automobile photography tips masthead

We maintain this page on our kitcar, CobraCountry, StreetRodCountry and MustangCountry websites, but these Motorcar Photography Tips are of course applicable to your car... irrespective of its marque.

And listen up: don't attempt to print this article out; it's purpose-designed for you to view onscreen; the images are not high enough resolution for you to print out, PLUS it'll consume more than 30 pages of your paper. Instead, you can (and should) print out the 1-page (high-resolution/ "pdf" format) condensed version hotlinked here.

Whether your goal is to sell your car on CobraCountry or KitCar, or perhaps to send photos to your favorite magazine editor to be published, here are some expert tips to ensure that you'll shoot high-quality photos of your car! Note that advice and tips specific to digital cameras is in blue text.

If you're on the verge of purchasing your next (or your first) digital camera ("digicam"), make sure you check out the "GREAT RESOURCES for Digital Cameras and Accessories" near the end of this photography tips page. And what advice do I have for you in choosing and using your digital camera? Here's it is:

  • Your least important consideration

Special advisory: YELLOW cars. Capturing good photos of a yellow car can be quite challenging. Typically you'll wind up with total bleachout on the top surfaces (your dazzling canary yellow paint is now white), and murky orangish/gray in the lower regions. In other words, ugly, crappy snapshots. Click here to zip down to Curt's special hot tips to steer you to capture excellent photos of your yellow drivin' machine.

automobile photography guidelines

Motorcar Photography realities

1) Color Photography is about LOTS of LIGHT--not shadow--LIGHT--and

2) V is BAD, H is GOOD.

That is to say:

Vertical light (e.g., high-angle, high-in-the-sky sunlight) is BAD.
Horizontal light (e.g., low-angle, rising/setting sun, obliquely-reflected light (such as sunlight reflected off of a white structure or all-glass office building)--AND your fill flash--is GOOD.

Color photography is about LIGHT. LIGHT. It is not, repeat NOT, about shadow. LIGHT. Light, dammit, light. And your camera needs MUCH MORE light to "see your car" than your eyes do. It needs lots of smooth, evenly-distributed, horizontal or low-angle light [just take a look at the perfectly-flowing light on that red Superformance Cobra above. It was captured digitally by Alan Smith of Oak Hill, Virginia, for his "For Sale" ad on CobraCountry]. Once more: color photography is about LIGHT. You don't get photographs by shooting in harsh, glaring midday high-angle sunlight (you get color-faded paint on the top surfaces, harsh, murky shadows in the lower regions, and a thoroughly bleached-out cockpit), and you don't get photographs by shooting the shadow side of your car.

You get snapshots. Crappy snapshots.

automobile photography guidelines

Curt's motorcar photography proverb:

A picture may indeed be worth 1,000 words, but one good
photograph of your car is worth 10,000 crappy snapshots.

automobile photography guidelines

Before you go any further, compare these two images:

automobile photography tips--a snapshot   automobile photography tips--a photograph

A "For Sale" Cobra shot: this is the same Cobra as the one on the right... and the same camera was used. Note the harsh, murky shadow (resulting from shooting the shadow side of the car in hard midday sunlight), the high camera position, the car parked on grass, the apparently purloined sidepipe. This image isn't likely to inspire anyone to purchase.

This is a snapshot.

The owner got serious with his camera the second time around--he decided to read/heed these photography tips. Soft, evenly-distributed, smoothly-flowing dusk sunlight, perfect positioning of his car and low camera position made for a marvelous image. Note the soft, gentle shadows on and beneath the car... and compare it to the harsh shadows in the photo at left. This photo sold his car.

This, folks, is a photograph.

 Monday, 4 August 2003
We received this marvelous email from
the new owner of that red Cobra above:

(Dear CobraCountry):

I enjoyed your tips on photographing cars. What I enjoyed most is that those first two side-by-side shots in the article is my Cobra!

You are absolutely right, Curt: the second shot, on the right, grabbed my attention (when the ad was running). I looked further and bought the car.

Rick Dorman
Columbus, Ohio

There it is, folks. Good photographs enable you
to market your car effectively.

Snapshots virtually ensure that you'll waste a lot of money
on advertising and wonder just where you went wrong.

Digital Camera Users: GiGo WARNING!
Garbage in = Garbage out

Recently we had an advertiser email us several photos of his Cobra. His photos were superbly-composed--he followed these motorcar guidelines almost to the letter. Almost. But contrary to our camera-settings advice, he followed is camera manual's advice and put his camera settings on "Good" quality (from JPEG-compression/quality selection choices of "Good, Better or Best," and he set the resolution on "Lowest" (i.e., 640x480 pixel resolution). His camera manual advised that these (sigh) Lowest-Common-Denominator settings represent all one needs for photos used on the Internet, or for emailing to friends. Bear in mind that the "Good, Better or Best" quality settings translate to "Crappy, Marginal, and Good." And altho' the 640x480 setting may itself represent enough resolution for some Internet-bound photos, it isn't enough for making sure that there's sufficient original image data for those images come out looking best on-screen. The bottom line was: while his photos were superbly composed, with near-perfect lighting and positioning, that user-manual-dictated quality setting ("Good") he had been advised to select had ravaged his photos with ugly, irreparable blotches of discolored pixels... all caused by the excessive JPEG compression kicked into gear by his choice of "Good" (i.e. "Crappy") quality (Be sure your read/heed my sidebar "The result of excessive JPEG compression: the proof is in the pixels" near the end of this article).

The reason for that camera-manual advisory (which represents typical advice in most camera users manuals, yours no doubt among them), is because the tech writer who wrote it is... I'm being kind here... clueless. A staff flunkie who endorses and promotes the dictum "Garbage-in, Garbage-out" as a valid goal for your Internet-bound digital photography. The lower quality settings ("Good" or "Better" or "Standard" or whatever terminology your camera maker chooses to use) ARE TO BE HELD IN CONTEMPT. Don't use 'em. Once again, just for good measure: permanently set your "Quality" setting on the highest possible setting, then individually set your resolution coincident to how/where you're intending to use the photos... but almost always at a medium-to-highest setting. If you wish to send a copy of them to your friends & family, you can always later crop them and edit them and "sample them down" to a lower resolution with your image editor (e.g., Adobe's Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.).

Here's Curt's digital-camera-settings Golden Rule: Permanently set your digital camera's "Quality" selection on "Best" or "Extra Fine" or whatever represents the HIGHEST quality (i.e., lowest JPEG-compression damage). Permanently. No exception--no matter what you're aiming your camera at, and no matter what resolution you select--and as you'll see in my "...excessive JPEG compression..." sidebar, "quality" in digital camera/JPEG format parlance is an entirely different issue than "resolution." For photos you intend to print out, especially at 5"x7" (±12cm x 18cm) size or larger, set your resolution at "MAXIMUM." For photos you're shooting for professional presentation on the Internet (such as the ads you see on CobraCountry or our other websites), set your resolution at at medium-to-highest setting (a minimum of, say, 1024x768 pixels), "fill your viewfinder" with motorcar, NOT real estate, and send us your digital JPEG images just as they came out of your digital camera... that is, no editing, no cropping, no resaving. You see, your photos will come out best if you send us completely unedited/unmolested image data. We'll take care of the editing, cropping, sampling-down and color-correction on our end. Trust us: we're far more experienced at editing and optimizing digital images (and we're better equipped with top-of-the-line image-editing/ JPEG-optimizing software) than you're likely to be.

automobile photography guidelines

Unfortunately, almost 100% of the time that you're setting up to shoot your motorcar (or your family, or your house) out in the bright sunlight, the sunlight is in ALL the wrong places. You're confronting a mélange of harsh glare and harsh shadows. On this page you'll learn how to position your car and schedule your outdoor shoot (or, alternatively, to engage your camera's flash) so that you'll end up with top-notch photographs--instead of birdcage-liner snapshots.

Once again: color photography is about LIGHT. Ideally, lots of soft, evenly-distributed, horizontal, low-angle, even upward-reflected (bounced off of white concrete pavement, for example) light. And your camera requires far more light than your eyes do. For photographing YOUR car, lots of light translates to LOTS of (dawn, dusk or overcast) sunlight.

Setting your camera controls: set your dial for "aperture priority" mode (anything but "AUTO") and for most of your shots, your camera's flash unit should be set on FORCED (lightning-bolt icon on most cameras) mode (again, not (repeat: NOT) "automatic flash." You're going to be using your flash for the lion's share of your motorcar shots.

forced fill flash icon
above: forced flash (aka "fill-flash") icon

Beware: some bargain-basement modern cameras do not offer "forced flash,"
and confusingly display this lightning-bolt icon to indicate "automatic flash."

automobile photography guidelines

When I advise you to "Use your flash," I mean "Force your flash to work." Forced flash (also referred to as 'fill flash' is perhaps the most photo-improving feature on your modern camera (whether it's a film or a digital camera).

