You've spent thousands of dollars and years of your own time to build your dream machine, and now you're gonna grab your camera, snap a few shots and send them in to a big-time magazine. You know they'll love your car and want to feature it, if only they could see it. But did you know that magazines get baskets of reader's rides every month? Your car's going to have to really stand out to get noticed and most editors will only spend a second or two to look at your pix--if they look at them at all.
I want to show you how to gain the advantage, even if your photos are headed for some other magazine. When you're done reading this, you'll know most of the tricks used by the pros--including the tricks they don't want you to know about. It took me years to learn what I'm about to tell you, and that came with a heavy price that included lots of wasted film, lots of money spent on gimmicks that didn't work and lots of time spent pestering the best photographers in our business.
Grazing, or Driving?
One of the most common problems I see with photos sent in by readers is a car on grass. Cars belong on pavement, not grass. Cattle belong on grass. Pavement is the natural environment for a car unless you've taken an agricultural excursion by late braking at the hairpin turn. Gravel is another no-no. Try finding a large, open paved area to shoot your car. Even a road with minimal traffic or limited access will work, but a parking lot will do just fine. If you want to be a stickler like me, look for pavement without lines painted on it. The one exception for the pavement rule is for off-road vehicles. A 4x4 will look cool perched atop a big pile of rocks, but don't try this with a car. Try to put your car in its ideal environment (such as a drag car on the drag strip or a road racer on a road course).
Believe me when I tell you there are lots of people who send me half photos. I guess I'm supposed to just imagine what the other half of the car looks like, because the front or the rear has been chopped off. Sometimes this is the fault of the lab, in which case you can have the lab reprint them (provided you took them right to start with) at no extra cost. If you find yourself cutting off your car, take some more time to frame the car. This isn't a problem if you've got a digital camera with an LCD screen. You can see exactly what the final picture will look like ahead of time. If you've got an inexpensive film camera with a separate peephole that doesn't look through the lens, you'll have to account for the parallax angle to get the entire car into the picture.
The Amazing Three-Wheeled Car!
You may have noticed a lot of editors and photographers like the low-angle shot. Cars always look bolder and more aggressive when shot from ground level (especially from a distance), but there is one big thing to watch out for if you do this: don't turn your car into a three-wheeler. I had been shooting three-wheeled cars for many years until I talked to famed car photographer Scott Killeen. When Scott pointed my mistake out to me it was a revelation. You can shoot at an angle to the car; just avoid blocking the fourth wheel (the one in back) with one of the front wheels. With four wheels, your car will look more aggressive and meaner, like a big cat ready to pounce on its prey. This is a tip that many pros don't even know about--just pick up any car magazine and look. Having read this, you'll be spoiled forever and will never look at car photos the same! And one last tip: low-angle shots only look good if your car has the right stance. If the car sits high, or even worse, the front sits higher than the rear, you've got problems, both photographically and aesthetically--unless you own a 4x4.
Stuff growing out of your car is not good, but it happens all the time. Park your car in some random place and take a random photo of it and you'll probably have random crap growing out of it. Your car wasn't built randomly, so why take a random picture of it? Light poles, fence posts, trees, mailboxes--I've seen it all sprouting from cars mailed in. This is easy to remedy by just taking a moment to look at your picture before you snap it. Sometimes all you need to do is get a little lower or move over a foot or two to get the offending appendage off your car. Other times, you may need to move the car a few feet or even find a new location if the background is too busy. Unless you live at the country club, you'll want to find something less "fussy" than a residential street. The best places are empty industrial parks (pick a weekend or holiday), small airports, the back of a Wal-Mart or Home Depot (they owe it to us considering all the money we give them!), a quarry, a large country park (avoid city parks with lots of light poles and fences) or any other wide, open area.
On a related topic, avoid tangencies at all cost. A tangency is a line or curve in the background (often a wall, fence, roof or horizon) that intersects, grazes or bisects the edge of the subject--in this case the car. A tangency will kill the outline of a car, make it look misshapen, or change its perceived proportions.
Location, Location, Location
The old real estate motto applies to shooting car photos too. The ideal location is on level, high ground with open space facing west. You don't want buildings, trees, fences, signs, poles, utility wires or other obstructions blocking your light or creating unwanted reflections in your perfect paint. You want an open expanse to the west because you'll generally be shooting at sunset and with the sun not to your back. That's right, I said it, "don't put the sun to your back," but we'll talk more on lighting later. The main thing to remember with location is to take advantage of what's available in your geographic area. If you live by the coast, a shore setting might work (try sunrise on the east coast and sunset on the west coast). If you live out west, there are lots of beautiful open areas to choose from. East coasters have it rougher, because you've got to deal with lots of close-in tree lines and telephone poles that inhibit a good horizon line from reflecting down the side of the car. East coasters and mid-westerners: Head for treeless high ground!
Did I mention that you want a place that has a distant horizon line? Once you try it, you'll find that a good sharp horizon line down the side of your car will flatter the shape of the car and make your paint and body work look dynamite. A good horizon line at sunset will even turn an okay-looking car into an awesome-looking car. (Well-known automotive photographer Greg Jarem calls this a "billiard shot" because you're bouncing the horizon line and golden sunset light off the side like a billiard ball.) If you're selling your car and need to take a photo of it, this will make it look thousands of dollars better, so here's a trick that will literally put money in your pocket.
