The good news here is that you don't need any extra lights (other than the ones on your car). The sun and sky will be your light source, and with the help of some homemade reflectors, you can put that light anywhere you want it. Most people just line the sun up with their buttocks and shoot the car with full frontal lighting. Don't do this! This is great if you plan a career in crime scene photography, but if you want to flatter the lines of the car and add depth and drama, you'll want to shoot with the sun ranging from directly in front of you to 90 degrees to one side of the camera. This is called backlighting or side lighting. This gives superior results, but only works if you're willing to "fill" some light in with reflectors. These reflectors can be purchased at a pro photo supply center, or made at home with cardboard, aluminum foil, tape and a box cutter. My 9-year-old daughter made two reflectors just for this story with about 50 cents worth of materials. In the time it takes to change your carburetor jets, you can make a couple of good reflectors--and not end up stinking like gas.
Shooting with back- or side-lighting can produce dramatic results, but you may also want to experiment with using the car's headlights or parking lights. Headlights are like "eyes;" they let the camera peer into the soul of a car. Yellow marker lights and red taillights also add a pronounced amount of color when shooting in the waning "golden light" of twilight. Tip: make sure all your lights are working before going out for a shoot.
Some photographers prefer lots of midday light, others like sunset light, and still others prefer afterglow light, which is very low-level light, but very good light. You can take great photos in all kinds of light--even in the rain or at night if necessary.
If you want a fast car, you're going to have to pay for that speed. But if you want a good photo of your car, fortunately you don't need $10,000 in camera equipment. Most point-and-shoot digitals will give you great shots, and if you buy one with the right features, you can even do some pretty interesting action photography too. Most of the photos in this story were taken with a camera that cost under $300, so if you want to compare the quality of these pictures with those on other pages, now's a good time to compare. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can't take a good picture without an extravagant camera. (Lord knows, enough self-proclaimed "pros" have convinced themselves they take good photos because their gear is expensive!).
A point-and-shoot auto-focus film camera that uses 35mm film is fine, but digitals are becoming more affordable and have loads more features for about the same money as an average film camera. If you've got a digital camera with 3 or 4 megapixels, you're in fine shape. I recently bought a Canon S1 IS for under $300 that has 3.2 megapixels and a feature called Image Stabilization (IS). When you push this IS button, most camera shake goes away, which is great for hand-held photography in low light and for car-to-car action photography using a longer shutter speed. I've also got a $2,800 gyrostabilizer for my expensive cameras and the little IS feature on my point-and-shoot Canon does just as good a job at killing camera shake. That's the only product plug I'm going to make in this entire story.
Here's a tip that even manages to escape pros: action photography. Cars moving are always more exciting than cars standing still. There are two basic types of action shots: car-to-car and panning. The first is pretty self-explanatory. You need two buddies for this one--one to drive the car being shot and another to drive the photo vehicle. If you're careful and obey all traffic rules, this can look great and be a lot of fun. Find an empty road that is smooth and shoot from a window or the back of a truck. Make sure your photo vehicle isn't in the shot and don't let your shadow into the picture. I like the subject car's lights to be turned on and the sun to just graze the front of the grill at an angle. A wide-angle lens attachment (they're well under $100) on your point-and-shoot will allow you to get close enough to stay in your lane. The key to a successful car-to-car shot is to put the camera on shutter priority and use a relatively long shutter speed (1/30th or 1/15th of a second). This will accentuate the blur of the pavement and surrounding scenery, and will give some spin to the wheels. Another trick is to find a road with lots of dense trees and foliage very close to the side of the road. Trees that cover the road like a tunnel provide a very cool effect when using long shutter speeds. The dappled sunlight breaking through the canopy of trees will make streaks along the paint and pavement--a very cool speed effect that costs you nothing. (That's how they shoot those swishy new car ads.) The idea is to get everything in the shot blurry, except the body of the car. Try focusing on the grill or the fender closest to the camera. Plan on taking lots of shots to get the one that's in focus--50 or 100 shots isn't unusual at 1/30th of a second shutter speed. If you've got a camera with image stabilization, your job will be made much easier.
A panning shot is taken from the side of the road as the car drives by. You can use a wide-angle lens (close up to the car) or a telephoto lens (far away), it doesn't matter. My ideal location is to find a straight stretch of road that is slightly elevated so I can shoot level with the wheels. A simple uniform background (trees, mountains or sky) is best to help silhouette the shape of the car. (Try not to shoot into facing buildings, fences, poles and street signs.)
The key is to track the car as accurately as you can. My buddy, pro photog Scott Dahlquist, says the trick is to smoothly pivot your upper body at your hips, not your neck, as you track the passing car. Again, the idea is to have the car in sharp focus (at least the front or grill area) while the rest of the photo (background, foreground and wheels) is blurry. I like the car to be going around 60 mph while standing back from the road a few hundred feet. Set the camera on shutter priority and select a shutter speed between 1/125th and 1/200th of a second. If you've got auto-focus, turn it on. If your auto-focus is too slow and won't let you take the picture, select manual focus and pre-focus on a rock or distinguishing mark on the road near where you want to take the picture. Pan with the car and squeeze the shutter as the car passes that point. This will take a while to perfect, so don't get discouraged. Oh, make sure you've got a full tank of gas. Plan on taking 50 to 100 shots to get one really good one. (Don't try this with a film camera! You'll go broke.)
