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Old 05-13-2007, 05:09 PM   #1
Verdugo
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Lightbulb Arminís Quick and Dirty Tips and Tricks to Automotive Photography

Back in the day…

I started shooting cars professionally as part of Subiesport Magazine since the magazine’s inception back in 2004. I learned a lot along the way, since at the time I was really a complete newbie when it came to photography. Consequently, I must thank my good friend Josh Mackey (http://www.mackeydesigns.com) and Subiesport Publisher Ryan Douthit for their help and tutelage. Ferg asked me to write something up, so I am honored to pass on some of my basic automotive photography methods to NASIOC, and I hope that these can help both beginners and experienced photographers alike. By no means do I regard myself as all knowing in automotive photography, but I love to help people take better pictures and learn new techniques right along side me. Without further ado, we’ll first start out with basic composition.

Part 1 -- Point and do WHAT?!

I started shooting cars professionally as part of Subiesport Magazine since the magazine’s inception back in 2004. I learned a lot along the way, since at the time I was really a complete newbie when it came to photography. Consequently, I must thank my good friend Josh Mackey (http://www.mackeydesigns.com) and Subiesport Publisher Ryan Douthit for their help and tutelage. Ferg asked me to write something up, so I am honored to pass on some of my automotive photography methods to NASIOC, and I hope that these can help both beginners and experienced photographers alike. By no means do I regard myself as all knowing in automotive photography, but I love to help people take better pictures and learn new techniques right along side me. Without further ado, we’ll first start out with basic composition.

Centered is rarely best

It’s easy to take a picture and put everything you want in the center, but unfortunately it doesn’t make for good photography. Generally, you want to follow the Rule of Thirds, which basically means that you want to put your subject at the cross section of two lines that cut your photo into thirds. An easy way visualize this is to imagine a tic-tac-toe board on your screen or viewfinder. Some cameras may even have this as an option to overlay on the screen. Here is an example of the Rule of Thirds in action:



I’ve overlaid the “Rule of Thirds” grid from Photoshop’s crop function so that you can see the grid lines. You can see how the car is situated right at what I call a “thirds crosspoint” to follow the Rule of Thirds. Keep in mind, while this is called a “rule,” it’s actually more of a guideline. I definitely recommend that you practice the Rule of Thirds so that you find yourself always doing it, and then you can get more creative with breaking the rule. This is one of the most important things to learn in photo composition, so definitely make sure you master it before feeling like you can break it any time.

Angles can be good…and bad

Going overboard on crazy angles to get a unique picture is very easy to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Remember that you want the viewer of your photo to truly grasp what you’re trying to capture, but if they have to break their neck or do a headstand to see it, then they’ll probably just look elsewhere. Make no mistake, there’s a time and place for crazy angles, but use them sparingly and make sure that everyone can tell what they’re looking at. Here is a very bad example from when I first started taking photos:



Also, keep in mind that a very slight angle can change the feel of a photo. Here is the same car, just with a slightly different angle to the photo. Which do you prefer? It all depends on what your purpose is:



Avoid the cut-off

Just a quick and simple tip. If you’re trying to take a picture of the whole car, make sure you actually take a full picture of the car, and don’t cut off the bumpers, wheels, spoilers, etc. It makes sense to cut off sections if you just want to single one or two things out (such as close-ups of individual parts in an engine bay), but if you want to get everything, pay attention not to cut off parts of your subject.

Wheels vs. Tire Tread

In this grudge match, the wheel always wins. If you’re taking a picture of a car, especially from ĺ position, angle the wheels so that the face of the wheel is facing the camera, not the tire tread. While some tire tread is really aggressive-looking, 99% of the time the photo will be better showing off the face of the wheel instead of the tire tread, especially if they’re aftermarket wheels. Even stock wheels can look good in a properly taken photo, but we won’t know that unless we actually see them, right? There will be times when you just want the wheels to be straight, but turning the wheels to face the camera often gives a more posed look that shows that you’ve taken your time and put effort into the photo, rather than just taking a photo of a car off the street. Here is an example using a 100% stock car:



