s manufacturer will apply its own formula of color saturation, contrast, sharpening, etc to the photo. With most cameras you can control this to a certain degree, but the options are typically very limited to settings such as “Vivid” or “Monochrome.” Thus, you’ve pretty much turned your photo processing over to your manufacturer to determine, much like how you’d just take your film to a developer and they’d have full control over everything. The way you can truly make your photos your own is to shoot in RAW mode where available. RAW is quite literally the raw photo data that your camera captures, and thus it doesn’t apply any adjustments that would normally take place when you shoot in JPEG. There are many technical differences between the formats, but in the end, RAW has all of your photo’s data, whereas with JPEG you lose data since the file is compressed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t post-process JPEGs though. There’s no reason that you can’t apply more edits to a photo from your point-and-shoot or camera phone. Often times you’ll take a photo that looks absolutely perfect right out of the camera, but even doing little things like a little sharpening or a little boost in saturation or contrast can turn your photo into something more. Just don’t go overboard with it! It’s very easy to go overboard with contrast and saturation especially. Too much contrast will remove definition and details from dark areas, and too much saturation can make a photo look very artificial. Use your best judgment and discretion, as you’ll know very quickly if something’s starting to look too extreme. Here’s an example that I took with my camera phone, showing the original and just a little bit of slight adjustments to shadows, highlights, and contrast that took all but 30 seconds:
Garbage In, Garbage Out
This is a mantra that I will always mention when it comes to photography. Post-processing can help make a good photo into an exceptional photo, but it can never help transform an already bad photo into an exceptional photo. If you don’t start out with a good photo, no amount of post-processing will make it awesome. At its root, that is main thing I’ve tried to stress in these tips and tricks. If you start out with good composition, good use of light, and proper use of your equipment, then you will almost always end up with a great photo. However, if your photos starts off with bad composition, overly exposed or drastically underexposed, and your camera isn’t steadied with a tripod or doesn’t have the right aperture, shutter, or ISO settings, then you really can’t expect to be able to completely rescue the photo through post-processing. This is why the basics are important, and once you’ve gotten a good understanding or even mastery of the basics, then you’ll definitely be going down the right path toward great photography.
I hope these tips and tricks have been helpful. Keep your eyes open on this website that will include more advanced tips and tricks, such as more specific discussions about equipment (such as types of lenses), capturing motion, and post-processing:
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to shoot me a PM (I go by “Verdugo” here on NASIOC) or send me an e-mail at armin [at] arminausejo.com. Thanks for reading, and happy shooting!
Armin H. Ausejo
Senior Editor, NWMotiv.com