8 Tips for Stunning Car Photography

by John Stapel

8 tips for stunning car photography

Car photography is tons of fun – but it can also be very intimidating unless you know the tricks of the trade.

Fortunately, as a professional automobile photographer, I’ve developed plenty of techniques for creating top-notch photos of cars. And in this article, I’m going to share eight essential tips, including:

  • The best lighting for car photo shoots
  • Plenty of ideas for amazing car pictures
  • Common car photography mistakes to look out for
  • Much, much more!

So no matter your skill level, if you’re ready to learn how to photograph cars like a professional, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get started.

1. Shoot at the right time of day

The most common mistake people make when shooting cars? Heading out during the middle of the day, when the light is harsh, unflattering, and just all-around bad. It’s a surefire way to end up with poor automobile shots, and it certainly isn’t going to impress your clients.

Instead, the best time to do car photography is a few minutes after sunset (or a few minutes before sunrise). The light is soft, there’s no direct sun, and you can capture a beautiful, almost ethereal, effect. Use a tripod – the light won’t be particularly strong, so a remote release is also a good idea – and get that perfect soft light on the paint.

Note that you can also shoot cars during the golden hours – an hour or two before sunset and an hour or two after sunrise – but be careful; the more direct the lighting, the harder it is to create a flattering image. For close-up images, consider using a reflector to deal with pesky shadows.

This photo was taken a few minutes before sunrise:

Car photography BMW M135i

2. Be on the lookout for reflections

If you’re after professional car photos, you must carefully control what reflects in the car. One of the most important things you want to show in your car pictures is the design lines, yet reflections can spoil these lines very quickly. So before you capture a single photo, have a look around you, then look closely at the car and see what reflects off its surface.

You see, a car (especially a new, shiny one) is like a mirror. So if you shoot with buildings or trees in front of the car, they’ll reflect off its surface and appear in your photos. Instead, aim to have an open space behind you, like a field or an ocean. If you’re stuck in a location with busy surroundings, you can always try to change your perspective; by getting down low, you may be able to get rid of the distractions and instead come away with a sky reflection in the car (which looks way better; see the image at the end of this section).

Pro tip: Be very careful not to include your own reflection in the photo. If you’re struggling, it’s best to put the camera on a tripod, set the self-timer, and move out of the shot. Just look at this photo I took of a dark, shiny BMW 428i; behind me was nothing except the horizon. In fact, you can clearly see the horizon reflecting in the car:

Car photography tips BMW428i

3. Take driving shots

Here’s one of my favorite tips for creative car photography:

Shoot the car out of another moving car. (Please be super careful when doing this; make sure that both you and your camera are well-secured before even thinking about taking a photo.)

A moving car shot looks gorgeous, plus it conveys a beautiful sense of motion. This Audi S3 was shot before sunset; it was driving at 70 km/h (43 mph), and I used a shutter speed of 1/125s:

car driving along the road

Unfortunately, you can’t just hop into your car, zoom along, and take some photos out the window. Instead, you’ll need to carefully select your speed, position, and settings. Here are my recommendations:

  • Get a driver, so that you’re in the passenger seat and free to concentrate on the photo shoot
  • Secure your camera to the inside of the car or your body using a strap
  • The two cars should match speeds, with your car slightly ahead and in the adjacent lane; 60 km/h (37 mph) is a good starting point, as you’ll get some nice movement on the road and on the wheels, but you won’t be going so fast the shoot becomes difficult
  • Set your camera to its continuous shooting mode and set your shutter speed to 1/100s or so. A little blur is good, as it communicates movement. You can even decrease the shutter speed further, though this will decrease your ratio of keepers to duds.
  • Shoot on low-traffic roads. You do not want to frustrate or distract other drivers with your photo shoot.

Because this type of shot involves so many (literally) moving parts, you’re going to come away with plenty of failed images. But if you use burst mode, you experiment with different shutter speeds, and you put in the hours, you’ll start to capture some genuinely stunning photos.

