Car Photography: The Best Guide to Success (w/ Great Tips)

(Last updated on July 19th, 2022)

Do you find yourself enjoying the sleek and high-quality images of automobiles? Or find the lighting on a car in a commercial alluring? Are you a photographer looking to expand your skill set and get paid for your work? Perhaps car photography is just what the doctor ordered.

A blue car parked with wheels turned slightly. By lowering the point of view you can showcase the car better.
A blue car parked with wheels turned slightly. By lowering the point of view you can showcase the car better.

Car photography is the art of making mages of automobiles. The images often take longer to set up than create, are stylized, and illustrate the make and model of the car. Car photography is a challenging and rewarding genre of photography.

Continue reading to explore composition techniques, how to find clients, and what equipment is necessary to become a successful car photographer.

How to Prepare for an Automotive Photography Shoot

Being properly prepared will make the difference between a successful car photography session and lackluster results. If working as a commercial photographer, you will most likely be working with a client and their car.

You will have to take every step necessary to ensure a high-quality portrait of the automobile. With this challenge, car photography is rewarding and an exciting way to create images.

Timing and location are essential things to consider. You are going to want to know the make, model, and color of the car ahead of time. This will help you select a location that compliments the car.

A muddy truck posed during a clearing of a storm. Placing the vehicle in the context of its designed use is a great way to highlight the vehicle in your car photography.
A muddy truck posed during a clearing of a storm. Placing the vehicle in the context of its designed use is a great way to highlight the vehicle in your car photography.

For example, if the car is a truck with oversize tires and a lift kit, then perhaps a dirt (or muddy) road would be best to highlight the main purpose of the vehicle.

On the other hand, if the car is lowered and equipped with slick tires and large rims, a smooth city street is more the pace of this car.

The driver’s side of a sports car with low-key lighting. A good tip is to have a person inside to activate the brake light is a great way to place emphasis on the color of the car. This kind of light will highlight the form and shape of the car.
The driver’s side of a sports car with low-key lighting. A good tip is to have a person inside to activate the brake light is a great way to place emphasis on the color of the car. This kind of light will highlight the form and shape of the car.

Of course, you also have to consider the color of the vehicle. You want the background to compliment the car not take away from it. This can be achieved in car photography by finding a location with complementary colors in the background. These are colors opposite of each other on the color wheel; such as yellow and blue or red and green.

Be sure to ask the client or owner of the car if they have made any modifications to the car after purchase. Chances are they will want these alterations highlighted. I always like to ask what the owner’s favorite detail or aspect of the car is; then create a few images of said part.

The Right Gear for Car Photography

The Basics

Any digital camera will do. If you are working with a larger client and print images are part of the package, then you will want a camera with a larger resolution. However, most car photography can be done with a crop sensor and a megapixel count of around 20 or so. If you have a full-frame camera that is fine as well.

You do not need fancy creatures of high-end cameras. The need to capture a lot of frames per second is not necessary for car photography. Nor is the ability to have white balance bracketing.

Simply creating your images in RAW format will give you the most exposure and white balance latitude when editing. In general, the more features, the higher the cost of the camera.

A tripod is worth having in order to create tack-sharp images. In addition, a remote shutter release is handy to guarantee sharp images.

The Lenses

Car photography is not as dependent on lenses as other genres of photography. A standard 24 mm to 70 mm is ideal. This is a versatile and easy-to-work-with lens that will allow for a wide variety of image creations. Be sure to get a fast lens, meaning the widest aperture is constant at least f/2.8.

Beyond this, I like to have a 70-200 mm on hand. If there is room to use it. There should be because you scouted the location. You can do some neat things with a longer lens. For example, by stepping away from the camera and using a wide aperture, you can create appealing bokeh and highlight small details of the car.

Additionally, a longer lens compresses the image and provides a different perspective the viewer may not expect. This is a great way to separate the car from the background.

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Flashes

A reflector can take the place of a strobe/flash during a bright day when working in the shade. Simply have someone or a light stand hold the reflector in full sun and bounce the light back towards the car. This will add subtle but dynamic light to the car. This is a popular tactic to utilize when working during high noon.

I recommend an on-camera flash for working with the interior. You will want to have a diffuser as well so the light is not harsh. When working with the exterior, you can place this on a stand and with a transceiver/receiver to add more light to darker areas of the care.

While not necessary, but quite fun to play with, a light bar can create dramatic car photography. These handheld lights add a splash of light to small areas of the car. They come in many varieties and offer many colors. There are some that go from warm to cool light and others that are RGB and provide almost any color.