Forced flash/fill flash is THE ONLY MODE of flash for you to employ out in the sunlight. If you insist upon relying upon "automatic flash" when you're outdoors in the sunlight, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, and Do Not Expect Your "automatic" Flash to Work. IT WILL NOT.

Force your flash to work each time you're photographing
people or an automobile outdoors. Furthermore:

Force your flash to work for EACH & EVERY ONE of your cockpit & engine shots.
Force your flash to work for EACH & EVERY ONE of your cockpit & engine shots.

"But," you say, "I don't need to use my flash. I've got lots of overhead sunlight."

Force your flash to work for EACH & EVERY ONE of your cockpit & engine shots.

Have you got that yet?

Repeat: FORCE YOUR FLASH TO WORK. Did you get that?

ONE MORE TIME--I'm speaking directly to you--For ALMOST ALL of your
midday (±9:00-5:00) photographs of your car, FORCE YOUR FLASH TO WORK.

Footnote: in spite of these redundant admonitions for you to FORCE YOUR FLASH TO WORK when you're shooting your car (or your family) out in the sunlight, hardly a single day passes that someone doesn't say to me

"I guess my flash worked... I had it set on automatic,"
"My flash is always 'on', and my camera decides when it's needed."

Wrong answers. "My flash is always on" translates to "automatic flash," which means it's usually not engaging/not working for your outdoor photography. Disregard "always on" and set your camera to FORCED/FILL flash when you're out-of-doors.

For your outdoor fill-flash photography,
you don't let your camera "DECIDE" anything.

automobile photography guidelines

Here are two more snapshots for you to learn from:

automobile photography tips--a snapshot    automobile photography tips--another snapshot

The snapshot on the left could've perhaps been catapulted to photograph status... if only the photographer had forced his flash to work. The photo on the right wouldn't have been fully rescued by a typical "built-in" or "pop-up" flash unit--only a powerful external "strobe" flash might provide enough candlepower to overcome all that harsh shadow. On the other hand, shucks, all the photographer needed to do was walk around and shoot the sunlit side of his car.

The more hard overhead sunlight you're confronted with, the more you MUST force your flash to work. I'm talking directly to you: ARE YOU LISTENING? If for some unusual reason you must shoot in harsh midday sunlight (a closeup shot of your family on the beach at Cancun, for example), you must FORCE your flash unit to work!

It's important for you to grasp that when you FORCE your flash to work out in the bright sunlight, you are not adding light to your photo... you are instead redistributing the light to better effect. In the process you're not only illuminating the shadow areas--you're simultaneously reducing the glare in the bright areas. Thus in that photo above/right, a powerful flash unit would've illuminated that blue Cobra's shadow side--and as a bonus effect the burnout/glare on the hood and windshield would've been reduced as well--a win-win symbiosis for capturing a better image.

automobile photography guidelines

Unfortunately, almost 100% of the time that you're setting up to shoot your motorcar (or your family, or your house) out in the bright sunlight, the sunlight is in ALL the wrong places... it's crappy, high-in-the-sky sunlight. On this page you'll learn how to position your car and schedule your outdoor shoot (or, alternatively, to engage your camera's flash) so that you'll end up with top-notch photographs... instead of birdcage-liner snapshots.

Here's an example of forced-flash in action:

forced fill flash at work

Above: note how the use of forced/fill flash in this shot brought-to-life the chromed wheels, trim pieces and sidepipe of this Cobra... as well as to illuminate the maroon color of the paint finish on the side. The flash unit quite effectively rescued this image from resembling a Rorschach-Test inkblot. Remember: the photographer did not add any light to this outdoor photo by using his flash... forcing his flash to go off merely redistributed the light to where it was desperately needed. And in so doing, glare was concommitantly reduced on the top surfaces of the car... thus helping to rescue the maroon color there (from bleach-out), while the flash lit up the shadow-side coachwork so that it's also maroon, not murky gray.

Let me repeat: color photography is about LIGHT. It is NOT about shadow. Harsh overhead sunlight produces lots of photo-wrecking shadow along with color-bleaching glare. Your modern camera's FORCED FLASH feature enables you to capture much better images in midday sunlight. But only if you use it.

automobile photography guidelines

Photo above is hotlinked (same image, MUCH larger size).
The sleek lines of this Backdraft 427 roadster were captured by
Bill Littleton of GCPC (Florence, Kentucky, U.S.A.)

Look carefully at that silver Cobra above (click on the photo above to bring up a larger image): this image, shot from the shadow side, self-evidently violates my advice to you to shoot only the sunlit side of your car. But even though it was shot from the shadow side, there's still adequate and smooth illumination. Quite simply, this bit of illumination magic is a result of Bill's:

  • Using (i.e., forcing) his flash (note the flash reflections on his wheels)
  • The reflective nature of that light concrete pavement, and, most importantly
  • The sun bouncing back off of a large, light-colored building behind the photographer.

This can be a handy lesson for you: you can capture a spectacular photo like the one above just by doing it like Bill Littleton did. A few more tips: the larger and "whiter" the building (or wall, or your garage door or the white cliffs of Dover), the more "bounced-back" illumination you'll benefit from; similarly, the lighter the pavement (best: white, unlined concrete) the more "bounced-upward" illumination you'll get. Large plate-glass windows, especially an all-glass office building--and especially bronze-tinted glass windows--can provide even more spectacular "bounced-light" results, often resulting in dazzling highlight reflections.

There's more for you to take note of in Bill's excellent photo above:

  • The sunlight: you can see how wonderfully low the sun is, by the light showing through beneath the car. Note how this low sunlight flows over those coachwork surfaces, beautifully accentuating the curvilinear shape of the Cobra body. Folks, this was the perfect sunlight for this photo;
  • Laterally, this is mostly a "broadside" shot, although Bill is positioned about even with the headlights (rather than, say, directly off the door), so that the side of the car is actually at a slight angle to the camera, and he's standing perhaps 15 to 20 feet (5 to 7 meters) from the car. That slight bit of lateral angle served to prevent flashback reflection from Bill's flash;
  • Vertically, the Bill is perhaps 2 or 3 steps up on a stepladder; altho' this disregards my general advisory to shoot your car by squatting down low, this particular ("slightly-angled broadside") aerial positioning works out well from this camera angle. That modest aerial angle makes all the difference in accentuating the car's profile... further evidence that--in just the right circumstances--just about every unbreakable rule can be broken.

Bill has proven to be a good student and practitioner of motorcar photography. You can see more of his excellent photo work shooting Backdraft roadsters on his Greater Cincinnati Performance Cars site right here on Cobra Country.

automobile photography guidelines

motorcar photography--forced fill flash would've improved each of these photos

Above: Each of the images in this Cobra collage, I think you'll agree, would've benefited immensely from the use of forced/fill flash; the harsh "bleach-out" glare on the top-left image would've been reduced, and the wire wheels, the tires and the grille would've been brought to life, and the overall paint job would've more accurately come out bright red, instead of the ugly orangish-bronze look caused by the glare and the shadow. Also note the uneven light and harsh shadows in the cockpit and engine shots... which would also have come out far better if only the flash had been used.

One more time: color photography is about light. LIGHT. Lots and lots and lots of smooth, evenly-distributed light. Whether your camera is film or digital, it requires MUCH MORE LIGHT than your eyes do. You must take full advantage of both natural light (sunlight) and your flash unit for effective illumination of your car.

automobile photography guidelines

special advisories

situation: overexposed, bleached out color

above: this Superformance Cobra photo courtesy of Mike Casciotti, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania USA.   above: same photo after Photoshop's auto-color correction and contrast controls worked their magic.
Mike's photo was a bit overexposed, but for Adobe Photoshop, "overexposed" is an opportunity to make your photo REALLY leap out. Your over-exposed photo may turn out to be a real gem, with only a little 'tweaking' with Photoshop!

automobile photography guidelines

Photographing a YELLOW
(or pastel colored) car

above photo courtesy of Bob Darney, Sutter Creek, California
Bob captured this superb image in the shade and with his flash.

automobile photography guidelines

Photographing a yellow-painted car, especially bright yellow,
requires you to change your strategy a bit. By the numbers:

