How to Take Better Pictures of Cars

Inspiring automotive photos take more than just a thumb and an iPhone.

DW Burnett for Road & Track

Editor’s Note: Learn something new? Show us your car photo skills — tag @gearpatrol in your next Instagram shot for a chance to be featured.

If you’re able to just whip out your phone, point it at a passing car and capture an image so beautiful it breaks Instagram — congratulations. You’re an automotive photography savant. For the rest of us, a little more practice, know-how, and setup is necessary to get the right shot of the right car at the right time, whether by from-the-hip smartphone shots or focused, choreographed, timed pro-DSLR photos.

A basic rule of thumb: “It should be a good picture without the car in it,” says DW Burnett. Burnett has photographed his fair share of cars as one of Road & Track magazine’s go-to photographers for car reviews; he’s also covered motorsports from F1 to Rally Cross and served as the American Endurance Racing official site photographer, conducting on-track photo shoots. Burnett shared a few basic tips on how to capture cars like a seasoned pro.

Know your surroundings. The environment can have a big hand in the way your photograph is framed. “If you have a mountain backdrop and winding road, if you took the car off the road, would it still be a compelling picture?” Undoubtedly, a beautiful backdrop lends itself to a beautiful image — but say you’re stuck with a distracting environment and a beautiful car. What then? Burnett says: “Start moving around. One way to block out a bad environment is to get above the car.”

Another way to work with a bad backdrop is to do the opposite: get low and use the car to fill up your lens. Either way, Burnett always defers to an old adage: “You shouldn’t know how tall the photographer is.” In other words, crouch or climb up on something; photos from standing height will look average at best.

Balancing the whole image is key. The rule of thirds is one of the most basic rules in photography, and it’s something Burnett thinks about constantly when composing a photo. “Putting the car dead-center in the frame may not be the right choice if you’re supposed to be illustrating direction or motion; if the car is coming in from the left, make sure you leave space on the right.”

Simple camera gear can make the difference. “A polarizing lens is an essential piece of gear for shooting cars — and landscapes too, actually.” Depending on the lighting or the car’s paint, surface reflections can wreak havoc on a good shot. Sometimes lighting can work in your favor (for night shots, particularly), but a polarizing filter does well to minimize and eliminate unwanted reflection (like the photographer’s silhouette on a window, for instance). “I almost always have a polarizing lens on me when I shoot, but one little neat trick is, if you have a pair of polarizing sunglasses, you can just point the lens of your camera phone through the lens and turn the lenses a bit and get the same exact effect,” says Burnett.

Know how your subject is moving through the environment. At races, Burnett mostly finds himself shooting two categories of pictures. “Either with a shallow depth of field and a high shutter speed, to capture a scene, or a slow shutter speed to capture the motion.” If the car is coming right at you or traveling away from you, a shallow depth of field and a quick shutter will be the better setup. That said, freezing the action altogether, as you would in other types of sports like football or basketball, is something to avoid, “because making the cars look like they’re parked out on the track doesn’t make for a good racing photo. If you can clearly read the lettering on the tire’s sidewall, that’s when you want to start using a slower shutter speed. You want the motion blur.”

Good panning shots take practice. “Start with a fairly wide lens and start practicing panning at one one-hundredth of a second until you get it right.” The idea is to keep the car as sharp as possible as it’s moving past you, so pick a point on the car to focus on so you have a target to aim for. When it comes to actual technique, Burnett describes a trick he’s picked up over the years: “Visualizing where you ideally want to take the picture, face your body towards that point, keep your feet planted and rotate from your hips up. See the car come into the frame and move with it. And keep your elbows tucked in for a steadier, natural support, and follow through in a swing motion. ”

The best advice Burnett can give: “People get caught up in the right way do things and the wrong way to do things, but at the end of the day, you just have to look at a photo and ask, ‘Do you like it?’ If you don’t like it, it’s time to figure out why. But if something looks good to you, just go with it.”

About the Pro

“As a racetrack photographer, I’ve covered Formula One, NASCAR, Indycar, IMSA Sportscar Championship, and all kinds of grassroots racing. I love it all. I’m currently a contributing editor at Road & Track, and my other clients include Jalopnik, The Drive, Time Inc., Yahoo! Motors, Michelin, DuJour Media, American Endurance Racing, American Muscle, Grassroots Motorsports Magazine, Monticello Motor Club, and Lime Rock Park/Lime Rock Driver’s Club.” – D.W. Burnett See the Photographer’s Website: Here

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