If you're at a road course, autocross or test track, you can use a very fast shutter speed to freeze everything (instead of blurring it). This is the preferred technique for some race photographers, such as Richard Chenet and Ron Lewis. The idea is to show the suspension and the tires working really hard with lots of body lean. The trick here is to set the camera on aperture priority and select the lowest f-stop available. This will guarantee the fastest shutter speed and will reduce the depth of field to bring the eye right to the car. Use the auto-focus feature on your camera or pre-focus on the corner's apex. The downside to this is that if the car isn't cornering hard or spitting out crap from the tires, your photo will look like a static shot and what's the point in that?
Unfortunately, we get lots of photos that go straight to the circular file because they're printed on junk paper. If you prefer to send in photos from your home printer, that's cool, just make sure to include a CD with the same photos on it. The resolution of the image needs to be good enough to reproduce in the magazine, so internet-quality photos aren't going to work. How do you know if it's high enough quality? On your computer, go to "file," click on "properties" and it will tell you how many pixels (width times height) your image has. Since we print at 300 dpi, you can divide both height and width numbers by 300 to tell you how large the photo can be reproduced in the magazine. A photo that is 600 pixels wide will therefore only reproduce 2 inches wide on paper--not good enough for magazine quality, unless you don't mind being the size of a postage stamp.
One final hint here: Don't put all 250 photos on a CD and expect us to pick out the best one (pros please take note of this tip--you're the worst offenders!). You know which photos are best, so put your best foot forward and pick them out. A good photographer is one who knows good from bad and has the guts to cut out the less powerful shots.
Filters are tools that can help make a car look better than it really is, or they can be instruments of destruction that can really screw up an otherwise good image. I use three types of filters: color correction, polarization and graduated color filters. A color correction filter will warm up an otherwise blue image taken in shadow, twilight or overcast conditions. Sunset and twilight shots need heavy color correction due to over-abundance of blue skylight, but with a digital camera, color correction is only a push of a button away (push the button or twist the dial to the "cloud" icon. That will sufficiently "warm" the photo for our purposes.) On a film camera, I use an 81EF filter--not a very common filter, but it provides the warmth I like. Lensman Randy Lorenzen uses even more color correction than I do, preferring an 85 (Wratten number) for many low-light location situations with warm-colored cars. This gives his images that trademark "Planet R" look you guys love so much.
I use a polarizer to do two things: eliminate unwanted reflections and bring out the paint color. Beware: A polarizer can flatten the shape of a car, taking away all the subtleties of its sheetmetal, so use this one sparingly. If you're shooting down on the hood and need to bring out the stripes or the color of the paint, use the polarizer. It eliminates some or most cloud reflections and really juices up the paint color on a blah day. This one screws to the front of your lens--or you can hold it in front of the lens on a point-and-shoot camera. Just rotate the filter until you've got the look you want. You can use all of the polarizing effect, or just some of it depending on the amount of rotation. Try it it's fun!
A graduated filter is totally clear on one half and gradually changes to a color on the other half. The colored half goes over the sky and the clear half over the car. You can create some dramatic atmospheric effects (Cars on Mars!) but make sure not to let any part of the colored half of the filter covers up the car or it will look hokey. Also, if you want to have any hope of making a graduated filter look like an authentic atmospheric effect, you have to be shooting toward the setting sun for a warm grad (such as tobacco, red or orange) or away from the sun in the case of a cool grad (such as blue, or God forbid, green or purple). Grad filters are square or rectangular filters that are held in place by a screw-in holder. Cokin makes affordable resin graduates for about $20, but some pros spring for the expensive glass graduates from Tiffen or Lee.
I learned my trade back east, and there's lots of bad weather there. It forced me to deal with conditions that are far from ideal such as rain, snow, wind and cold. One thing I've learned is that weather can create some of the most dramatic automotive images. You can use bad weather to your advantage to set the stage for a really edgy photo. Polarizers and color grad filters can heighten that effect. Bad weather can make a car look so intimidating that it looks like all hell is about to break loose. The key here is to have one or two buddies with you for the shoot that can keep you (or at least your camera) dry by holding something over you. Take some soft terrycloth towels to dry the lens just prior to each picture and you've got it handled.
If you want the best results, you'll probably be shooting in low light just prior to or just after sunset. That being the case, you'll need a sturdy tripod to hold the camera steady. Without one, your pictures will be blurry or have insufficient depth of field. Even with a tripod, you'll encounter camera shake when using a long (telephoto) lens. You can brace the camera with your hand, you can use a cable release or you can use the camera's self-timer to keep the camera from moving. I've also found another interesting tool: a sharpshooter's gun rest. They make these small beanbags out of lightweight pellets that sharpshooters use to stabilize a rifle. I use one to stabilize my camera when I shoot down on the deck. It gets me a lot lower than a tripod and is more stable than a tripod.
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