  1. YELLOW CAR ADVISORY #1: You cannot (repeat: CANNOT) shoot your yellow car out in midday sunlight. All you're likely to get is bleached-out top surfaces and murky/ orangish lower areas... gen'rlly makin' a mess of your gorgeous yellow paint job. If you insist upon shooting your yellow car out in the sun, you MUST time your photo session for either dawn or dusk... with the (low, unobstructed) sun at your back, and with your car properly rotated so that the sun's rays are illuminating all of your car facing your camera (in a 3/4 view pose, that means the sun MUST BE illuminating both the side AND the front of your car).
  2. YELLOW CAR ADVISORY #2: Here's a piece of concrete advice: park your car on white concrete, so that you'll benefit from the upward-reflected sunlight and skylight; this strategy often works splendidly with yellow cars.
  3. YELLOW CAR ADVISORY #3: Shoot your yellow car in the shade: although you can photograph your yellow car in direct dawn or dusk sunlight (i.e., near-horizontal sunrays) and get good results, your best game plan may be to take all of your photos (listen carefully!): at mid-morning or mid-afternoon, entirely within the "clean" shade of a building or other solid obstruction (not, repeat NOT in the uneven/splotchy shade of a tree, and NOT in your garage), on clean pavement, and use your flash on every single shot of 1) your entire car, 2) your engine, and 3) your cockpit.
    But don't take my word for it: here's a hotlink to side-by-side comparative shots of Shaun Goodwin's yellow roadster... one shot in the bright midday sun and no flash, the other in 'clean' shade, with flash. Look at 'em and judge for yourself which is the loser, which is the winner. And incidentally, Shaun's ad for his Shell Valley Cobra didn't elicit much interest with that first photo; when he replaced his photo on CobraCountry with that gorgeous image on the right, he sold his Cobra. That's what good photography will do for you.
    Now once more: for your YELLOW car: schedule your shoot for mid-morning or mid-afternoon, move your car entirely into clean shade of a building... or a mountain... Ayers Rock, Rockefeller Center or The Great Pyramid of Giza... and on clean pavement, preferably white concrete. And use your flash on every single shot.

Am I clear on each of those points?

If you follow those three simple guidelines, you're almost certain
to capture superb, richly-colored images of your yellow car!

Note that my advisory on yellow cars really applies to any pastel
or light-colored car. It just happens that yellow is often the most
problematic if you don't have these tips to guide you.

Now return me to the top of this page!

automobile photography guidelines

The three worst mistakes a novice makes
when photographing his/her car:

Mistake #1: Bright overhead sunlight. Not good. Harsh overhead midday sunlight (resulting in bleachout glare on the top surfaces--and just as bad--corollary harsh shadows in the lower regions) wrecks more motorcar photos than anything else. Solution: wait 'til near sunset and position (i.e., rotate) your car to take full advantage of that softer light. Direct sunlight as a light source improves steadily as those rays approach horizontal... as long as you rotate your car so that those horizontal rays are lighting up ALL of your car's surfaces facing the camera. Alternative: wait for an overcast day and take advantage of that softer light. Take each of your outdoor shots TWICE: once with your flash unit forced to work, and once without flash. You'll discover that, almost invariably, your best shots will be the ones with the complementary illumination provided by your flash. IF YOUR CAR HAS A METALLIC PAINT JOB, you'd do well to ignore "overcast day" light, and instead opt for dawn/dusk clear sunlight, since that direct/ low-angle sunlight will serve to "bring to life" the "glistening effects" of your metallic paint job.

Mistake #2: Park your car in Paducah, then back up to Baffin Bay to snap your shutter. Not good. Solution: back up the proper distance, then zoom-in and "fill the frame" with automobile. Your objective is to photograph motorcar, not real estate. If your photos come out 10% motorcar and 90% real estate... you're getting it all wrong. This is especially important to keep in mind if you're using a digital camera: as many as possible of those precious pixels MUST represent your motorcar, not the surrounding real estate. "Real estate" is defined herein as anything that is not motorcar.

Mistake #3: Stand up and "shoot down" on your car. Not good, and for several reasons. Are you listening? Don't stand up and shoot down on your car. Solution: it's covered in detail below.

automobile photography guidelines

If you'd like most of the following tips in condensed form:

  • Clean your car and tires thoroughly; give your tires a rubdown with Armorall.
  • Schedule your photo session very early or very late (just after dawn or just before dusk).
  • Park your car on (clean, unstriped) pavement. DO NOT photograph it parked on grass, unless perhaps your car is an off-road 4x4, or if you want it to look like an abandoned vehicle. Another splendid tip: use your garden hose or take along a 5-gallon (or 20 liter) container of water to wet down the entire area where you're going to position your car; this darkens the pavement and provides a "glistening" highlight effect.

striped/messy pavement vs. clean pavement

above: because of the striped/messy pavement, this is at best a crappy snapshot of this Cobra.

Voilá! Same Cobra, same location. But with the pavement cleaned up, you now have a much better photograph of this Cobra.

  • Carefully position/rotate your car so that you've got evenly-distributed sunlight over ALL the surfaces of your car facing your camera (the grille, the "chin," the tires, the sides). The (dawn or dusk) sun should be directly behind you, warming your backside and illuminating ALL of the surfaces of your car facing the camera; once again, just to make sure you've got it: with the (very early or very late) sun at your back, shoot the SUNLIT side(s) of your car, not, repeat NOT the shadow side(s). If you're shooting, say, a typical "3/4-view" shot, then not only the side of the car, but the grille, the "chin" and the tire tread should be illuminated by the sun. Are we clear on that? Color photography is about LIGHT, NOT SHADOW. And if you're going to shoot different views of your car (rear, head-on/front, etc.), then STAY WHERE YOU ARE WITH THE SUN AT YOUR BACK and have a colleague "rotate" your car into the next desired position. Contrary to some folks' expectations, you cannot "walk around your car shooting photos" and expect the sun to follow you accordingly. Ol' Sol just ain't gonna follow your footsteps, folks. For evidence of this, check out the two comparative photos below:

sunlit side vs. shadow side

These two photos of the same Cobra parked in the same spot were shot at precisely the correct time of day... that is, late afternoon/ low-angle sun. Thus the rear shot--facing the sun--came out excellent. But when the photographer walked around the car and shot the (shadow-side) front... the results are pretty self-evident.

Disregarding the distracting reflections of the sun on the camera lens (another solid reason to keep the sun to your backside), the car came out a murky brownish color bathed in a murky shadow. Color photography is about LIGHT, NOT SHADOW.

The above comparative photos courtesy of Paul Stevenson
of Smithville, Missouri.

Think of it this way: your camera MUST be aimed in the direction of your (dawn or dusk) shadow. You could mount your camera onto a tripod facing in the direction of the tripod's shadow, epoxy your tripod and the camera into fixed position, then shoot all of your views of your car by doing nothing but "rotating" your car. And you'd have ideal lighting every time. One more time: photograph ONLY the sunlit side(s) of your car; for example, if you're shooting a typical "3/4" front/side view, your car MUST be rotated/ positioned so that BOTH THE SIDE AND THE FRONT of your car are sunlit.

  • Crouch down and shoot at ± headlight level. As the dusk light fades, take some shots with your headlights or parking lights ON (this often results in a splendid 'highlight' effect). The doors and decks should be closed; if you're shooting for an ad, typically it's not a good idea to include models (i.e., people) in your photos; for an ad on the Internet, you should never have anyone STANDING beside your car, and your hood should be closed, since in each event you wind up with far too much "aerial real estate," thus adding to filesize and download time, with nothing at all gained on the positive side.
  • Use a "normal" focal-length lens, or set your zoom lens accordingly (avoid wide-angle settings except for engine, cockpit and luggage-compartment shots).
  • Zoom in so that you're "filling the frame" with automobile, NOT real estate.
  • Beware of ugly shadows and reflections on the paint surfaces (especially, avoid the chaotic shadows of shade trees!). Ideally your car should present an uncluttered surface, with shadows, glare and reflections reduced to a minimum.

automobile photography guidelines

...Below: here are six really great Cobra photos...

Cobra photo-frontal shot by Ataturk Ercen

Above: without using flash, this photograph would've been a dark, murky throwaway... a Rorschach Test for musclecar enthusiasts. Aytac (aka 'Turk,' 'Ataturk,' 'Mustafa,' 'Kemal,' 'The Dardanelles Daredevil') Ercen of Vacaville (that's "Cowtown" en Español, pardner), California shot this outstanding photo of his E.R.A. Cobra with his digital Nikon.

Here's the deal: we can all agree that this is a superb photograph of a Cobra, right? The framing of the car, the position of the photographer, the forced flash illumination in concert with the overhead ambient (dusk) light--all collaborated to render a breathtaking frontal portrait of his 427SC Cobra. You might be astonished to learn that Turk had his Nikon set at rock-bottom resolution (640x480) for that shot, which means that image above is as large as you're ever going to see it: that's all the pixels there are, folks!

