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How To Shoot Cars: Run & Gun Style Feature Photography
I guess you can say that I am a bit of a problem solver when it comes to Speedhunting. I love the challenge of shooting a car feature during sunset, then having it published on the site and receiving immediate feedback from the fans all across the world. Digital photography has changed the way we look at the world, and of course it has changed automotive journalism.
Photography has always come naturally to me, and I started taking it very seriously right out of high school. To me, the best way to teach someone how to shoot is to show them the basics and let them learn the rest on their own. That way they can develop their own style and they can force themselves to shoot better, because after all, we are our own worst critics. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a few tips here and there and in my last photography post I highlighted some pointers about shooting in harsh conditions. This time I wanted to give you guys some tips for shooting car features.
Some of this info pertains to shooting your own car, or even just shooting your friends’ cars. Either way, here are 10 tips that I have picked up over the past few years.
A few months ago I spent some time in Kyoto, Japan, visiting as many workshops as I possibly could. For one of the shoots I had the challenge of photographing two nearly identical cars, in the same location, back-to-back, in dwindling light.
Both cars were built by Mr. Rocket Bunny himself, Kei Miura – firstly the prototype KM4SH 86, and secondly the Rocket Bunny Version 2.0 86 with a fresh paint job. I’m going to concentrate on the latter in this photography guide.
If I was shooting them back in Los Angeles, it would not have been much of a problem. I know plenty of open spots where we would not be bothered, and I could shoot till the sun dipped below the horizon. However, I was in Japan and on Miura-san’s turf. Heck, I could barely get used to driving on the left-hand side of the road, so I had to rely heavily on the legendary car builder for location suggestions.
Tip #1: If you can’t shoot the car at the shop or at the owner’s house, then ask for any suggestions.
They may have a favorite local spot that they go to. There is no point in forcing a location to work – especially if it’s a crowded shop or garage. No matter how cool it is, even if it’s the home of TRA-Kyoto – home of the riveted fender flare.
If that does not work out, then there is always Google Maps. About half the locations that I use on my feature shoots are decided upon on my computer before I leave the house, or frantically on my phone while the sun is setting. Thank goodness for Street View, because you can actually get an idea of what the background will look like.
For this particular shoot Miura-san said he knew exactly where to go. I asked for two things: open space where I can see the sunlight, and also a place with not too much traffic so no one would bother us.
He took me to a public park, and because of the dwindling light there were not many people out and about. It was the perfect setting.
Tip #2: If you are shooting on location, even if the spot is a few minutes from the shop, take that time to get in as many action shots as possible.
These could be rolling shots, or shots of the owner/builder driving the car.
This is also a good time to get some shots of the car in its natural habitat, as part of the appeal of many builds are the fact that they can be driven on the street. Depending on where you are, sitting in traffic shots can offer a unique perspective.
Tip #3: Before you start snapping away, always spot check the car and make sure it’s clean.
This could be at a petrol station while getting fuel, or even a car wash.
The people involved are always appreciative if you include them in the story, after all, they are part of the appeal of the car. Since the car is feature-worthy, the person behind it is likely just as interesting.
Tip #4: This tip does not apply to this shoot, but always keep an eye on the wheels for straightened center caps, and also keep an eye on the steering wheel.
I learned this from Editor At Large, Bryn. It annoys me when I look back at some of previous shoots and notice that I didn’t pay more attention to those small details, but now I’m a stickler about it. And also keep an eye out for brake dust while you are at it. While Photoshop helps, it’s much better to get it right in camera if you can.
Tip #5: The car always needs to be moved, either to follow the light, or you just need a different shot. Try to be as polite as possible with the owner, because after all, they are taking time out of their day to help you.
I get so focused when shooting that sometimes that my directing can get a bit rude. I never noticed it until Sean Klingelhoefer directed me during a feature shoot. Always say thank you and please, and be very patient at the same time.
Sometimes the builder/owner will want you to move the car for them. That is fine – just be careful. However, I prefer someone else to move the car for me, as that way I can see precisely the way the light is hitting it and therefore get the exact shot that I see in my head.
Tip #6: Make a checklist of the shots that you are looking for.
This one is kind of a no-brainer.
Sometimes when you are shooting, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of it all. But later on, when you’re checking out your shots on your computer, you realize that you forgot to shoot the back half of the car, or even the engine bay. I am sometimes guilty of that one…
Making a checklist is the best way to get all your shots in. When you’re done with the checklist you know you have your bread and butter shots down, which means you can start getting creative.
Tip #7: It’s all about the background.
When I am shooting a car feature on location, I like to pretend the car is not there at all. Focus on using the background to your advantage. Instead of zooming in and out, use your legs to move backwards and forwards.
Try shooting into the sun every once in a while. I know your photography teacher said not to, but rules are meant to be broken.
Tip #8: It’s all in the details.
What sets a car like one apart are all the small touches.
It could be something as simple as an air freshener, but it’s the details that show the personal style of the builder/owner.
The best place to find little personal touches is in the interior; like the choice of steering wheel or even the rollcage color.
I’ve learned my lesson with shooting engine bays, because no matter if it’s stock or dirty, people always want to look under the hood. It really is the heart of the car.
Tip #9: There is no such thing has bad light.
I know I’m going to get flamed for this one, but it’s true. I’ve had to shoot all times of the day – even high noon. There is always a way around harsh light.
If it’s really bad, then find an area with open shade. Sure, it’s ideal to shoot during sunrise and sunset, but then you’ll lack variety.
After getting all the shots I needed, it was time to get really risky and shoot some car-to-car shots in near darkness.
Tip #10: Shoot very slow shutter speeds, and shoot plenty.
Car-to-car shots are always fun and they look amazing. But it’s actually quite a difficult thing to master.
I suggest you use the widest lens you have. A 16mm or 18mm equivalent is perfect. You can use a 24mm equivalent, but be warned – the more zoomed in you are, the harder it is to get a sharp shot, especially if you’re shooting at 1/15th of a second or less.
I find that it is easiest to set your focus and lock your lens into manual. That way the camera can shoot as fast as possible without having to worry about focusing. Also, I find that it’s easier for the subject to stay the same speed, while you and your driver move around it depending on where you want to shoot.
As with all types of photography, practice makes perfect. Don’t worry about your gear as much, and focus on trying to get interesting subjects in front of your lens.
The first mistake most amateurs make is how much they obsess over the gear that they need to acquire. Even if you just have a cell phone camera, it’s better than nothing. At the end of the day, it’s about having fun. I mean, that is why we are into car culture, right? I know quite a few of you are amateur Speedhunters, so what sort of tips have you learned over the years? Share them with us!