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Here's How to Properly Photograph a Car

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author photo by Chris O'Neill November 2017

I'm a compulsive car photographer, and I recently got to spend a week driving the 2017 Mazda CX-5. My example happened to arrive in Mazda's unique "Soul Red Crystal Metallic" -- a $595 option. There's something special and unique about this color -- it's becoming synonymous with Mazda's entire lineup -- so I felt compelled to take advantage and write an article that shows it off a proper light.

With that said, here's how to get a good photograph of a car.

1. Know Your Equipment

All smartphones have a shortcut to access the camera, which is crucial for getting a photo with a short window of time, like when a car driving by in the opposite direction catches your eye. Its also important to anticipate how long it'll take for your camera to focus and to act accordingly: there's nothing more frustrating to think you've got a great photo of a car only to find out later that it's out of focus.

2. Sun

The sun can make or break a photo -- so it's important to always pay attention to where the sun is in the sky when you're taking a picture. The ideal positioning for the sun is facing your back, thus hitting the surface of the vehicle. Shooting into the sun means the majority of your image is in a shadow, and therefore the details will turn out too dark (see below). Think of the sun as a lamp or a flashlight, and try to angle your shot in a way that allows it to illuminate the surface of your subject to the greatest degree.

This photo faces directly into the sun -- exactly what you shouldn't do. Without the sun hitting any of the surfaces being photographed, the whole image is washed out. The vehicle is back-lit, the colors are muted, the features are dark, and the shadow dominates the lower half of the image.

Another tip: The best time to take a photo is during the "magic hour" -- the time just after the sun has come up, or just before its about to go down. During this time, sunlight is filtered through the most atmosphere before hitting your subject, making for soft, warm, illuminating light. Take advantage of this time: most great photos are taken at the magic hour.

3. Angles

There are a handful of angles I always try to get when photographing a car. I start with the front three-quarter view; halfway between the front and side profile. This angle shows the most detail, and I think best captures the ethos of the vehicle.

From there:

  • Rear three-quarter

  • Side profile

  • Front

  • Rear

  • Interesting details, badges, and features

4. The Rule of Thirds

There's a rule of thumb that says the most prominent subjects in your photo should be divided into thirds. Visualize a 3x3 grid over your image: the "subjects" of your photo should fall on the lines of the grid. In the instance of photographing a car, this might mean that a third of the image should consist of the car, a third of the street/foreground, and a third of the sky or other things off in the distance.

Try to avoid any one of these things dominating your photo -- you don't want the road to make up half of the image, as it'll look out of balance. Additionally, the rule of thirds stipulates that the subject shouldn't be in the dead-center of the image, but rather off to the side a little. These are all rough estimates though -- mere suggestions -- so just keep them in mind.

5. Framing

It's important to pay attention to how you're framing your photo in order to get a clean shot. Is the entire vehicle in the shot? Should this photo be taken in landscape orientation? (Most likely, yes). Is there a street sign, a branch, or a person creeping in at the edge of your shot? Is your shadow casting in at the bottom? Do your best to position yourself and the camera in a way that eliminates anything from the shot that might take focus away from your subject.

With these tips in mind, also remember that photography is supposed to be fun -- and, as with anything, experimentation is necessary. That said, incorporating some of these concepts can be the difference between an "acceptable" photo and a great one. So the next time you want to photograph a cool car on the street, give some of these methods a try -- you might just surprise yourself.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's How to Properly Photograph a Car - Autotrader