What's the point? The point is, high megapixel count doesn't equate to great (or even good) photography. That splendid photo above is fair dinkum evidence that you can capture a world-class photo at very low resolution... just as you can end up with a high-resolution crappy snapshot captured at your 5- or 8- or 12-megapixel camera's highest resolution.

So lissenUp, MegapixelBreath: good photography is still about photography;
it has nothing (NOTHING) to do with
 how many megapixels
your digital camera can capture.

automobile photography guidelines

Shelby Cobra photo-3/4 view

Above: Here's another splendid photograph of an E.R.A. Cobra, this one shot by Philip Schiavone of Port Jefferson, New York. No flash was needed here... the nice, soft overcast sunlight provided smooth & even illumination and 'soft' shadows. Also note that clean, uncluttered pavement.

automobile photography guidelines

Shelby Cobra photo-3/4 view

Above: I took this shot of a Pegasus Performance Cobra replica about mid-morning (±10:00am), with forced fill flash employed to provide additional illumination for the chin, sidepipes and tires. Without the flash, these areas would be "Rorschach Inkblot" variety harsh shadows.

Important for Cobra (and Daytona Coupe and GT40) owners to take into account: note the shape of the body... it curves under, effectively shielding all of those lower areas from overhead sunlight, with your car's body resulting in a murky, shadowy, colorless mess. Without accounting for this (by using your flash, or by scheduling your photography session so that a rising/setting sun is illuminating these areas, your photos will turn out to be crappy snapshots.

automobile photography guidelines

Above: I took this shot of this (Kirkham-based) Shelby American 4000-Series 427SC Cobra at the 2003 Monterey Historic Races, midday (±2:00pm), with forced fill flash employed, again to provide additional illumination for the chin, sidepipes and tires. In this harsh OH sunlight, if I hadn't pulled all the stops and engaged my powerful strobe flash (and, additionally, my Olympus E-10's built-in "flip-up" flash), this shot would've been a 'throwaway': all those lower areas would be a dreary, murky glob of gray, those shiny Halibrand wheels would've been cloaked in shadow, and the top of the car would've been bleached out.

This is yet another scenario where the little "cigarette butt" flash built-in to your camera would (by itself) not have provided nearly enough illumination to rescue this photo opportunity. High-powered FL-40 strobe (plus my Olympus E-10's flip-up flash) was required.

automobile photography guidelines

Above: Tom Paquin (Beaufort, South Carolina) captured this fine shot of his Backdraft Cobra with his Hewlett-Packard digital camera in May 2004.

Tom did everything just right: 1) it was just before sunset, so the sunrays were soft, warm-colored and almost horizontal, thus illuminating the sides of the car, the tires, wheels and the sidepipe; 2) the pavement is clean and uncluttered, the background neutral, with no distractions. Amateur motorcar photography doesn't get much better than this!

automobile photography guidelines

Above: Patrick Laurie (Englewood, Colorado) captured this breathtaking shot of this Unique Motorcars 289FIA Cobra in September 2005.

Patrick also did everything just right, and then some: 1) he took my advice about taking advantage of the reflective nature of white concrete to a new plateau--the white concrete floor of this aeroplane hangar boasts a glossy-white epoxy finish; 2) the overhead lighting is white metal halide, which proved to be an almost perfect color of light; 3) the floor is dazzlingly clean, the background just about neutral, with only the colorful image of an aerobatic aeroplane in the background.

Once again, motorcar photography doesn't get much better than this!
Move over Peter Brock, Dennis Adler and Bob McClurg!

automobile photography guidelines

  Is that simple enough?
If you'd like a few more pro tips, read on...

1. Make sure your car is sparkling clean. Use Armorall (or similar rubber treatment) on the tires (hint: spray your Armorall onto your towel, not on the tire, so that overspray on the pavement won't show up in your photos). Take along a bucket of cleanup/touchup items on your photo session, for on-the-scene detailing. And take along a container of water to wet down the pavement beneath and around your car.

2. Use a good 35mm camera and a standard (50mm) lens... or a good digital camera. Don't attempt to use a wide-angle or zoom or telephoto lens for motorcar photography. A wide angle lens produces too much "fisheye" distortion; your zoom or telephoto lens will tend to "abbreviate" your wheelbase. Use any good color negative or transparency film; we prefer Fujichrome (slide/transparency film) and Fujicolor (negative film) for most of our photography, but the brand you choose isn't particularly important; 200-ISO film is appropriate for most of your motorcar shooting; if you plan to use a tripod, use 100-ISO or even 50-ISO. The best place--price-wise AND selection-wise--for you to purchase Fuji film (in the U.S. and Canada) is Wal-Mart.

3. If you use a digital camera, PLEASE send us your image(s) exactly as you downloaded them from your camera... that is to say, NO EDITING, NO CROPPING, and especially NO RESAVING. We'll do all that ourselves, and we need all the data on your original digital-camera image in order to achieve the best results for you.

4. For digital images THAT you intend to keep and use for yourself, make sure that upon uploading them onto your computer, you resave them IMMEDIATELY as "TIFF" format (or ".psd" Photoshop-native format) files, before you do any editing or resaves. You see, every time you resave a "JPEG" image in an image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop, you degrade the image (a fact that the camera makers seem to never caution folks on). You can resave your TIFF image as many times as you desire without fouling the quality. Be advised that this cautionary note refers only to RESAVES in your image-editing application; merely copying your image from one disc to another is not a problem.

If you need to display or email your final, edited image over the Internet to a friend, then make a copy of your TIFF image as a 72-ppi low- or medium-quality JPEG, and email/upload the JPEG copy. Keep your TIFF image on your hard disk as your "working original."

5. Zoom in and "fill your frame" with automobile, not real estate. This tip is all-the-more important if you're using a digital camera... you mustn't squander those precious pixels on real estate. Folks don't need or care to see your entire county, they want to see the car you've got for sale. Repeat: zoom in! Focus on the part of your car closest to your camera, and select an f-stop of between f5.6 and f16, so that all or most of your car is in focus, and avoid wide-angle zoom settings. And if you're going to use those photos on your own website, then crop out whatever real estate. You gain nothing by forcing folks to patiently download all that unnecessary real estate when all they care to see is your car.

6. If it's bright overhead sunlight (which means you've got a harsh shadows beneath your car), go fishin', not photographin'. Bright midday/mid-afternoon sunlight introduces two phenomena, both undesirable, both... ugly: 1) HARSH GLARE and 2) HARSH SHADOWS. Good automobile photography demands even, soft lighting all over and around every part of your car facing your camera. You should either wait for an overcast (cloudy) day, which provides much softer and more-evenly-distributed illumination (although you should avoid getting the cloudy/overcast sky itself into your photograph), or schedule your photo session for when the sun is low (i.e., at dawn or dusk). Be sure to shoot the sunlit side(s), not the shaded side(s). Color photography is about light, not shadow! Repeat: rotate your car so that the (dawn or dusk) sun is on the camera side!! Once again, EVERY PART OF YOUR CAR facing your camera should be lit by the sun. Have you got that yet? This means that if you're shooting a "3/4 view," with mostly the side of your car but also the front end in your viewfinder, the sun should be lighting up the grille and your tire tread just as much as the side of your car. If your car has a metallic paint job, you're best off employing dawn/dusk clear sunlight, NOT overcast day light. Reason: that direct sunlight will "bring to life" your metallic paint. Also, forcing your flash to work can similarly "bring to life" your metallic paint job, especially in relatively low-light/shade settings. When I advise you that color photography is about LIGHT, that admonition is especially true in regards to metallic paint.

There's one caveat: with all dawn/dusk shots, you must be careful to keep your own shadow off your car! But there are two things you can do to prevent your shadow from reaching your car: 1) get down on one knee and shoot from waist level (which you should be doing anyway), and 2) back up a little further from your car and zoom-in your lens a little more so that your viewfinder is still "filled with motorcar," but your shadow is no longer invading your photo.

And don't position your car under a shade tree to avoid harsh sunlight; your resulting photos will leave the impression that you painted your car in a chaotic jungle camouflage scheme; indeed, you should always be on the lookout for unwanted reflections on the body (trees and buildings and road signs can produce really wretched, chaotic reflections, especially on black and dark-colored cars... just take a look at the snapshot below). You can sometimes obtain very good results by parking in the (dawn or dusk) shade of a building, but only if there's a very bright sky overhead to provide adequate illumination... and plan on forcing your flash to work. Whatever the weather or time of day, make certain that the normal "shadow areas" (e.g., the 'chin,' the grille, the tire tread) have ample light to show up in the photo; this is one area where employing your flash attachment (and your camera's "forced-flash" feature" can often help you get a significantly better photo. Position/rotate your car for optimal lighting... on the camera side of the car! If you need to shoot the other side(s) of your car, then reposition your car NOT yourself. Take some shots with the headlamps or parking lights turned on; for your rear-end shots, have someone sit in the driver's seat with his/her foot on the brakes to light up those brake lights... yet another splendid lighting effect, especially in regards to Lamborghinis and Ferraris, with their typically large taillight fixtures.

automobile photography--ghoulish reflections
The trans-am from Transylvania.
Beware of surface reflections. Especially ghoulish reflections.