The background is not just noise

While the car is going to be the subject of your photo, that doesn’t mean that the background doesn’t matter. Even with proper composition, a good background can substantially help or wreck a photo. Industrial backgrounds are very overused, but it’s understandable to use if you’re in a pinch. Ideally, you want a background that helps add to the theme of a photo or just plain looks good overall. A driveway photo shoot isn’t all that great either unless the driveway is filled with a bunch more nice cars. Just be careful not to choose a background that blends in too much with your car, because then your subject won’t stand out. Here are a couple of my favorite backgrounds that I’ve been able to use:





It is also very important to make sure there aren’t distractions in the background that interfere with your subject, such as trees or poles growing out of the car, power lines dominating the scene, or random garbage on the surrounding ground. Attention to detail is very important when it comes to your background, and can easily be the difference between a simple snapshot and an actual thought-out photo.

Camera elevation

A key point of any type of photography is to try to capture something that isn’t normally seen by your naked eye. Thus, try your best not to take photos from standard standing height. If you get real low or get real high, you’ll have a much better overall photo. Very rarely will you see me taking a photo from a standing position. I sometimes even bring a stepladder with me to get a higher elevated shot, since being Filipino, I’m not a tall man. And, don’t be afraid to get dirty with a low shot. Here’s a high and a low example:



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Last edited by Verdugo; 09-17-2012 at 07:25 PM.
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Old 05-13-2007, 05:09 PM   #2
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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:


http://www.nof8butwhatwemake.com

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
http://www.arminausejo.com
http://www.arminweddings.com
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Last edited by Verdugo; 09-18-2012 at 02:24 AM.
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Old 05-13-2007, 05:36 PM   #3
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Wow.

Nice.

These are probably my best, from last year in my back yard...





=S2=
(Sony DSC-W1, and I still need add-on lenses and a tripod)
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Old 05-13-2007, 05:57 PM   #4
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Nice write up Armin. My eyes hurt from all that reading though.

I know it's a no no but I kinda like the look of half ( + or -) the car in shots.
But hey maybe thats why you're a pro and I'm not. . . lol


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Old 05-13-2007, 05:59 PM   #5
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To add to my previous reply, my biggest weakness is car interior shots.

I can't take them to save my life. Blurry, glare, too dark, too bright, flash reflection............. ugh.

-Chris
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Old 05-13-2007, 06:41 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by GDB FAN View Post
Nice write up Armin. My eyes hurt from all that reading though.

I know it's a no no but I kinda like the look of half ( + or -) the car in shots.
But hey maybe thats why you're a pro and I'm not. . . lol


You can easily make something like this work...just gotta have the right background to give contrast and "tell a story." Here's an example that I posted up last year:








As I said in my opening paragraph, I'm not claiming to be a know-it-all, and there will always been exceptions to "rules." Just think of them more like guidelines ala "parlay" in Pirates of the Carribean...ARRRRRR

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Old 05-13-2007, 06:51 PM   #7
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leggy popo???! oh noes!!

haha way cool pic. how you like that d70?
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Old 05-13-2007, 06:53 PM   #8
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leggy popo???! oh noes!!

haha way cool pic. how you like that d70?
Haha yeah, we featured that last year in Subiesport (in the Stephanie issue). The D70 was great...I sold it to my friend when I got a D200, but I still borrow it from time to time when I need a second body (like for weddings). Still a great camera

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Old 05-13-2007, 07:02 PM   #9
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I seem to remember reading that Ansel Adams would sometimes put his tripod on top of his station wagon to gain more elevation.

So... wagon owners, there ya go!
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Old 05-13-2007, 07:07 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fireball_jones View Post
I seem to remember reading that Ansel Adams would sometimes put his tripod on top of his station wagon to gain more elevation.

