Car Photography 101


Miniresto is not primarily a venue for professionally-shot automotive porn: the main thing we need from hands-on build photos is simplicity and clarity.

Shooting the car after you’ve finished it is another matter, though: you can just grab some snaps of your finished pride and joy, or you can take some time and do it justice with good portraits. Iain Ayre passes on what he has learned about shooting cars, after 20 years and six magazine front covers.


Once you’ve completed and painted your project, here’s a guide to making the best of it when you take photographs of it. I’ve been shooting cars for many years, but I only started because magazine readerships and budgets declined and they could no longer afford both a photographer and a writer on a story. I’m primarily a writer, and in the good old days I used to be given a seriously good pro car photographer, and I would sit through a four-hour shoot with nothing to do but watch them working. I couldn’t avoid learning something.

I’ve written 12 books now, and currently write for MiniMag, MG Enthusiast, Kitcar, Kitcar Builder (USA), Triumph World, Ultra VW and The BMC Experience (Australia). I shoot for all of them as well as writing. I’m now also writing for Classic Cars, but they can still afford photography.

In my first book of 1991, “TVR – Muscle and Curves”, many of the photos were professionally shot, and many were my own: you could usually tell the difference.

Magazines used to send me out with a pro photographer who would carry thirty grand’s worth of camera gear in the back of their car and who would take three or four hours to complete a shoot, using up twenty rolls of 35mm and half a dozen rolls of 120 transparency film. I noticed that an important part of the equation was the four hours of work. The yards of film shot meant plenty of choice of top quality images, with every shot bracketed for exposure. The hugely expensive collections of camera bodies and lenses meant the photographers could usually rely on them to work every day, and could shoot in day darkness in January in England and still get top pics.

I no longer use pro camera bodies, though, after very expensive disappointments. I now use high-end amateur camera bodies on the basis that manufacturers don’t dare make a bad one. Pros only buy a few camera bodies, amateurs are their real market.

The really important aspects of successful car photography are the talent, the experience and the effort.  Photographers would spend maybe an hour hunting for the right location, then another hour moving the car around for the pics: the ‘pretties’ would be shot with the medium-format camera and then the details, action and panning were shot on 35mm. Car-to-car shots were good fun, if a little hairy sometimes: I would usually drive on the outside lane of a dual carriageway while the photographer would hang out of a rear window waving at the car’s owner to get closer, closer, closer, then bashing away with the motor drive to get through a roll in thirty seconds or so.

However, after several years on a solid diet of white RS Turbo Escorts for Fast Ford shot with pro photographers, I headed towards less mainstream but more interesting magazines. Their budgets didn’t stretch to both a photographer and a writer, so I began to do both. Now that tighter magazine budgets are putting the squeeze on even the major magazines’ editors, I’m also writing and shooting for bigger magazines. I had been a photographer of fashion models some time previously, but that wasn’t any help at all with shooting cars. Although I have to say it wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. I’m still a writer who does photography rather than the other way round, although I have produced a few pictures that I’ve been quite pleased with, and there have been half a dozen front covers.

There are a few simple guidelines that will help you take much better pics of your own car as well. They’re not rules, so break them if you feel like it, but be aware of them before you break them.

First, why are you taking pictures of your car? What will your pictures say? Who are the pictures for? Think before you even plan a shoot, so that the event has a defined purpose. I started photographing immaculate cars against urban dereliction many years ago, for example, because it points up the perfection of the car. Friendly English classics work with gravel drives and rosy cottages – okay, it’s cheesy, but so’s Stilton and good port, cliché or not.

Get yourself in some of the shots as well – readers want to connect a face to the name and the car.

It doesn’t matter what the purpose of the picture is, as long as there is a purpose and you have achieved it. I once made a poster of the immensity of the Eiffel Tower by shooting the base of the thing as it towered over a Paris street. Many people missed the point and told  me I’d cut the top off it – but I submit that a traditional view of the whole Eiffel Tower has to be one of the most boring photographs it’s possible to take. My picture suited my personal purpose.