If you're using a digital camera that provides separate settings for resolution and "quality," set your camera for "medium" or "high" resolution and MAXIMUM or "FINE" JPEG quality. Listen carefully: the term "resolution" refers ONLY to the number of pixels making up each image (640x480, for example, merely means that there are 307,200 pixels making up the image); JPEG "quality" such as "standard vs. fine" on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to do with resolution. JPEG "quality" has to do with how much pixel-artifacting (damage) to the image you're willing to tolerate as you increase the JPEG compression to reduce filesize. Thus if your digital camera offers you a separate control for "quality" and "resolution," you can set your camera for, say, maximum-quality/medium resolution images (perfect if you intend to edit the image for use on the Internet), or conversely you can even set it for wretched-quality high-resolution images. If your camera does not provide separate settings for "quality" and "resolution," but only simplified settings that read something like "Standard, High and Fine Quality" (or perhaps "small filesize, medium filesize, large filesize"), this means that each setting represents some fixed blend of JPEG compression ratio and resolution. In this case you should select "Fine Quality" or "large filesize" (or whatever operative naming scheme is employed by your camera) for your motorcar shots. If you're going to send us those maximum quality/medium or high-resolution images to be used in an article or a "For Sale" ad, we'll have the maximum amount of image data to work with, and we'll "sample them down" (i.e., size them down) appropriately for viewing on the Web.


pro tips for (OUCH!) mid-day/harsh sunlight photography:

0: Avoid shooting your car in the bright sunlight... otherwise:
1: use your flash (force it to work)
2: use a lens shade
3: use a polarizer filter
(instead of your flash)

7. If for some obscure reason you MUST shoot in bright sunlight (at an outdoor carshow, for example), force your flash to work "force-fill" light into those dark shadows caused by harsh sunlight. Most modern 35mm or digital camera--any camera better than the most-basic, entry-level--will permit you to "force" your flash to work in bright sunlight; the (forced-flash) feature is usually indicated with a lightning-bolt icon.

Pro photographers routinely use "fill flash" for their daytime shots, although I couldn't count the times someone at a race or carshow has asked me "Why are you using that big flash unit with all this bright sunshine?" Read my lips: the brighter the overhead sunlight, the more you need to employ "fill flash." Repeat: bright overhead sunlight means USE YOUR FLASH (forget your camera's "automatic flash" option; instead, set it to force/fill flash, so that the bright sunlight won't prevent the flash from working)!

Critically important for you to grasp:

When you use your flash in the "traditional way" (i.e., to provide EXTRA/ ADDITIONAL light in, say, a darkened room or at dusk or after dark outside), you're actually providing MORE light to your film (or to your sensor array in your digital camera), since there isn't enough ambient light to for you to capture a well-illuminated photograph.

ON THE OTHER HAND, when you're outdoors in the bright sunlight where there's ample natural light, your goal is entirely different: you don't need MORE light, you need to RE-DISTRIBUTE the light. Using your camera's FORCED flash (lightning bolt icon) feature, you're merely RE-DISTRIBUTING the light, so that MORE LIGHT (your flash) illuminates those pesky dark shadow areas... while simultaneously LESS SUNLIGHT is captured that otherwise results in harsh glare on your windshield and color bleachout on the painted surfaces. Voilá, with your flash you've "softened" all that harsh glare/harsh shadow! Put another way, essentially the same amount of light winds up on your film (or sensor array)... but the light is more evenly distributed, thus usually rendering a far better photograph, whether your subject is your motorcar or a closeup of your family on the beach (see photos directly below). You've taken a photograph instead of a crappy snapshot... and the only thing you did differently was to force your camera's flash to "soften" all that harsh shadow and harsh sunlight.

automobile photography guidelines

-out in midday sunlight-

above (no flash): Tim & Cindy's girls, shot on a beach on Maui... without using their Olympus 5050's "forced flash" feature. The tropical sun's harsh shadows wreak havoc upon this vacation-in-paradise portrait.

The odds are, without reading/heeding this tip on using your camera's forced flash, you'd still be shooting hard-edged, ultra harsh contrast pictures like this one, for your family album.

This is a snapshot.

One other thing: this is the result you'd have gotten if your were foolish enough to trust "Automatic Flash" to work for you out on the beach.


Above (this time using "forced flash"/"fill flash/ outdoor flash"): For your outdoor/ daytime shots of people (or of a motorcar), you should almost always have your camera's "forced flash" feature turned on. It's the most effective image-improving feature on today's modern digital and film cameras... but only if you use it; it's even more effective if you mount a good "strobe" flash onto your camera (as Tim did in the photo above) for far greater illumination candlepower than your built-in unit can provide.

This, folks, is a photograph.

automobile photography guidelines

It's clearly evident that the color of the girls' bathing suits is much richer with the flash employed. But you should also observe that the background displays richer color as well. That's because with the flash illuminating the girls in the foreground, less bleachout occurs in the background as the camera's electronic light-metering system operates the way it's supposed to. A win-win scenario. For the record: Tim used both his (Olympus C-5050's) built-in flash AND his powerful Olympus FL40 flash for that photo on the right; as you can see, that extra flash "horsepower" pays you big dividends when you're photographing out in the bright sunlight.

So if you've encountered me out in the bright sunshine at carshows and races and you wonder just why I've always got a big strobe flash mounted on each of my cameras... those side-by-side beach shots above should provide you with a conclusive answer: the more bright overhead sunlight you've got, the more you MUST engage your flash.

automobile photography guidelines

Below: another set of no flash vs. outdoor-flash comparison shots

above (no flash): lineup of Shamrock Cobra replicas

above (with flash): the same lineup of Shamrock Cobra replicas

Are you perhaps beginning to appreciate why we urge you to use your flash?

The splendid flash/no flash comparison photos above were courteously
provided to us by John Crawford of Shamrock Autocraft.

automobile photography guidelines

It's important for you to remember that "forced flash" is for use only out in the sunlight or indoors in well-lit rooms; for "people photos" indoors or otherwise in darker surroundings, you should use your camera's manual or automatic flash instead, so that your camera's "redeye reduction" feature will function; "the redeye effect," of course, does not exist in outdoor/bright sunlight people photos.

red eye explained

The short explanation: "red eye" occurs when your camera takes a photograph of the retina (i.e., the back surface) of the person's eyes... which happens to be red. It's as simple as that. Here's an artist's rendition of the effect:

Red Eye blight: The EYES have it

above: beautiful Miss Blue Eyes... afflicted with terminal red eye

If you'd like more details (or even if you don't) of what causes red eye and how you can prevent it, here it is:

red eye occurs only under these conditions:

  • The person being photographed is in a relatively dark area... thus his/her pupils are enlarged to take in more light;
  • The photographer is using a flash; moreover, the closer the flash is located in proximity to the camera's lens is a big factor, since the flash is basically headed directly toward the subject's retinas, then directly back to the camera. Thus a built-in flash, with its close proximity to the lens, is a major contributor to many red-eye shots.
  • Two other factors contribute to the severity of "red eye": the color of the person's eyes (light-blue eyes tend to glow the reddest), and perhaps most importantly-- the subject is staring directly at your camera (thus providing a straight path from your flash, to his/her retina and back to your camera).

There are several simple measures you can employ
to reduce or entirely eliminate
"red eye," including:

  • Most modern cameras today offer a "redeye reduction" pre-flash, which emits a "lesser" flash before the main flash goes off; this works--in a fraction of a second--to reduce the size of everyone's pupils, before the main flash goes off, and it works surprisingly well--a modern marvel. Just remember that with some cameras, pre-flash may not function--nor is it needed--if you're outdoors and employing "forced" flash.
  • In order to ensure that your subjects' pupils are reduced in size, move your individual or group out into the sunlight or in a lighter area--and be sure to switch to "forced" flash;
  • Tell everyone to "Watch the birdie," i.e., to not look directly at the camera, so that the subjects' retinas aren't directly in line with the flash;
  • If you're using a strobe flash with a cable, mount it onto an accessory handle/ bracket, or have someone hold it about 12" away from your camera;
  • Rotate your strobe flash to bounce off of a light-colored wall or (low) ceiling;

    The 5 Surefire Ways for you to checkmate
    the dreaded red eye:

5. Don't shoot until you see (only) the whites of their eyes;
4. Have everyone blink just as you snap the shutter;
3. Have everyone put on sunglasses;
2. Have everyone turn around with their backs to your camera;
and The #1 Surefire Way for you to eradicate red eye:
1. Put a bag over everyone's head.


automobile photography guidelines

Back to outdoor/forced-fill flash: use of your flash unit is so fundamentally important for you to understand and to take advantage of... yet the camera makers, if they mention it at all, do so in fine print on p. 62 of your user manual. It should be IN LARGE PRINT on p. 1 of your manual.