Light Modifiers

Modifying light is an important aspect of car photography. By having an ND, or neutral density filter, on hand, you will be able to help reduce the harsh glare that is inevitable with care photography.

Additionally, a circular polarizer filter is handy to have. If you are working outside, this filter will help cut glare and reflections. It also deepens colors and makes the image more vibrant.

Cleaning Tools

Cars are not always clean; yet can you think of a car photo that highlighted a dirty car? Aside from an off-road truck or jeep, we expect cars in car photography to be clean and shiny.

Dirt and smudges will show up on the frame. If working with a sports car or anything other than an off-road car, be sure to keep smudges and dirt out of your images. Bring along a cleaning kit to help avoid this.

It does not have to be much, especially if you request the client to wash and dry the car ahead of the session. A few polishing rags and detailing spray is all you need.

Car Photography Tips

Now that your kit is packed and you are meeting a client at a pre-scouted location, here are tips for a successful car photography session.

A black sports car driving down the highway during a sunset. Using sun flare is a great tool to add a spark and life to your car photography.
A black sports car driving down the highway during a sunset. Using sun flare is a great tool to add a spark and life to your car photography.

Lighting

With your camera kit assembled, you now need to plan around the best light of the day. While working during high noon is a possibility, it is best to schedule the session during the golden hour. This light is warm, and soft and will highlight the car far more appealing than the harsh light of midday.

A red sports car is highlighted with limited light. Car photography is a creator’s dream. By selecting how you illuminate the car, you can focus on the details and form of the car.
A red sports car is highlighted with limited light. Car photography is a creator’s dream. By selecting how you illuminate the car, you can focus on the details and form of the car.

If you have to schedule during the middle of the day, find a location that will keep the car in the shade. This diffused light will be more attractive than the harsh shadows and punchy glares you will get in the full sun.

Bokeh

Bokeh is extremely useful in car photography. If you are working at night, you can use the various lights to create the bokeh. The best way to achieve bokeh is by using a wide aperture, such as f/2.8, and creating distance between the car and the background.

An image of a black car at night. Using a shallow depth of field can in conjunction with background lighting can help create a dynamic image. Often, the bokeh created will compliment the form of the car.
An image of a black car at night. Using a shallow depth of field can in conjunction with background lighting can help create a dynamic image. Often, the bokeh created will compliment the form of the car.

This will allow the focus to fall away and anything in the back will take on a nice, smooth bokeh effect. This creates separation and will direct the viewer’s eye to the car.

Perspective

Get low and high with your camera. We all see cars from eye level and images like this are boring. By changing the angle and perspective, you will showcase the different parts of the car.

Consider unique perspectives that have not been done before. Brainstorm these angles while viewing other car photography. This will give you a good idea of what to do and what not to do.

For example, get inside the car, open the windows and create images of the car’s exterior. There will be plenty of opportunities to use leading lines. This is a compositional tool used to lead the viewer’s eye toward the subject.

Also, be sure to consider using the rule of thirds in order to create balance and intrigue in your car photography. 

A white car was photographed from above in a studio. This viewpoint provides an overview of the car. It also provides a unique perspective.
A white car was photographed from above in a studio. This viewpoint provides an overview of the car. It also provides a unique perspective.

Finally, get on the ground and look up at the car; create images that are larger than life. Alternatively, bring a ladder and look down, highlighting the top of the car. Shifting the perspective is an excellent way to get your car photography to stand out.

Interior is Just as Important

The interior of a car often has many details that are worth highlighting. Spend time inside and create images of the details that stand out. Perhaps the steering wheel is wrapped in a unique way. Or the dashboard has a particularly interesting texture. Pay attention to any patterns as well.

A black car’s interior was photographed from the outside. Get creative with your compositions. This image uses framing to highlight the leather seats of a car.
A black car’s interior was photographed from the outside. Get creative with your compositions. This image uses framing to highlight the leather seats of a car.

Find the emblem and create an image that fills the frame. Perhaps this is where a macro lens could be handy. I always like to create a landscape image from the inside. An image to give the viewer a sense of what it is like to drive this particular vehicle.

To succeed with this image, be sure to include reflections to place the viewer in the driver’s seat.

Night Time

Night time car photography is a lot of fun. You can use strobes to illuminate the car in various ways. Find a location with lots of light to illuminate the car and create bokeh in the background.

