9 Tips & Tricks for Next Level Automotive Photography

We all have the potential to be social media rock stars with a couple of ingredients: A cool car and a keen eye for photography. If you’re a fan of Dodge Garage, chances are you’ve got the first component, a dope ride, on lockdown. The second part, posting attention-grabbing pictures, is just a little bit of education and practice away.

Photography, as an art form, is difficult to master. There is a technical side to the craft which takes a certain level of knowledge obtained only through the devotion of significant amounts of time, energy and smarts. Then there’s the talent aspect: Do you have the “eye” to frame an image? Even if one becomes a ninja with the Xs and Os, if the picture itself isn’t compelling or entertaining, nobody is going to care about it. Those who chose to become professional photographers and push the boundaries of their craft are most definitely artists.

Photography, as a hobby, has gotten easier and more attainable for the rest of us to fake it like we know what we’re doing. If you’re more interested in grabbing killer shots of your car for Instagram than bagging the cover photo for TIME magazine, camera technology is becoming more user-friendly by the second. The mobile devices we carry 24/7 have picture-taking hardware inside that’s potential exceeds what the majority of us will ever need. And we’re being groomed for success on a daily basis, as platforms like IG and Facebook revolve around the pictures we take of our lives.

So let’s break it down in 9 simple steps: How to go to the next level with your automotive photography!

Get off my lawn

There are a few moments in my life where I’ve read or heard a piece of advice that resonated with me and sticks. “Don’t shoot a car in the grass” is one of those, gleaned from an advice piece much like this back when we all used to read these things called “magazines”. Vehicles should be photographed in their natural habitat; you probably don’t off-road a Challenger, so why would you shoot it on your lawn? It needs to be on asphalt or concrete. Pics of cars in grass just don’t look right.

Get your wheels aligned

Here’s a piece of advice I’ve had drilled into my head from photographer friends, yet still forget from time to time if I’m in a hurry: Either keep your front wheels straight, or turn them away from your shooting position. You want to see the wheel, not just tire tread. If you’re taking a shot of the car’s profile, keep the wheels straight. Turning them gives you an odd looking oval shape from the side.

Mind your surroundings

Be sure to pay attention to your background. Personally, I don’t want to see trash cans behind the car, or light posts growing out of the hood. Anything brightly colored that could be a distraction should be omitted. Talking beyond just cars, I take a lot of pictures in my shop, whether they’re focusing on a sculpture that’s a work in progress or taking a pic of myself grinding or welding. I’ve always tried to convey a “serious”, dark industrial tone. My bright yellow drill usually gets hidden from view. If you’ve got a Sublime Hellcat and your shot has an orange cone in the corner, that’s not a good look.

What’s your angle?

I like shooting low, sometimes achieved by just setting the camera on the ground and tilting it up towards the subject. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, just something I prefer stylistically. An obvious exception is if the car has a unique feature, like my Scat Pack Shaker did with the scoop poking out of the hood. If I’d shoot from too low of a position, the scoop would be hidden. On the other hand, shooting low can help hide stuff you don’t want sticking up and over the car, like power poles, street signs, trees, and so on and so forth.

I was framed!

How you frame/crop the car is critical, too. Normally, when you cut just a little bit of the car out of the pic without thinking it through, it isn’t pleasing to the eye. Yes, there are some times when you won’t need the whole vehicle in the picture, like detail shots, or other pics where maybe something just looks cool and you exercise your artistic license. But don’t start with the “artsy” shots, keep it basic. Composition is key. If the car is part of a bigger shot, try to find balance between the key components. Don’t let the setting overwhelm the car.

Light ’em up

Lighting can make or break a photo. Partially cloudy days are my favorite. If the sky is too dark, you’ll lose some detail in the shadows. If it’s too bright, the paint will be blown out or throwing off massive glare. While I’m driving around, I’ll pay attention to which way the shade is being cast off of street signs, trees and buildings. Shooting into the shadows is not normally your best bet, I like the sun at my back. This, however, is an idea you should play with. I’ve gotten some pretty cool shots while playing with angles to get the sun behind trees, or a patch of clouds, or even a mountain. But I watch out for long shadows from, say, a side mirror that disrupts the surface of the car. Also, don’t mess with the built-in flash on your phone or camera. It’s not gonna be powerful enough to brighten your car; and even if it was, the light is unnatural, it just won’t look good. Keep the flash off.

Stay steady

I’ve got pretty shaky hands, and any bit of movement while taking a shot will lower the clarity of the pic. Then, if the light is less than optimal, forget about it. It’ll be a blurry mess. This is where a tripod comes in handy. Just a 2-second delay while the camera is sitting still will increase the pic’s quality to another plateau. In place of a tripod, I’ve used the ground, boxes and bricks…whatever I can find handy that gives me a steady base. Sans tripod, I’ll tilt up the camera with a money clip or pocket knife to get the angle I need. Anything to keep my wobbly hands off the thing while it’s taking the shot.

Polish it up

There are a bunch of photo-editing apps out there, and I’m sure many of them work great, but most of my pics are edited with a program called “Snapseed”. Earlier, I mentioned the orange cone ruining a shot. If you can’t move the cone, or just forgot it was in the shot, one option is to “desaturate”, or dull, the cone’s color. Muting the appearance of certain things in the periphery can help accentuate the subject of the pic. There’s also an Adobe Photoshop app I’ll use once in a while when I need to dive a little deeper into fixing the background. The temptation is to edit too much, to brighten the colors or sharpen the edges or add more contrast than needed. The pitfall is that both the quality and clarity suffer if you mess with the photo too much. It’s best to start with an image that’s as close to what you want the final version to look like as possible, then to tweak it a little bit here and there.

Beyond the iPhone

Panning shots (shooting a car in motion while you’re not), rolling shots (shooting a car in motion while you’re pacing it from another car) and shots with motion blur (like shooting the street or landscape from a car with the body/hood in focus and the center lines blurred) look sick, but those require more of that technical expertise I alluded to earlier. Light painting and night shots, or settings with otherwise tricky lighting, fall into this group as well. Having a camera with a few more bells and whistles and learning how to adjust shutter speed, aperture, F-stop and ISO is the ticket here. There are a few user-friendly cameras that kind of fill the gap between phones and more expense and complicated DSLRs, and I’ve had a couple of them. The Canon Powershot G7X Mark II was great, but the lens was fixed and it had an automatic cap. If any spec of dirt got on the glass and the cap closed it would scratch the surface. My current camera is a Panasonic GX85, and it’s a body that accepts various lenses. You can change the type of lens, or if it gets scratched, you can replace a lens without needing an entirely new camera. It also has a manual cap that snaps on. The thing I like about both of them is you can kind of shoot up or down to your skill level. The automatic “point and shoot” option is still there, but they go all the way to manual mode, where you control all aspects of the photo. It’s nice to have a fallback when you’re still a novice. Also, they each have built in WiFi. I really dig this for my travels. I can take a pic that requires using something a bit more advanced that my phone. I’m then able to immediately transfer it to my iPhone for editing and posting to social media. Camera phones are usually good enough for the compressed, lower-res uploads that Facebook and Instagram give you, especially considering most folks will be looking at the picture on their own mobile device rather than a laptop. Shooting with my GX85, however, gives me the ability to shoot rolling cars, get motion blur, or even just give a static shot a bit more clarity to stand above the crowd of those who shoot strictly with their phone.

Now there’s really no excuse for low-quality, boring photos. Let’s see what you’ve got! Send us your photos and you could be on Dodge Garage!!!