One caveat (this should be a no-brainer): forcing your flash to work when you're shooting a distant skyline, or your football team from the bleachers 75 meters away... or your motorcar parked 15 meters away... isn't going to improve your photo at all. Leave it turned off.

automobile photography guidelines

You're unlikely to get good photographs in midday bright sunlight without 1) a lens shade, and 2) a good strobe flash attachment. Period. The lens shade will help keep the sun off your lens, and the flash unit will serve to both lighten the shadows and reduce the intensity of the brightness in the glare areas. A built-in flash (which I refer to as a "cigarette-butt flash" typically doesn't provide enough light to entirely overcome harsh midday shadows, although it will help some.

8. Get a polarizer lens filter ($20­$50); use it to greatly reduce the glare (and thus lighten the shadows) in your midday & mid-afternoon shots. You'll find that same polarizer filter to be worth its weight in Krugerrands for your vacation shots as well, especially your beach and ski shots, where your photographs will take a quantum leap in richness of color, and the sky will come out a much richer blue. But there are a few caveats: occasionally a polarizer filter will over-emphasize the contrast, especially with a bright yellow car. Here's a side-by-side example of the marvelous effects of a polarizer filter:

polarizer filter
above: shot with NO POLARIZER FILTER, this picture was captured in harsh, midday sunlight. Note the complete bleachout of the windshield and the hood (bonnet), as well as the corollary murky shadows in the front of the car. Above: shot WITH A POLARIZER FILTER, the filter rotated to MAXIMUM polarization (all polarizer filters are designed to be rotated, to enable you to adjust polarization to the level you desire). Note that by reducing the glare, the shadow areas miraculously come out lighter. You see, there's roughly the same amount of light on both of these images... but the light is more evenly distributed with the use of the polarizer filter.

Again, avoid at all costs photographing your car in bright midday or mid-afternoon sunlight. If you're shooting in clear weather (i.e., minimal clouds or overcast) and your shadow isn't at least 15 feet (±5 meters) long, you're shooting during the wrong time of day.

automobile photography guidelines

9. Make sure that the backdrop is neat and appropriate. A fashionable restaurant or hotel or downtown plaza or fountain or a college campus scene or a '50s-styled drive-in restaurant or even a beach or wharf scene can make an ideal backdrop. Make sure there is no signpost or tree "growing out of" the top of your car or a parking-lot line jutting from a tire (parking-lot lines are a chronic spoiler of motorcar photographs). Make sure the steering wheel is straight (and on a Cobra or other roadster, the sunvisors should be turned down to horizontal). Keep your car on clean, unlined/uncracked pavement and off the grass; a motorcar photographed on grass or tree leaves tends to look like an abandoned vehicle. Above all, remember that it's your car that's the primary focal point of your photograph, not the background or the live models (altho' we do prefer LIVE models to the alternative).

10. Take your photos from different angles and different camera heights, from ± headlight level. Novices typically "stand up and shoot down" on their car. Not good. The most dramatic, even menacing, sportscar shots are low-angle and zoomed-in to "fill the frame." Position yourself for 3/4 view, 3-dimensional shots that capture part of the front and more of the side. If you intend your photos to be used on the Internet, also shoot a few "broadside" shots; a broadside shot (with the decks and doors closed) enables you to display your car on the Internet at a larger physical size while the filesize remains relatively small, which means a bigger image/faster download for each person viewing your car. If you really want to get serious, mount your camera onto a tripod (adjusted down low) so that you can critically examine and adjust the composition of each shot.

11. If your camera offers you the option of imprinting the date/time onto your film or digital image... for cryin' out loud, turn off this image-wrecking "feature" when photographing your car.

automobile photography guidelines

Engine & cockpit shots
If you want good engine/cockpit photos, you MUST read/heed this advisory!

engine and cockpit photograph
Above engine and cockpit photos courtesy of Jon Oslund,
Fraser, Michigan U.S.A.

Use your flash (that is to say, FORCE your flash to work) for EACH AND EVERY ONE of your engine and cockpit shots; move your car out of direct sunlight and use ONLY your flash to illuminate your cockpit and engine shots. Steering wheel straight, tilt column down, sunvisors (on roadsters) in horizontal position. Spotlessly clean carpet and upholstery. Wide-angle lens (or wide-angle zoom setting) okay for these shots. Again, use your flash.

Use your flash. Repeat: use your flash. One more time: USE YOUR FLASH... FORCE IT TO WORK! If you think that a lot of bright overhead sunlight is all you need for your engine and cockpit shots, then you haven't been paying attention. In fact, for your cockpit and engine shots, you'd be well advised to move your car COMPLETELY OUT OF DIRECT SUNLIGHT: park it in the shade of a building, where there's still plenty of ambient overhead skylight, but no direct sunlight, then FORCE YOUR FLASH TO WORK to provide the lion's share of illumination.

For cockpit shots, make sure the upholstery and carpet is vacuumed to spotless. Straighten the steering wheel; if it's a tilt wheel, tilt it down to driving position. Remove your keychain from the ignition. If your car is a Cobra or other roadster, adjust the visors and harnesses and windwings to near-horizontal. You can use your wide-angle lens (or a wide-angle zoom setting) for engine and cockpit shots. And did I mention this: engage your flash for EACH AND EVERY ONE of your engine and cockpit shots.

Since your flash will sometimes generate unwanted reflections from your underhood chrome, or from your dashboard gauges, take 2 or 3 shots each of your engine and cockpit, from slightly different angles (move around to different shooting positions), to make sure you've got at least one "keeper" shot.

If you carefully heed these cockpit/engine-compartment photo tips, you'll capture gorgeous, eye-popping images, and (in your cockpit shots) the color of your upholstery, dashboard and carpet will come out rich and colorful.

One final reminder tip: Make absolutely certain you take full advantage of BOTH OH skylight (no direct sunlight) and forced flash for each and every one of your engine and cockpit shots.

automobile photography guidelines

Photo scan on flatbed scanner vs.
35mm negative scan on a film scanner

images above hotlinked to scan comparison page

automobile photography--Olthoff Racing

automobile photography--Olthoff Racing

You may have already noticed that we urge you to send us your (35mm film) negative strips along with your photo prints, so that we can achieve the best scan possible. If you'd like to witness firsthand what an astonishing difference a good film scanner makes, check this hotlinked scan-comparison page.

If you're taking photos of your car to put it up for sale: good photographs represent your most important step in effectively marketing, rather than merely advertising, your car (or your kit car/Cobra/streetrod lineup) for sale. Similarly, if you plan to submit a photo of your car to the editor of a magazine, the odds of its being published are increased a hundredfold if you submit a professional-caliber photograph or digital image; also, bear in mind that magazines invariably prefer a color transparency (a "slide") over a color print.

Take advantage of the fact that most folks take really bad photographs of their motorcar--and then give yourself a big competitive edge by applying what you've learned on this web page and presenting your motorcar in (ahem) its best light.

automobile photography guidelines

More digital camera information

If you're shopping for a digital camera, bear in mind that Nikon ( and Olympus (, both with extensive model lineups, offer perhaps the best overall quality images for the dollar (or Franc or Pound Sterling or Deutschmark...). Epson ( also offers a good bit of bang for the buck with several of its models.