Dealing With Mr. Rent-A-Cop
One thing you'll learn in a hurry: rich folk own all the good property--and they don't mind telling you that with all their security, gates, fences and signs. The Bill Of Rights doesn't have an amendment guaranteeing photographers good places to shoot, so be ready to fight for good photos! Even public parks are problematic. Whip out a camera at a park in California and you can be slapped with hefty fines (yes!). Their dirty little secret is that states earn big revenue from selling photography permits, especially where the film industry is big. Whether you're shooting in the back of a Wal-Mart or at a big park, it's better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission (because you'll rarely get permission). Another tip is to be polite and accommodate any requests made by security or police. Don't argue with the guy if you're being asked to move on (that's usually the worst thing that can happen). When all else fails, play dumb--I'm talking Forrest Gump dumb. You're sorry and just wanted to take "sum pikshurs" of your buddy's car. On the other hand, some security people and park rangers love cars and may even want to help you. Tip: If you know a cop, ask him to come with you to help out. Cops will almost always show professional courtesy to one another. I probably don't need to say it, but I will anyway: if you're on property that doesn't belong to you, don't get funny and start screwing around with the car doing donuts or burnouts. You'll be sorry. On the other hand, if the cops start doing burnouts...
You built your car with blood, sweat and tears, now it's time to show the world how good i
This Buick Grand National is growing a huge pole with a sign from its roof. Before snappin
The same car, this time shot with the sun to the photographer's back--another no-no. Note
This is a much better photo of the same car at the same time of day in the same location,
Using homemade reflectors constructed from cardboard and aluminum foil, this set-up shows
Our lead photo for the story shows the set-up for this shot, which was taken with a $300 p
I was on location in Indiana when I took this shot of Bret Voelkel's '69 Mustang. I was se
I'm a big fan of shooting "on the deck," or close to the ground. This shows the car's stan
Now here are two versions of the same shot, the first one without reflectors...
...and the second one with Reflectors. Can you believe there are "pros" out there who refu
Speaking of dramatic, here is the same location later on at sunset with the Buick Grand Na
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.
If you want to shoot action photos, there is a variety of equipment available to stabilize
If you've got a Canon SLR camera body, the Canon 28-135mm IS lens is the one to get. It ha
This Canon S1 IS has a built-in image stabilizer for under $300. Eventually, I predict all
How well does the little $300 Canon point-and-shoot work with the image stabilizer on? You
This is a circular polarizer. Its job is to filter out photons that are not aligned in the
When used correctly, a polarizer can put a super color whammy on a car under the right con
These Cokin graduated filters cost about $20 each and yield excellent results when used co
This '68 Charger was shot at sunset (facing the sunset) using the dark red graduated filte
You'll need a good camera support- a tripod in most cases- to stabalize your shot. It's ea
You can make reflectors out of cardboard, aluminum foil, cellophane tape and a box cutter.
MAKE YOUR OWN REFLECTORS
You can buy pro-quality reflectors for around $70 each. These feature a reflective silver or gold surface printed on fabric. The fabric is sewn over a flexible steel frame which collapses into a small circle about one third its original size. They're sturdy and last a long time, but if you're only doing this just once, you can make your own reflectors at home with easy-to-find household items.
Gather up a roll of aluminum foil, some clear cellophane tape, a large piece of cardboard (the larger, the better) and a box cutter. Cut a large piece of cardboard the size you want, and then cover one side of it with aluminum foil using the cellophane tape. I've made these many times on location and I know they work firsthand.
A quick check out by the curb at the family truckster shows roughly how big the reflector
You can use one or more reflectors to bounce light into dark areas of the car such as a grill, rear valence panel, interior or engine compartment. If there's only one thing you learn from this entire article, this is it: make or buy a reflector to fill the light into dark areas. Watch out for the dreaded reflector reflection in the side of a car. If you use a reflector to light one or more wheels, position the reflector so it doesn't get reflected in the paint.
We Want Your Photos!
Now that you've learned all the pro tricks, it's time to put them out of business. Think we're kidding? We ain't laughin' on this one. We want to see your chops, so send in your best pictures and we'll print the top 20 shutterbugs' work. You can send print photos made from 35mm film cameras or digital images. We don't care, as long as you follow these rules.
* We need all submissions by June 30. You can send them by ground to: Primedia, attn: Popular Hot Rodding Photo Contest, 774 S. Placentia Ave., Placentia, CA 92870. If you shoot digital, send in color prints, but enclose a CD with high-resolution jpegs. Each entry is limited to your five best images. Don't send us 6, 10, or 50 or 300 images--those entries will be going directly in the circular file.
* All pictures must have a car in them, preferably yours (but your buddy's machine is acceptable). If you've got a hot girlfriend, she can be in the picture, but only if she's really hot. Make sure you include your name, contact information, mailing address and car info. Your girlfriend's phone number would be cool too.
* Give us the information on your camera, what settings you used (if you remember them), how you shot your photos and where you shot them. List any extra equipment you used such as filters, tripods or reflectors. If you have a funny story to go with it ("everything was going fine, until that hail storm hit...") tell us that too.
* All entries will be judged by how well they adhere to the tips and suggestions laid out in this story. If you already are a pro shooter or want to be one, tell us. We won't hold it against you.
The 20 finalists will have their work featured in the Nov. '05 issue of PHR. All who have their work published in our contest story will receive a commemorative PHR Hometown Hot Rodding Shutterbug t-shirt. The winner will also get a box full of assorted cool swag from PHR central. Who knows, you may even have to quit your boring day job to shoot for us!