What makes a great car photo?

Some tips from our resident lensman
by Mikko David | Jan 4, 2014

Car photography tips: What makes a great car photo?

Merriam-Webster defines photography as "the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or an optical sensor)." I say, however, that it's more than just that. For me, photography is not just about getting the right exposure nor having a balanced composition. It's much more than the mere technicalities of getting the right shutter speed, aperture setting or ISO value. I would like to think that photography is actually more akin to capturing "the moment."

While there are many genres of photography--each with its own intricacies and complexities--I chose to delve in automotive photography as the subject, the car, is close to my heart. As an automotive enthusiast, finding--well, obsessing, really--to spot the right angle that will make the car stand out from its background has been my mission since day one. But even if you crawled and contorted half your body to get the perfect line for the shot, without that crucial defining moment, a car shot is just about as palatable as a photo of a bowl of fruit.

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So, here are some things to remember every time you shoot a car. Like with any good photograph, mastering these will help in making your car images all the more special and commendable.

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Car photography tip: The photo must be technically sound.

1. The photo must be technically sound. Sorry, guys, but yes, you still have to brush up on how shutter speed, aperture, ISO and even focal length all work together to come up with a good car photograph. There's just no magic pill for it even with today's Program, Superior or Intelligent Auto modes. Don't dream of getting stunning images just because you bought the biggest, baddest and heaviest DSLR available online. But be properly armed at least for the task at hand by having the right gear and the right knowledge. Follow this column if you want to know how to nail the appropriate camera setup for the car shot you want.

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Car photography tip: It must have a pleasing composition.

2. The photo must have a pleasing composition. The least you can do is to not cut off parts of the car, right? Sadly, it still happens even in the motoring community. But don't fret: The rules of composition are here to save your day. The most common is the Rule of Thirds, but there are others that are equally useful and lend toward an aesthetically pleasing photograph. Mastering these rules, and knowing when best to apply them can help you churn out appealing car photos. But learning when to break these same rules might just make your car photos even more astounding. "Might" being the operative word, of course.

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Car photography tip: The photo should convey dynamism.

3. The photo should convey dynamism. Automobiles have always been about mobility and motion. An advertising or product photographer might argue that without a driver, a car is just like any object you can capture an image of. But then again, having a photographer that thinks that way just kills the car's soul and its essence. A car photo must show, if not suggest, motion, movement and direction. That's why car photography is different from landscape, commercial or even product photography. This is why a shot of a car sideways over a blurred background will always be more relevant than a car merely parked along a scenic vista.

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Car photography tip: It must have a story.

4. The photo must have a story. This is a no-brainer. Every photo, for that matter, must have a story. But it's how you can successfully convey that story to your audience that will differentiate your car photo from the rest of the lot. Machine versus man, machine versus environment, heck, even machine versus nature! The stories can just be as varied as the way they are interpreted, so it's up to you to relate the elements of your car photograph in a manner your intended audience can easily grasp.

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Car photography tip: The car should be the hero.

5. The car should be the hero. This is perhaps the most crucial of all considerations when composing and taking your car photo. Portraying the car as the focal point of your shot is but the tip of the iceberg in car photography. Making it stand out as a larger-than-life living entity--instead of being just the inanimate object that it is--is actually the harder challenge. And not everyone can achieve this. It takes an enthusiast's heart to breathe life into a car in a photograph. Oh, and a lot of practice, too.

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But as I said, it's all about the moment, right? So combine all of what you just read and wait for that exact point in time when all the elements come harmoniously together before you snap away in a car-shooting session, and you're a step closer toward churning out stunning car photographs. Who knows? Your shot might even win an award or two.

Mind you, just like any other photographic endeavor, spending more time behind the camera instead of sitting in front of the computer reading columns like this, is still the best way to learn and evolve as a photographer. But that's just me.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions regarding automotive photography, shoot me an e-mail at mikkomiks@gmail.com and I will try my best to reply to it.

Photos by Mikko David

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