***Sony Mavica advisory***
(floppy-ONLY-drive Mavicas only):

The only way you're going to get acceptable-quality images on a floppy-disc-drive-only (i.e., no "memory strip") Mavica is to shoot at the "fine" quality setting (if your model has a "fine" setting). The root of most of the Mavica's shortcomings is that Sony chose to fit a 3.5" floppy drive into the camera body (akin to installing a tote handle and dolly wheels on a Palm Pilot; more accurately, it's a portable floppy drive with a lens and shutter attached for marketing purposes). It was a cagey marketing idea, but one without a trace of redeeming practical qualities (heavy weight, excessive battery drain, low-capacity storage, snail-paced data storage)... then, due to the tiny amount of storage capacity on a floppy disk (by comparison, a 512 megabyte Compact Flash storage card that's only 3mm thick and the size of a match flap, provides you with the storage capacity of 366 (three hundred and sixty-six) floppy disks!), Sony had to mega-compress each digital image (22.5-to-1 compression ratio at standard-quality mode) in order to shoehorn images onto that micro-capacity floppy. That high JPEG compression ratio results in VERY noticeable and image-wrecking "artifacts" in--and blotchy discoloration of--the image. Further, the optics on the lower-end floppy-drive Mavicas tend to introduce brownish "halos" along areas of high contrast that prove to be quite challenging to edit away with Photoshop. But all is not lost: once again, if you shoot only at the "fine" quality mode AND maximum resolution, you'll come out okay. More or less. Compare the first two (Mavica) images (left & center) below with the third image shot with another brand of digital camera that uses a kinder/ gentler implementation of JPEG compression:

The result of excessive JPEG compression:
the proof is in the pixels

automobile photography tips by Curt Scott

automobile photography tips

motorcar photography tips

photo#1: This 160x160 pixel JPEG image was shot with a Sony (floppy-drive-only) Mavica. Click on the photo to see a blowup of the effects on the photo of the Mavica's high JPEG compression.

photo#2: This 160x160 pixel JPEG image was shot with a Sony (floppy-drive-only) Mavica. Click on the photo to see a blowup of the effects on the photo of the Mavica's high JPEG compression.

photo#3: This 160x160 pixel JPEG image was shot with another brand digital camera (an Olympus*) that uses a kinder/gentler genre of JPEG compression than the Mavica. Click on the photo to see a blowup of this image.
*Click on the following text hotlink to see a collage of 3 superb photos of Chuck Conway's red Cobra hotlinked (same car as #3 above), skillfully shot with a consumer-priced (but very good quality) Olympus D-510 digital camera.

Now you can perhaps appreciate why I urge you to set your digital camera (whatever brand you have) on the highest-quality/ fine-quality setting: it's so you'll minimize the image-damaging effects of JPEG compression.

Click on the hotlinked photos (#1 or #2) above, so you can more clearly see the image quality defects they represent: the 'pixel noise' along the contrast edges and the 'big chunky blocks' of pixels and the discoloration are the direct and inevitable result of excessive JPEG compression.

Contrary to general misconception, these image-quality problems have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with a digital camera's resolution (indeed, all three of the images above are precisely the same 160x160 pixel resolution); the problems you see in photos#1 and #2 have EVERYTHING TO DO with the image-wrecking effects of excessive JPEG compression.

The digital camera makers do everything to lead you to believe that pixel count (i.e., resolution) is all you need be concerned with; they do little or nothing to provide you with the more important issue of image damage done by the JPEG compression process... especially when a digital camera maker pushes JPEG compression beyond its reasonable limits. So here's Curt's digital-camera buyer's/user's advisory:

  • Resolution is only one of several considerations you must consider when you're selecting a digital camera; if you're shooting exclusively or primarily for display on the Internet or on your own computer screen, just about every digital camera ("digicam") provides you with ample pixel count (resolution). Don't get bedazzled with a high megapixel count, while you're overlooking all the other--more important--considerations. Case in point: that Olympus D-510 that was used for those photos of Chuck Conway's red Cobra (above) outputs only 2.1 megapixels... yet look at the splendid-quality images it's capable of capturing.
  • JPEG compression (and the resulting image damage) must be minimized (keep your camera set for "Highest Quality" or "Fine Quality"). Just refer to the photos #1 & 2 above if you question the issue of image damage caused by excessive JPEG compression.
  • Lens: a high-quality lens is just as critically important (perhaps more so) as with a film camera. Plastic is unacceptable: your digicam MUST HAVE a high-quality optical-glass multi-coated lens, just as on any good 35mm camera.
  • Flash: fundamentally important for all color photography. And it's every bit as important for outdoor/ bright sunlight photography as it is for indoor/nighttime photography. The built-in flash on most cameras (both film cameras and digicams) is fine for indoor/nighttime purposes, but somewhat underpowered for outdoor/daytime "fill" flash, which constitutes all or most of your motorcar photography (and probably most of your 'people pictures' and vacation photography). You'll benefit greatly by choosing a digicam that has not only a built-in flash (and a 'forced flash' function), but also a 'hot shoe' so you have the option of mounting a more powerful strobe flash. Most folks consider a flash as something you need only occasionally. Wrong. Repeat: WRONG. For color photography (film or digital), the more good illumination the better... and thus you should consider using your flash to be THE NORM rather than THE EXCEPTION. Most of your outdoor photos, especially of motorcars and people, will come out far, far better if you employ your flash, and use the 'forced flash' feature.
    Fun Flash Test #1: Remember, the brighter the overhead sunlight you're shooting in, the more you MUST use your flash (and force it to work). If you'd like to run a quick test of this advice, take your family or friends outdoors midday in bright overhead sunshine, and make sure one or two of them is wearing a baseball cap, and do a group shot without using your flash. Then take another shot with your flash set to 'forced flash.' Compare the photos: without flash, you've got streaks of harsh shadows under their eyebrows, under their noses and chins... and probably the entire face of those folks wearing a baseball cap is dark shadow; with your 'forced flash' shot (especially if you're using a separate, more powerful strobe unit), all those shadows are eliminated or greatly reduced, including especially the folks wearing a baseball cap... that extra illumination thus resulting in a far better photo. Just as with midday motorcar photography, there's lots & lots of light... but it's concentrated in all the wrong places, and it's blended with ugly/harsh shadows on your family's faces. Folks, that's why your camera came equipped with a forced-flash feature! One caveat: on the other hand, if your family and friends are all REALLY unattractive, you might want to leave your flash turned off...     //:=)
    Fun Flash Test #2: Now here's another "flash test" for you to try out. Wait 'til very late in the day (dusk), then line everybody up for another shot... with the sun directly behind the group (ideally, with their bodies blocking the sunlight from directly striking your lens). Take shot #1, with your flash turned off; now take shot#2, with your flash set to "automatic"; now take shot#3, with your flash set to "forced flash." Shot#1 will be a throwaway... everybody's face and torso is a mere dark silhouette against the bright sunset; shot#2 will also probably be a throwaway, since your camera's "automatic/sees-all/ knows-all" automatic flash decides with its programmed-in genius that with all that light facing the camera, flash isn't required--so the odds are you'll wind up with the same set of faceless/featureless silhouettes as with shot#1; shot#3 (forced flash) will be markedly better than the other two shots, since the subject of the photo (your family & friends' faces) are nicely and properly illuminated even against the bright sunset. Trust me on this: your camera's 'forced-flash' (think of it as 'outdoor flash') feature is far more useful and functional and effective for you than any ludicrous "automatic flash" feature. "Automatic Flash" is a cagey marketing maneuver targeted mostly for the brain-dead... it's your camera's "Forced Flash" feature you should be regularly and routinely using when you're shooting out in the bright sunlight. On the other hand, 'automatic' flash does mostly work okay indoors and in a darker environment, and on most modern cameras 'automatic' flash also means your pre-flash will engage to reduce "red-eye." So it's FORCED FLASH when your outdoors in the sunlight and whenever your subject is backlit (e.g., the sun is behind 'em), AUTOMATIC FLASH when you're inside or in subdued light.
  • Memory/storage: Most digital cameras today use either a Compact Flash (CF) memory card, or a SmartMedia Card (SM). Both are approximately the same (physical) size, altho' the CF card is thicker (±3mm), and offers a greater maximum storage capacity (512Mb and more, vs. 128Mb for SM). Most camera makers short-change you on the card that's included... usually only 16Mb or 32Mb; you'll want at least a 128Mb card, which you can purchase for under $50 (USD). Save the card that came with your camera as an auxiliary backup. With memory cards this inexpensive, I cannot discern any advantage to selecting a camera with a disk drive (floppy or CD-ROM): the memory cards are faster (and far lighter weight) and demand much less battery drain than any variety of disk drive. And if the store salesman smugly pronounces "This model here is what you need: it uses a floppy disk, which you just pop out and put in your computer"... don't walk, don't run... make a flying dive for the nearest exit. You're not shopping for a portable floppy drive, you're shopping for a camera. In any event, don't expect an electronics store salesman to possess any credentials that would qualify him/her to provide you with knowledgeable advice regarding digital cameras (and certainly don't expect him to know anything about photography); you MUST do your own research... on the Internet (see the link to Steve's Digicams' website I've provided to you below), purchase a digital photography magazine or two, and perhaps seek advice at a good, long-established camera store... they're likely to be 1,000 times more qualified to provide you with sound advice about photography and digital cameras than any salesperson at an electronics store. You'll probably pay a little more, but you'll get far better advice and you're likely to wind up with a camera you're much more satisfied with.
  • Feature set: it ain't just about megapixel count, folks: there are many low-megapixel-count digital cameras that are fully outfitted for you to take splendid photographs (low-cost models by Olympus, Nikon, Fuji, Canon and Epson come to mind). Just as with any good 35mm camera, features such as forced flash, shutter-speed choices, aperture choices, zoom range, tripod mountable, hot shoe for strobe flash, time-delay shutter release, et al., are just as important when you're selecting a digicam.