Don’t shoot the shadow side. Photography is about light, not shadow. A front three-quarter from low down is usually a good shot, so use the car’s mobility to your advantage and move it until the light falls on the sides you can see. If the sun is out but in the wrong place, move the car, as it’s easier to move than the sun. If that rather gorgeous big river, wooden railway bridge and mountain are on the wrong side of the afternoon sun, as happened to me recently, that’s a dawn-only location, so leave it for another day.  I found a nice woodyard to shoot in instead, where the sun was pointing the right way.

Shooting in bright overcast is great – it  means you can point the car and the camera wherever you like, which can be a big help.

Use forced or fill flash. Particularly in bright sunlight, a car will reflect a lot of light with deep shadows below, and the image will contain more contrast than the camera can resolve: your eyes can handle this contrast, but cameras can’t. Fill flash evens out the contrast by lightening the brighter areas as well as the shadows, and also picks up chrome and wheel details nicely. Unfortunately, flash-lit reflective British number plates look horrible, so if you really want good pics, get some black and white plates made or cover the plates up with black duct tape or something.

Fill the frame with car, not real estate. Use your own judgment on this – if you’ve found a nice location, make a conscious decision on how much of it you’re going to include.

Use a tripod. You can go right down to very slow exposures and shut the lens down for total sharpness, but more importantly, the tripod slows you down and makes you concentrate on framing each shot.

Don’t stand up. Start by shooting from below waist height, but also find a high wall or take a stepladder for dramatic high angle shots. Shooting from a comfy standing-up height is what everybody does, so it’s boring. If you’re using late or early sunlight, which is very nice light to use, get your head shadow out of shot by standing further back and zooming the lens out.

Check every shot all around the frame for stupid mistakes, which I still forget to do. It’s easy to leave a tree or a road sign growing out of the roof of your car, or a banana peel in front of it, because you’re concentrating on what you’re interested in. Check also for reflections in the paint, which can be good or bad depending. As long as you consciously take them into account, fine. Try to get clear concrete or tarmac or dirt under the car – painted lines look silly unless you’re making a visual point with them.

Many car photographers and mag editors hate cars on grass, but I don’t have a problem with it. Up to you.

Clean the tyres and the glass carefully – you’ll be surprised at how much difference gleaming glass makes. (It’s a very big help when selling a car, too.)

Most people now have a camera with a zoom function. Use it medium long for portraits of the whole car because it flattens out the perspectives which can look good, and then use the lens right at the wide end to shoot the engine bay and the interior. When shooting details and the engine and interior, move the car out of direct sunlight and into a bright shadow area, or the contrast again gets too high: if a sunlit dashboard is correctly exposed, the footwells will be totally black. Use forced or fill flash for these shots as well.

If you use graduated tinted filters, go easy and just use them right at the top of the frame to add blue to the sky or red to make the clouds dramatic and interesting. If you have a budget for filters, spend it instead on a polarising filter, which will control glare from windscreens and highlights.

You don’t need expensive, complex cameras: I paid thousands for a defective professional Canon camera that ended up in a court case. The cheapo amateur ‘spare’ Canon body I carried still worked fine, although I’ve now changed to Nikon. All modern detachable lenses will do the business, so any cheap new SLR is fine: it’s what you put in front of it that counts.

With digital, always use the top quality of image available on the camera, as well as the highest resolution possible – the two aren’t always the same. If the lens on a digital isn’t the same size as a film camera lens, it’s unlikely that it will get the same quality of image as a film camera, although some of them are astonishingly good even with lenses the size of a zit.

Photoshop is a powerful tool, but like a machine gun it has to be handled with care. Unless you’re seriously good, it’s better to send large images via Wetransfer and let whoever is publishing your pics do any photoshopping.

If you bear the above in mind, you’ll get some pics that will please you and impress everybody else.