From cars to motorcycles, lighting considerations, angles, polarisation, space requirements, assistants and more, I’m going to share my top 10 tips for automotive and car photography to help you get the best results.
For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my main work is a mixture of commercial product photography, some beauty and fashion work, and teaching photography here, on Karl Taylor Education.
But you may not know that for many years I had a keen interest in motorbikes. In fact, I’ve owned several great bikes, but that avenue of pleasure was unfortunately closed by my wife when the kids came along.
As a result of that love of bikes, I’ve always enjoyed shooting them. They are technically very challenging to shoot and, if done well, the results can be stunning.
As a product photographer, the technical aspects and principles of lighting for automotive is actually very similar to the products I usually shoot. You often have a mixture of gloss and matte surfaces along with difficult reflective curves; it’s all just on a much bigger scale.
Although many new car images are undertaken using CGI there is still a demand for real photography, especially for classic cars.
I hadn’t shot any car shoots, until recently, when, after installing our ceiling rig in the studio, I decided to give it another go and decided to produce a series of new tutorials for the site that covered how I’d go about it on a couple of different sports cars and at different angles.
You can find the complete classes in our automotive photography course, but I’ve collected some of the top tips here too if you wanted to give it a try.
1. Focal length
This is actually more important than you might first realise. The focal length will dictate shooting distance and angle of view which affects the perspective — that means the appearance of what you see is very different as you move further away from the subject.
The first thing to establish is what focal length is going to deliver the shot you want. Are you going to shoot low, mid or from high up and how will the distance away from the vehicle affect the perceived shape of what you are viewing?
For example, when you viewing a car from a few meters away, certain aspects of the car, such as seeing both headlights, might not be possible but as you move further away the second headlight or other features of the vehicle come into view.
Also, the weight of the vehicle is another consideration and by weight, I mean how squat and heavy it feels or how agile it might look.
If shooting from too far with a longer focal length lens the vehicle might look too chunky. If shooting too close with a wider angle lens then you can make a vehicle look bulbous.
During the various classes, I tested different focal lengths to see what would work and what wouldn’t and to get a feel for the perspective that would work best.
2. Angle of view
The angle of view can be considered as two things: your chosen shooting position as well as the actual angle of view in degrees of the chosen focal length.
When using a lens with a wider field of view you will be able to see more of the background, which means more area to control with lighting or, if on location, more scenery to consider.
When it comes to shooting position then your angle of view is not only the field of view but also the way you want to view the car or bike. Are you going to shoot from standard height, from low or from a higher angle?
The decisions for this should be based on the aesthetics that you want to describe about the vehicle.
For example, with this gorgeous Mercedes GT one of the features I wanted to show was the lovely curves of the back of the car. So for the rear-view shot, I opted for a high position on a ladder and a slightly shorter focal length as this combination allowed me to see those curves.
Making your decision on your angle of view is personal. There’s no right or wrong option. You need to get a feeling for the vehicle, think about what it’s best lines or attributes are and how you’re going to show them off.
Sometimes a low perspective will make things look more powerful and menacing and other times a standard viewpoint will be more acceptable.
For car and motorcycle shots you want to make the car/bike feel luxurious and desirable.
To get this aesthetic we need to create gradients of light combined with homogenous patches of light to create that ‘gloss’ look and pockets of harder light to define important elements of the design.
To create the smooth gradients I use my own custom-made floating ceiling panel, but it doesn’t always have to be this expensive or complicated.
I’ve shot cars in a warehouse with lots of makeshift polyboards to give a similar result (you can see how to do this in our ‘Classic car photography on location‘ class.
To create hard pockets of light I used tightly controlled beams such as honeycomb grids or fresnels.
4. Mixing lighting and multiple lighting
Many car photographers prefer to use continuous tungsten lighting, but personally, I prefer daylight balanced studio flash.
Whatever your preferred choice of light, car photography often requires a lot of lights — so many that you may not have enough lights in your arsenal.
If this is the case, you can do one of two things. You can either mix continuous lights such as LED or HMI with your studio flash, or you can use the same light multiple times.
The great thing about photographing a vehicle is that it doesn’t easily move. So as long as your camera is well locked down then you can use the technique of lighting areas of a vehicle separately with the same light and then layer those shots together in post-production.
This means you could even light a whole car with just one light if you needed to and had the time or inclination.
Other techniques involve painting the car with continuous light during a long exposure and mixing it with flash in the same shot, as I did in the side-view shot of the Mercedes. You can watch the full shoot for that here.
This technique allows you to illuminate panels on a car that you couldn’t illuminate in a conventional way.
5. Shooting lights and tail lights separately to the main shot
Some car shots look better with the lights on and some look better with the lights off.
If you shoot the car lights at the end of your shoot you can experiment with different exposure times to record the headlights or taillights at different levels of exposure without affecting the depth of field.
Of course, you need a darkened studio to do this or do your shoot when it’s dark outside. I show the technique for photographing car headlights in my ‘Professional car photography – Front view’ class and ‘Studio Motorcycle Photography’ class.
By shooting them separately you can decide later if you want to add them in or not when doing your post-production.
To have the car lights on sometimes you need to turn the engine on. If you’re working in a studio I recommend doing this only do this briefly to avoid carbon monoxide building up in your studio and also making the air turbid.
6. Using polarisers
Polarising filters are extremely effective at removing unwanted reflections from certain areas.
During a shoot, I will examine the effects of a polariser and usually shoot a few images of the vehicle while turning the polariser to different positions.
This can then provide me with clear windshields and side windows or alternative looks to the paint work. Again, like the headlight images, these can be combined in the final shot in post-production if necessary.
7. Depth of field
Vehicles can be several meters long which means you’ll need to keep an eye on your depth of field.
Once you have decided on and fixed your viewing position test your depth of field before you go too far with your lighting.
If you need to get the whole car sharp then focusing on the front of the car and closing your aperture is going to create wasted depth of field in front of the car, where there is just empty space.
Consider moving your focus point further down the vehicle so that the depth of field is further back and maximises hyperfocal distance ensuring that the whole vehicle can be sharp.
Of course, the best solution would be a technical camera or a tilt and shift lens, allowing you to use Sheimplfug theory and shift the depth of field plane to a more suitable angle.
But if you’re using a conventional lens, sufficient depth of field should still be achievable at f11 or f16.
In automotive studio photography we’re often using walls, ceilings and large panels as big reflectors, but don’t forget you can also use the floor too.
Large mirrors or sheets of glossy metal can also be useful for creating light in specific places. This is essential for lighting upwards as it would be virtually impossible without a glass floor to get a light under the floor pointing up at the car.
9. Space requirements
Cars and bikes are relatively big compared to my normal product shots, so it’s obvious you’re going to need more space than just your spare room.
My studio is 12m wide by 24m long, but the shooting area I used was about 8m x 12m of the cove and then several meters back from the vehicle.
Previously my studio was on the first floor, so getting vehicles in to shoot there wasn’t an option but I’ve shot cars in borrowed warehouse space before and don’t forget some great car shots can be done outdoors.
Finally, I’d say assistants are essential and a couple of them make life even easier.
There’s a lot of testing to be done to get everything right, so having an assistant to move big panels or tweak and move lights while you look through the camera can be essential.
If you don’t have an assistant then maybe you can find a couple of car fans that would like to help you try your own shoot.
To learn more about car photography and how to shoot these complex subjects, take a look at our automotive photography section. Here you’ll find a selection of shoots that cover both cars and motorbikes.