Life in the Fast Lane: Better Automatic Photography (Part Two)

By Matty Graham | August 2, 2022

This is a two-part series on automotive photography. You can see the first part, from last week, here.

Don’t forget the details

While overall and three-quarter compositions are excellent, too many photographers fall into the trap of overlooking car detail. Teams of designers have spent hundreds of hours sculpting those curves, badges and grilles and some of those little details are the very thing the make or model may be famous for.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/125s @ f4, ISO 400.

The trick with detailed shots is to use a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject and blur the background to help the details stand out even more. Getting closer is a great approach, but it’s not always possible or desirable – macro lenses can be very useful here thanks to their 1:1 magnification ratio which will show subjects at full size.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Tokina Opera 50mm F1.4 FF lens.  30s @ f7.1, ISO 250.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Tokina Opera 50mm F1.4 FF lens. 30s @ f7.1, ISO 250.

Change your focal lengths

While developing a signature style associated with your automotive photography can be a good thing, shooting with the same lens can make your images look a bit stale. The best way to add variation to your automotive portfolio is to change your focal length and varying wide and long angles can add new energy to frames.

Canon EOS 7D, 10-20mm to 12mm lens.  1/200s @ f8, ISO 100.
Canon EOS 7D, 10-20mm to 12mm lens. 1/200s @ f8, ISO 100.

Ultra-wide lenses will allow you to show more of the scene while making the most of the foreground interest in the frame, with the wide angle stretching the perspective of areas close to the lens. Meanwhile, a long lens will provide a compressed perspective, which is great for tighter framing.

If you have a bag full of glass, you can use specialized lenses, such as fish-eye optics or tilt-shift lenses to correct for converging verticals if you include tall buildings in the background of your shot.

Polish those pixels

In these days of digital photography, clicking the shutter is of course only half the battle and processing your image is just as important as taking it. The first step on this journey is to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. While JPEG files take up less space on the memory card, RAW files retain more tonal data, allowing photographers to push those pixels even further, saving highlights in the frame and also revealing shadows if necessary.

The editing process gives photographers a second chance to add their own signature style to a frame.  I wanted to enhance the colors of this classic car and further highlight the texture of the masonry which added additional interest to the frame.  OM O-M1 system, 45mm f/1.2 lens.  1/2500s @ f2.8, ISO 200.
The editing process gives photographers a second chance to add their own signature style to a frame. I wanted to enhance the colors of this classic car and further highlight the texture of the masonry which added additional interest to the frame. OM O-M1 system, 45mm f/1.2 lens. 1/2500s @ f2.8, ISO 200.

This requires RAW conversion software such as Lightroom, and you can speed up this processing work by developing your own presets to achieve the stylized look you desire, such as a super saturated effect or something more matte and flat. .

However, the journey doesn’t end there, because once you’re done with Lightroom, you can open the file in Photoshop to further refine the image and that’s where the frame elements can be precisely cloned. removing any dirt. or scratches on the quarter panels or windshields.

Don't forget the details!  The design of the car is a beautiful thing and getting close to isolating and highlighting a feature will help tell the car's story in a more compelling way.  This image was taken at a classic car event and the red detail pops against the black paint.  Canon R6, 50mm f/1.4 lens.  1/640s @ f1.8, ISO 100.
Don’t forget the details! The design of the car is a beautiful thing and getting close to isolating and highlighting a feature will help tell the car’s story in a more compelling way. This image was taken at a classic car event and the red detail pops against the black paint. Canon R6, 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/640s @ f1.8, ISO 100.

Get better access

One of the biggest challenges in automotive photography is finding the right subjects. Newbie photographers may struggle to get to supercars, but there are things you can do to broaden your exposure to cool vehicles. The first is to contact local auto clubs and show up at a regional meet.

Captured in the pit garage during a break between races, I had to ask for ladders to get this aerial photo - making friends with the pit crew always pays off.  Think of how the image might be used on the pages of a magazine - leave room for text around the frame.  Canon 5D Mark IV, 17-40mm f/4 at 17mm lens.  1/125s @ f6.3, ISO 320.
Captured in the pit garage during a break between races, I had to ask for ladders to get this aerial photo – making friends with the pit crew always pays off. Think of how the image might be used on the pages of a magazine – leave room for text around the frame. Canon 5D Mark IV, 17-40mm f/4 at 17mm lens. 1/125s @ f6.3, ISO 320.

Talk to people, find out the story behind their car, ask why they bought or built it, then offer to take pictures. Another route is to approach local car dealerships; offer to provide images for marketing materials in exchange for access to their most exciting car models.

As your portfolio grows, it will become easier to access racetracks as you can show off a website/portfolio or even attend on behalf of local media.

Look for the complementary colors in the frame - this orange Porsche pops against the blue sky and green grass.  Also be prepared for critical moments;  overtaking, crashing and checkered flags.  Canon 7D, EF70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 118mm.  1/320s @ f14, ISO 250.
Look for the complementary colors in the frame – this orange Porsche pops against the blue sky and green grass. Also be prepared for critical moments; overtaking, crashing and checkered flags. Canon 7D, EF70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 118mm. 1/320s @ f14, ISO 250.

Two wheels is good too

The reality is that many of the skills, techniques, and kit tricks we’ve already mentioned are easily transferable to firebikes as well as cars. For photographers looking to make money from their automotive images, photographing bikes and cars opens up additional doors and means there are more events to cover and more magazines to sell those images to.

Canon 6D, EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens.  1/250s @ f8, ISO 100.
Canon 6D, EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens. 1/250s @ f8, ISO 100.

On the contrary, bicycles are more affordable and therefore likely to be more subjects to photograph. But what’s even more important is that the bikes are beautiful machines, dripping with camera-ready design cues. ❂

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