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How to get pole position with your car photography

How to get pole position with your car photography - A car is something most of us now use everyday but have you ever thought about using it as an object for photography? Well three photographers who specialise in car photography have some advice and pointers about this type of work.

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Megane by Ben Lowden
Megan by Ben Lowden.

Ben Lowden, Chris Myhill and Tim Andrew are all car photographers who approach the task in slightly different ways but all come out with successful results.

"I see it as still life just on a larger scale," said Chris, a photographer with 18 years experience behind him.

Car photography is all about flattering the car. Like portrait photography you're trying to show them at their best something which these photographers do through lighting, creating excitement in action shots and choosing the correct angles.

"Lighting and controlling the shutter speed to get movement took a while to grasp. You're trying to flatter the car and it takes a while to learn, as did reflections," explained Tim, a professional freelance photographer.

Before you can even think about lighting you have to prepare your kit bag accordingly. Your choice of body isn't as important as your lens decisions.

"Where you stand and what lenses you use can alter a car dramatically," said Chris.

Xsara Jump by Ben Lowden
 Car at the WRC by Ben Lowden.

Professional photographer and assistant Ben Lowden changes his lens choice depending on what and where his work takes him: "My standard lens is a 16-50mm, which is perfect for stills. For the longer shots there is my 50-135mm.  But if that's still not long enough, I have a fantastic 300mm, which is also quite wide and lets in a decent amount of light for fast shutter speeds. There's also a 18-250mm lens, which is incredible. It means you don't have to change your lens at all throughout a whole day at the track."

Tim likes to use wide angled or long lenses while Chris ( who does most of his work in studios or on location) prefers a standard lens.

"I use a standard lens most of the time as you can alter the shot by moving closer or further away from the car."

Asking them about tripod choices again showed that there isn't a right or wrong way to approach this work as both Ben and Chris use tripods quite a lot, particularly for panning work at race tracks while Tim only uses one 30% of the time. "You only really need one when you have to bracket or on a night shot where there will be long exposures."

One key point to remember is that practise makes perfect particularly for this type of photography.

 Bugatti Veyron By Ben Lowden
 Bugatti Veyron by Ben Lowden.

"It take a lot of practice. I'm still practising now and probably will be forever! Taking great photographs is never going to happen overnight, but it's great to look back over your work and see the improvement since you started," explained Ben.

Once you have your equipment together doing a little bit of research about the car, track or location you're going to is never a bad thing. If you're going to a race get their early, well before it starts to familiarise yourself with the area and of course this also means you can find the best spot to stand.

"If you have the time it can definitely work to your advantage. Doing some research into the car you will be shooting also helps. Looking at current images on the market or seeing one beforehand to find the best angles are all good things to be doing. Then once you've got the image in your head, all you have to do is frame it up in camera," explained Ben.

Of course if you're shooting in a studio not as much research is required as most studios are built and look the same. You're the one who adds character with backgrounds, lighting and props.

 Close-up of a car light by Chris Myhill
 Photograph by Chris Myhill.

"The studio is shaped a bit like an egg and they're usually white but I prefer grey as you get a better contrast," said Chris who prefers studio to location work.

Studio work is all about building light and finding the right angle to take your photographs from.

"It's important to be able to see what you're doing all the time and Tungsten lighting is perfect for this. I never use flash as this goes everywhere and can be very difficult to control," commented Chris.

Using a direct light in the studio can pull out shapes and make colours stronger too.

You have to remember that a car is a very shiny object and the way you light it can either kill it or bring it to life, regardless of location.

"A car is shiny so if I'm shooting on location I have to look to see where bad reflections would come from. I have just taken some pictures of a Golf and in the studio I could light it how I wanted it. But on location in a Croydon multi-story car park there were pillars and all sorts of objects that could distort the light. You have to remember bad light will make the car look ugly, something the client will definately not want," explained Chris.

According to Tim, cars can be back lit rather well but you have to be careful with hot spots and reflections from the sun. Lighting the roof of the car can also be tricky. "You need to capture it before the light goes otherwise the car can look dead."