So... wagon owners, there ya go!
I've actually climbed up on top of our family's minivan before with my tripod to get more elevation

Armin
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Old 05-13-2007, 07:28 PM   #11
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Thanks for taking time to post and share this
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Old 05-13-2007, 07:33 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Verdugo View Post

Notice how the car is situated in such a way in the photo that itís sitting right where an imaginary line would be to cut off the bottom third of the picture, and where a vertical line would intersect with that line, cutting off the far right third of the picture. A much more detailed description of this can be found here:
To help show the rule of thirds better, why dont you just have the same picture again with those lines photoshopped in? I think it'd help a lot
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Old 05-13-2007, 07:48 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by amukaoen View Post
To help show the rule of thirds better, why dont you just have the same picture again with those lines photoshopped in? I think it'd help a lot
Sure, just didn't have time when I was writing this up yesterday

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Old 05-13-2007, 07:57 PM   #14
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Another example:



Can't edit the first post 'cause I reached the max of 10 pics...hahahaha
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Old 05-13-2007, 08:01 PM   #15
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very nice write up man. you always take the best pics
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Old 05-13-2007, 10:32 PM   #16
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Great Write-up Armin, thanks for that. Next time I'm in the Seattle area, I'll have to hit you up for a photoshoot.
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Old 05-13-2007, 11:49 PM   #17
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Thanks Armin, as always you exceeded my expectations
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Old 05-14-2007, 01:03 AM   #18
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Great Job Armin.

What armin had wrote about was really on the dot. everything from having a tripod, to filters, to composition was great. Just keep in mind that photography isnt something you learn overnight. It takes time, practice, patience and a little bit of luck. I started photography last summer and when I first started i found that i was deleting a ton of pics. But with some practice I found that im keeping a little more here and there. Photography is much like a sport. On some days your on fire, and other days you just cant get it right. Just take ur time and be patient and things will come to ya.

great job armin
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Old 05-14-2007, 01:24 AM   #19
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nice! great write up, helped out alot!
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Old 05-14-2007, 04:51 AM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ferg View Post
Thanks Armin, as always you exceeded my expectations
You're welcome man, once again I am honored

Quote:
Originally Posted by eboarder2020 View Post
Photography is much like a sport. On some days your on fire, and other days you just cant get it right.
Tell me about it. The shots I took today of Team Menace came out pretty good, but I was very disappointed with the rolling shots. Most of them didn't come out very well, partially because we weren't quite coordinated when we did them, and partially because I wasn't quite used to using my 12-24mm for rolling shots yet. This one came out decently though...

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Old 05-14-2007, 07:28 AM   #21
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Sure, just didn't have time when I was writing this up yesterday


Ahhhhhhh, I see it now. I was thinking something slightly different, I guess.
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Old 05-14-2007, 10:57 AM   #22
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quick and dirty photo tip:

BECOME A JEDI-MASTER AT PHOTOSHOP

taking a sick pic w/ a high MP camera only gets you so far... seriously thats how some of the pics on Jtuned look so sick... After all the post-processing they're more like a painting than photo
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Old 05-14-2007, 11:09 AM   #23
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Photo manip software is wonderful, but I guess I'm still a believer that it's more important to have something great, to start with. You can tweak crap all you want - you just end up with pretty crap.

Not that you disagree, just stating my opinion.
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Old 05-14-2007, 12:11 PM   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Siper2 View Post
Photo manip software is wonderful, but I guess I'm still a believer that it's more important to have something great, to start with. You can tweak crap all you want - you just end up with pretty crap.

Not that you disagree, just stating my opinion.
I firmly agree with this. The guys over at JTuned know what they're doing...they have a very good photo to start with in terms of composition and exposure. The post-processing just gives them the big extra UMPH to make stuff really stand out. I had the pleasure of meeting JTuned photographer Steve Demmitt last year at Formula D and he's really just THAT good of a photographer. I was genuinely surprised that he doesn't use some uber expensive telephoto lens for his motion shots...he's just got the skills, and post-processing helps him enhance them.

Knowing Photoshop very well does give you an edge though, no denying that. But, as I said...even just a little basic tweaking of contrast, saturation, and sharpness can go a long way.

Armin
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Old 05-14-2007, 12:30 PM   #25
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Thanks for the great write-up, Armin!

Your work has always served as an inspiration for my own photography, and because of folks like you, I've gone from this (almost 2 years ago):



...to this:



I still have a long ways to go to reach the levels I want to hit, but it's been a great journey and learning experience so far. Keep up the fantastic work... I never get tired of looking at your images!

-Mike
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