4. Pay attention to the color of the car

Different types of paint react differently to changing light. I know I said that you should avoid direct sunlight, and it is true, but you’ll occasionally find colors that handle direct sunlight really well.

Just look at this baby blue Beetle shot in the middle of the day:

Beetles on gravel

So don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting conditions. And always review your shots carefully afterward, making mental (or physical) notes about the color and how it looks.

Pro tip: If you want to jumpstart your understanding of lighting and car colors, head to a parking lot at different times of the day, then go around and (discreetly) take photos of cars. Obviously, you should use good judgment and be careful; don’t do a full car photo shoot while the owner stands and watches, and look out for cars driving around that might accidentally run you over.

5. Choose your background carefully

A beautiful background adds that perfect finishing touch to a car photo, while a bad and/or distracting background can instantly ruin the shot.

What counts as a good background? Anything non-distracting. Ideally, it should emphasize the main subject and even complement the car (and suit the theme).

Bad backgrounds, on the other hand, are distracting, they draw the eye, and they don’t make sense given the car color, shape, or theme. For instance, dustbins, power lines, and other cars can kill a picture. You can remove these in Photoshop sometimes, but it’s best to avoid them in the first place (plus, it’ll save you time in the long run).

For this Aston Martin shot, I used a simple background. The yellow paint matches the car’s color:

Car photography aston martin

6. Pan for motion blur

I’ve already talked about shooting cars from a moving car. But if you want a beautiful motion blur effect and you don’t like the idea of photographing out a moving car window, why not try panning instead?

Simply stand next to the road and let the car drive past you. Follow the car with your lens in one smooth action and set the shutter speed to 1/125s. You will be amazed by how easy this is!

Of course, you’ll end up with plenty of failed shots, but the good ones will make it all worthwhile (and you can maximize the number of good images by using your camera’s burst mode and firing off a series of shots with every attempt). Also, you can try this technique after dark for some very interesting night car photography results.

This Ferrari was shot at 1/125s at 200mm. The car was driving roughly 37 mph (60 km/h):

red ferrari moving

7. Let the car interact with nature

Here’s another way to capture a photo that speaks to the viewer:

Don’t just park the car in a parking lot or along a road and snap some shots. Instead, make the car interact with its surroundings.

Examples of this could be a car creating dust or a 4×4 driving over an obstacle. Look at this Chevrolet Trailblazer climbing over a rock:

trailblazer wide-angle lens

The car/rock combination emphasizes the ruggedness of the Trailblazer. Plus, by using a wide-angle lens and shooting from down low, I made the car loom, like it’s the king of the mountains.

Here’s another example, this one of a G-Class AMG drifting on loose sand:

car moving across sand

Don’t you just love the movement it conveys? The whole photo is packed with energy.

8. Shoot at night

Night car photography might sound daunting, but you will be amazed by how easy and awesome it is! The biggest secret here is to find a spot where it’s completely dark; any streetlights or even a full moon could make life tricky.

Once you’ve found the right spot, set up your camera on a tripod. Set your ISO to 100, the shutter speed to 30 seconds, and the aperture to f/9.

When the shutter opens, take a strong constant light source and walk around the car, “painting” it with the light. A normal household flashlight works for this.

There are no rules here. Paint the car in different ways to get different effects, and you will be blown away by the results! Here are some examples of this technique:

Car photography tips Opel Astra light painting This is an Opel Astra shot next to Table Mountain with Cape Town in the background.
Dodge Charger with the skyline of Detroit City This is a Dodge Charger with the skyline of Detroit in the background. The photo took me no longer than five minutes to set up and capture.

Tips for taking better photos of cars: conclusion

Car photography may seem difficult, but with these handy tips, you’re well-equipped to take some stunning car photos of your own.

So pick your favorite technique from the article, get outside, and start shooting!

Do you have any additional car photography tips or favorite images you’ve taken of cars? Please share them in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • CREATIVE TECHNIQUES

  • INSPIRATION

8 Tips for Stunning Car Photography