automobile photography guidelines

Great Resources
for Digital Cameras and Accessories

Great digicam information site: A marvelous website for you to check out is, which arms you with a wealth of information and product reviews about digital cameras ("digicams") and related accessories. Make sure you to go the "camera reviews" main page:

The C-5050: fifth generation of the C-Series. The best "pro-sumer" digicam Olympus has made?
"With each new generation, Olympus has continued to refine the top model of their Camedia line. Their latest effort represents one of the biggest leaps they've made to date, leading me to label the C-5050 Zoom 'the best digital camera Olympus has made to date.' Relatively rarely, a manufacturer seems to get all the pieces just right, and in my view that's exactly what Olympus did with the 5050. The reworked control layout is quick to learn and a pleasure to use, the camera itself is fast and responsive, image quality is superb, and exposure flexibility and creative control are excellent. If you're in the market for a top-of-the-line 'prosumer' digicam, you should definitely put the C-5050 on your (very) short list!"

Several colleagues of mine have purchased and are using a C-5050; each of them has commended it as highly-capable, with user-friendly controls** (note: in October/ November 2003 it was superseded by two new/ improved-features models, the C-5050Z, and better yet, the C-5060 model). Each of 'em is a top-of-the-consumer-grade camera with rugged titanium chassis and an intuitive feature set, 5.1 megapixel resolution, capture excellent images. Perhaps best of all, the C-5060 provides wide-angle zoom down to 27mm wide-angle equivalent (zoom range equivalent of 27mm-110mm)--I personally need wide-angle capability far more often than I need long zoom. As with any camera, I implore you to spring for a separate electronic flash, since the built-in flash on most cameras is only marginally effective when you use it out in the midday sunlight... where your photos benefit most from maximum flash illumination; on that note, Olympus offers an excellent "bracket/grip handle" (FL-BK01) so you can mount their (superb, but pricey) FL-40 strobe flash unit. Good stuff. There are of course other good brands and models you can consider; I wish I could test and report to you as thoroughly on other models and brands, but, alas, I haven't the time! Here are hotlinks to some C-5050, C-5050Z and C-5060 product-review pages:

**I personally deem "no-brainer ease-of-use" to be the single most important benchmark of a camera's effectiveness... and the one that gets mentioned least often in ads and in reviews. That is to say, so what if your digicam offers 5-megapixel resolution and provides you with 17-dozen 'features,' if you hafta scratch your head and/or break out the manual every time you need to change a setting.

Contrary to many folks' misconception, you needn't spend a lot of money to purchase a very capable and well-appointed digital camera (altho' the OEMs still charge too much for their electronic flash units). But as with any other high-tech product, you MUST do your homework first... before you fork out your folding money.

You should seriously consider increasing your
camera's capabilities with a powerful strobe flash unit:

Before you spring for purchasing the OEM's electronic flash unit, I urge you to check your camera store or the Internet and see if other flash makers (e.g., Vivitar, Sunpak or Osram) make a flash that is designed to match the capabilities of your camera's OEM flash... for a fraction of the OEM's price. Modern flash units provide you with high-end capabilities you might not be aware of, among them:

1) A good strobe flash provides you with SIGNIFICANTLY MORE illumination; this is critically important for your out-in-the-sunlight shots--where you most need to use your flash!

2) the flash head ZOOMS with your zoom lens... and throughout the entire zoom range of your zoom lens;

3) the flash unit communicates with your camera's light meter, so that the flash illumination is fully taken into account as you're taking each shot, and

4) on most modern flash units, you can rotate the flash head (and on both axes: laterally as well as vertically). I put this capability to good use. For example, when I'm shooting a 3/4 front/side shot of a car, I'll let my camera's built-in flash provide the illumination for the (close-to-me) front fender, and rotate the strobe flash head to provide more illumination on the (further away) rear of the car, thus providing smoother, more evenly-distributed illumination.

And here's yet another strobe flash tip for you: since your strobe flash head is typically high above your camera, you can turn your camera upside down, enabling your flash to "get down low" beneath the "chin" of your car (and beneath the dashboard in your cockpit shots) and thus better illuminate those otherwise murky shadow areas.

automobile photography guidelines

Yet another digital-camera product-reviews site:
The home page reads: "Welcome to Digital Photography Review, where you'll find all the latest in digital photography and imaging news, reviews of the latest digital cameras and accessories, the most active discussion forums, a large selection of sample images, a digital camera buyers guide, side-by-side comparisons and the most comprehensive database of digital camera features and specifications."

automobile photography guidelines

Storage: SmartMedia and CompactFlash memory cards: Check out Their prices on storage cards are among the best. (If you stumble across similar or better prices, let me know!)

In any case, I hope you'll rely upon these (above) resources for your digital camera consumer information... instead of waltzing into an electronics superstore and asking the kid behind the counter "Which digital camera should I buy?"... a tactic that virtually seals your fate to wind up with anything but your best bang for the buck.

automobile photography guidelines

One final cautionary note: digital MOVIE cameras

The makers of digital MOVIE cameras routinely advertise and mislead you to believe that you can use their movie camera to take still photos. DON'T BELIEVE IT! The still-frame resolution (customarily 320x240 pixels) alone effectively torpedoes any hope you have of capturing a usable image, PLUS the excessive JPEG compression lays-to-waste the few pixels that you do capture on each frame. And as for features such as selecting shutter speeds, or employing forced/fill flash? Forget it.

You cannot use a digital MOVIE camera to capture decent still photos. Period.

automobile photography guidelines

Rechargeable Batteries and Chargers

NiMH batteries: I receive a lot of questions about digital cameras and related topics; you see, I added an Olympus D600L digital picture-taker to my grab-bag of Nikon equipment way back in 1998... which still resides in my camera case as a backup unit. In any event, here's some hot news for you: you can obtain those top-of-the-line/top-rated MAHA/Powerex AA Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries, and rechargeable lithium batteries,at Thomas Distributing's website

There's also lots of entertaining and useful information about batteries in general. And their NiMH battery charger (the battery-conditioning model, the MAHA/Powerex model# C204W, at $29.97 USD is a runaway best value; it's full-featured and very compact in size, and recharges both AA and AAA size batteries, and both NiMH and NiCD (nickel cadmium) batteries. For the record, "conditioning" a NiMH battery means to "drain it down to minimal charge," and according to expert advisories is important to do occasionally to maintain your NiMH batteries in peak operating condition. Thus having a "drain/condition" feature on your NiMH charger (and, of course, using the feature periodically) should ensure both peak performance and a longer life for your NiMH batteries.

Reviewer Dave Etchells' test of this charger concludes with: "It seems to us that the C-204 is just about the perfect battery charger for digicam enthusiasts. It's fast, reasonably gentle on batteries, super compact, and reasonably priced. Very highly recommended. Don't think twice, if you have a digicam that uses AA cells, buy one of these and a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH batteries. When it comes to compact battery chargers, the C-204 is about as good as it gets!"

automobile photography guidelines

This reader advised me that (North American) retailers "Costco" and "Sam's Club" also offer low prices on NiMH batteries, to wit:

"Curt: Thanks for some great camera tips; I read your recommendation on the AA NiMH batteries with interest because I recently bought some at Sam's at a super deal. Sam's had a package of 8-AA energizers in 1700 mah NiMH with a companion charger that charges NiMH or NiCad at the flip of a switch. The total package is $19.95. I don't know how they do it. All the Birmingham Sam's Club offered this deal, and I bought several for friends who don't get into town often."

Huel Young
Pell City, Alabama

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    beginning 30 June 2002

    automobile photography guidelines

    automobile photography guidelines

    --Copyright Notice--
    "Motorcar Photography Tips"
    by Curt Scott, copyright 1983-2006 by Crown Publishing Company, Inc. Alle Rechte vorbehalten. All rights reserved. ID-encrypted images. Protected under both U.S. Federal copyright law and international treaties. No part of this site, including text, images and computer code, may be reproduced or copied in any form or by any means--electronic, graphic, digital or mechanical, including photocopying or information storage & retrieval systems--without the express prior written permission of Crown Publishing Company, Inc. "Cobra Country" (,,, and "SideWinder Search Engine" are trademarks of Crown Publishing Company.

    v9.37 of "Motorcar Photography Tips" by Curt Scott
    last revised 12 June 2006