Experiment With Light Trails

  • Find an empty road and be sure you are safely away from other cars
  • Begin with a shutter speed of about 15 seconds and experiment with shorter and longer
  • The aperture can vary between f/5.6 and f/11 – you can also drop the ISO and open up the aperture to f/2.8 to create bokeh – just make sure your focus is spot on
  • Use a remote trigger and tripod to guarantee sharp photos

Be a Passenger and Photograph

Have a friend drive you and follow the subject car. While safely sitting in the passenger seat lean out and focus on the car. Use a shutter speed of about 1/15 to 1/30 a second to create motion lines.

A blue sedan traveling down a highway. By panning with the car, the image will have motion blur giving a sense of action to your car photography.
A blue sedan traveling down a highway. By panning with the car, the image will have motion blur giving a sense of action to your car photography.

Panning

As a car moves past you lock focus on the subject and pan with it as it passes. This means moving the camera and lens while remaining focused on the car – all the while capturing an image. You want to create an image with the car in focus while the background is blurred.

Post-Processing Car Photography

It is likely that after a car photography session you could have hundreds of photographs. The first step is culling these down to the best ones. Create a system, using ratings or color codes, that allows you to quickly sift through the photographs.

With the select photos, you want to balance the lighting. The goal is to make the image pop, while still being realistic. You want them to all have the same look and feel. Once the light is balanced, the color may need to be adjusted. I always find it best to give the color of the car a boost in vibrance and saturation. Not a lot. Just enough to give the care life.

Lightroom has a great preset catalog and makes it easy to save your own presets that can be applied upon import. This will save a lot of time.

The final thing to do is play with each individual image to remove any background distractions that may have been missed when you created the image. This is also a good time to clean up any sensor dust spots.

Developing a workflow for your car photography will take a few batches to hone. Once you have a groove, however, the editing will not just be fun and exciting but rewarding. Because of this, do not be shy when on set and create as much photos as you need to truly highlight the automobile.

Earn Money with your Car Photography

With the practice and skills in place, earning income from car photography can be a solid plan. There are more avenues to sell your work than other forms of photography. The best place to start is by having a solid portfolio to showcase your previous work and what you can do as a car photographer.

Stock Photography

Creating images for stock websites is a great way to build a passive income with car photography. You will need to get a waiver signed by the owner of the car ahead of time if they are in the images at all. In addition, if there are any logos in the images, these will have to be earmarked as editorial.

  • Shutterstock is a great place to start. Build a portfolio and earn up to 20 percent commission.
  • iStock will get a lot of eyes on your images but does not pay as well as Shutterstock.
  • Adobe Stock has a high starting rate of 33 percent.

Network with Car Salesmen

Building a network of auto dealerships in your area could prove lucrative. Head on down to your local used and new auto stores with your car photography work. Find the manager and show them your work and offer to photograph their inventory. You may not get every dealership to bite, but it is a great way to turn your car photography into income.  

Sell On Your Website

Take the middleman out and build an online shop with your car photography. Consider offering framed images, postcards, greeting cards, and calendars. You can put a photo on practically anything these days and there are a lot of people out there who love cars.

Magazines

Once you have a portfolio built up of car photography, consider approaching magazines. Find the creative editor or photo editor of popular auto magazines and reach out to them offering your photography. While you will probably turn down a lot, it only takes a few clients to build a profitable career as a car photographer.

Print Your Work and Sell It at Auto Shows

You may also consider printing your own images and selling them at craft markets. The best place to start would be an auto show or convention.

Keep Creating

One thing is for sure, once you have a passion for car photography, it will never fade. Use this fire to grow your creativity and become a stronger photographer. There are millions of cars out there to be photographed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is car photography?

Car photography is the art of creating high-quality and stunning images of cars. These images serve to highlight the automobile and showcase its unique features.

What do I need to be a car photographer?

Any digital camera and lens will do. If printing, a higher resolution camera is ideal, something greater than 24 megapixels. As you progress in car photography, additional lights will help create unique images and your personal style. A tripod and remote shutter release are also handy.

How can I monetize car photography?

Building a stock photo portfolio is a great way to monetize your car photography. Additionally, you can print your work and sell them at auto shows. You can offer your services to car lots and vendors. Pitch auto magazine your images to build a clientele.

What makes good car photography?

The best images are properly lit, well-composed, and showcase the car. Use composition techniques such as leading lines and the rule of thirds to bring the viewer’s eye into the image. Highlight the details of the care and use dynamic lighting, such as the golden hour.

Do I need a high-end sports car?

Any car will do. Start with your personal vehicle. Ask a friend who just bought a new car if you can create images of it for them. Post an ad on Craigslist seeking cars to photograph. Think outside the box when trying to find subjects.

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