 1933 Vauxhall by Ben Lowden
 1933 Vauxhall by Ben Lowden.

Reflections can help or hinder a picture and on location you will find plenty of objects that can cause problems. But don't let this worry you too much as Tim has a good tip to help you out:

"Carry a dark rag round with you so if you get an object that causes a bad reflection you can cover it up and Photoshop it out later."

Not losing the car to the background is also important - after all you're not paid to keep the viewers attentions on the hills or cityscape behind the vehicle. Chris suggests using flash in this particular situation as it can make the car "stand out like a shining jewel" and bring the viewers attentions back to the main attraction.

Choice of settings differs for action and still shots but as a good starting point Chris generally uses F22 and an ISO of 50 while Tim likes to judge on what he sees in the image. He meters vaguely, using the histogram to look for flashing highlights to make sure they're not burning out on the bonnet. His experience means he no longer has to precisely measure every F-stop, he just has a feel for it now. He also uses the Auto Focus mode on his Nikon.

"For static shots I use Auto Focus button to focus as then it is fixed and I can carry on without adjusting and recomposing. For action I select a focus point then turn the shutter to AF."

 Ferrari Prescott by Ben Lowden
 Ferrari Prescott by Ben Lowden.

Action is all about pace and excitement and a blurred background will always help with this. To create motion blur you need a busy background as if there's only sky then there's nothing to blur. Panning is a great technique for producing motion blur. It's a popular shot but Tim says it's a bit like a golf swing - you need to practise lots and follow through.

"Just use a slow shutter speed and neutral density filters to keep the speed. Take risks and shoot a lot," explained Tim.

Ben spends a lot of time at race tracks and has quite a bit of advice on creating great panning work.

"I mainly use panning with a long lens. When you're at a track with lots of people around and boring backgrounds there isn't much point in capturing that. A good starting point is a shutter speed of around 1/125 (depending on the speed the car is travelling) and then working around that depending on how brave you are on possibly losing the shot. From experience I can say that panning takes a lot of time to get right. Getting the right distance from the car for that perfect panning shot can be difficult, especially when at a track. I always use manual focus, and tend to pre-focus on an area where I want to take my shot. It may take a few attempts, and experimenting with different shutter speeds which do take priority, but once you've got that then you'll get the perfect shot."

Tracking, which involves shooting from one car to another is another way of creating pace, as too is using a rig. A rig is a tool often used in car photography and it attaches to the vehicle, enabling a motion shot to be taken by the camera which you fasten on to the end of the rig. Rigs come in a variety of shapes and sizes and they can be either bought or you can make one.

 Photograph taken on a rig by Chris Myhill
 Photograph taken on a rig by Chris Myhill.

"I attach a rig to the car then move the car about half a meter to a meter over a ten second exposure, I then remove the arm after when I'm editing," explained Chris.

A rig allows the camera to move at the exact speed of the car which means the background becomes blurred but the car stays in focus.

Editing software can help you add pace to  an image by creating blur in post-production. It can also remove dust and add anything else you feel the photograph is missing. "You need to know when to stop though," said Ben.

Tim also uses editing software as he believes there's always something you've missed when working in camera.

"I try to do as much as I can in camera as I don't like to create work. You can remove dirt from the car in Photoshop but if it's quicker to do it with a cloth and some water, I will do it that way."

CGI is now creeping into the car photographers life and is something that eventually may

 Renault F1 by Ben Lowden
 Renault F1 by Ben Lowden.

change the way they work. But while it's expensive to use correctly good photographers are still needed and these photographers feel it's important for anyone to pursue their dreams of working as a car photographer.

Finally Ben added: "I enjoy every day. I couldn't do a job I didn't enjoy. Although the market is shrinking with the increasing use of CGI, I would still thoroughly recommend for anyone to pursue their dreams of working in photography."

By clicking on their names you can learn more about their work:

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9 Oct 2008 5:59PM

Quote:CGI is now creeping into the car photographers life and is something that eventually may change the way they work

Not creeping in, is well and truly in. I was speaking to a car photographer the other day who's clients have included; Aston Martin, Ford, Rolls Royce etc and he tells me that CGI is putting a lot of the car togs out of business.

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