How To Photograph Cars

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Introduction

As with any online guide, you should never take what you’re about to read as absolute fact. What you’re about to read is based entirely upon my own opinion which has been formed by shooting cars for the last 15 years. It has and will continue to change as the years roll by. What works for me, may not work for you. However, you should take whatever you can and add it to your own arsenal of knowledge. As the saying goes, knowledge is indeed power…

I’m going to divide this guide into as few categories as possible and keep them as simple as I can. If you’re an f/numbers junkie, then this probably isn’t the guide for you. If you think DxOMark scores are relevant to everyday photography, again, this isn’t the guide for you. I’ve long been a believer that photography should be accessible to everyone and not just limited to those who are willing to invest a substantial amount of money in equipment. This guide will reflect this.

Before I get started, I need to point out that I’ve been a long time Canon shooter. This isn’t due to any other reason but the fact that my first DSLR was a Canon and I just continued to build upon their system since. I could just have easily been a Nikon, Pentax or Sony shooter. What I’m getting at is that choice of camera is irrelevant. Shoot with whatever you’re comfortable with.

 

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A Simple Buying Guide

Before you start, you will need a camera of some sort. Seeing that even modern smart phone cameras are up to the task these days, you should be able to get your hands on some sort of light capturing device. I would nearly always recommend a person to buy a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera when looking to advance their photography skills. A DSLR is based on a traditional 35mm film camera with interchangeable lenses. There is a huge market of used and new DSLRs available to you and there is almost always a camera to suit everyone’s budget. I primarily shoot Canon, so most of my experience is based around this brand but if you stick to the big brands (Nikon, Sony etc…) you’re not going to go too far wrong.

You also have the option of mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. Although these are more than capable, they’re not exactly cheap but they are more than up to the job.

Once you’ve decided on your budget and what you will primarily be using it for, you can begin searching the market for the most suitable option. Don’t get too sucked in by megapixels as contrary to popular belief, a high megapixel (MP) count does not always equal a higher quality image. As an example, the ageing Canon EOS 1D MKII N’s 8.2MP would result in a far superior image compared to a 12MP point and shoot for example.

There is also a lot of jargon involved in the DSLR industry, here are just some of the terms used and what they mean to you:

MP –  Megapixel:  The amount of pixels a camera is capable of capturing.

FPS – Frames per Second: This simply means how many images the camera can take in a second. The speed of your memory card will determine for just how long this burst will last.

ISO – International Standards Organisation:  At the heart of your DSLR is a piece of digital film called a sensor. The ISO determines just how sensitive your sensor is to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive. There are drawbacks however for using a higher ISO, as the resulting images will contain significantly higher noise levels (which manifests itself as small coloured dots across the image), will be slightly softer and the colours will be a little muted also. You should always try and use the lowest possible ISO for any given situation.

Crop Sensor –  A lot of modern DSLRs will have what is known as a crop sensor. Most consumer DSLR’s will have a crop sensor, with Canon usually being 1.6x and Nikon 1.5X. This refers to the magnification of a lens’ focal length onto the small sensor. A 100mm lens will become a 160mm lens on a 1.6x crop and a 150mm lens on a 1.5x crop. Some professional level DSLRs feature a full frame sensor. This is a sensor with zero crop. This is a good thing.

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Once you’ve picked up a body, you will more often than not need a lens. Most cameras, even used ones, will come with a cheap ‘kit’ lens which is fine for mucking about on but is definitely the weakest point of your set-up. For relatively small money, you can buy a 50mm F/1.8 lens new from any decent retailer. The body of this lens maybe cheap and the AF slow, but the quality of the glass inside is absolutely fantastic and will really help you get the most from DSLR. Here are a few terms that may help you when buying a lens:

Focal Length –  This is how much ‘zoom’ a lens has. The lower the number (measured in mm) the wider the field of view and vice versa. 50mm would be considered the most honest focal length. Under 50mm would be considered wide angle and over 50mm would be considered telephoto.

Aperture – The dreaded F/Number. Talk of aperture numbers usually scares the bejesus out of most photography newcomers but it is actually quite simple. The aperture (latin for opening) is simply a measure of how much light a lens can let in. A lens like the above mentioned 50mm F/1.8 will allow in huge amounts of light where as a lens with a maximum aperture of F/5.6 will allow a lot less (over three times less in fact). Contrary to what might seem obvious, a small F/number results in a larger opening and big number equals a smaller opening. The aperture also dictates how shallow or deep the depth of field is.

Prime –  This is a lens with a fixed focal length i.e. Canon 50mm F/1.8.

Zoom – This is a lens with a variable focal length i.e. Canon 17-40mm F/4 L.

IS/VR – Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction: two names for what is essentially the same technology. IS/VR is a feature built into a lens to help counteract camera shake. IS is Canon’s variant whilst VR is a Nikon trademark.

AF – Auto Focus:  Electronic focus assist. There are three main types of auto focus which I will go into in more detail in a future post.

Distortion – Wide angle lenses suffer from what is known as ‘barrel distortion’. This is an effect (desired by some, despised by others) where the corners of an image begin to bend towards the centre and where lines that are normally straight become curved. As a personal note, barrel distortion is something I do my best to avoid when shooting cars as the distorted perspective alters the shape of the car detrimentally.

(A note on lenses: Cheaper zoom lenses tend to have a variable aperture. For example, a Canon 18-55 F/3.5-5.6 will have a maximum aperture opening of F/3.5 at 18mm but this maximum aperture is reduced to F/5.6 at 55mm. More expensive lenses tend to retain the same aperture at either end of their focal length i.e. Canon 24-70 F/2.8 L)

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The Basics

The most important part of any photographer is not their choice of camera or lens but rather how they view any given situation. You should surround yourself with work that influences you and try to understand why you like what you like. What qualities do you admire in others’ work? What qualities do you detest?

Learning the basic operations of a camera is quickest by familiarisation and there’s no substitute for actually using the camera as it is intended to be used. Some might be intimidated by f/numbers and shutter speed durations but you need not be worried about specifics. Instead of concerning yourself with exact numbers, learn to understand the affects when you increase or decrease either value. If you raise the shutter speed to a higher number what happens? If you decrease the aperture number what happens? It will take time, but you will learn to instinctively figure this out when shooting. You will find yourself shooting a car and perhaps notice that the rear of the car isn’t quite as sharp as it could be, so you stop the lens down (go to a higher f/number) to increase the depth of field. You might find yourself panning a rally car on a rough stage but finding that your hit rate is too low, so you gradually increase the shutter speed to something that offers a better return rate.

Essentially, don’t become bogged down in the technical details. Your camera is simply a tool, use it as such.

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Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one component of the exposure triangle (the other two being aperture & ISO). Traditionally, shutter speed refers to the amount of time that the shutter in a camera opens for. I guess it’s more accurate today for shutter speed to be labeled as exposure time instead, as a lot of modern cameras don’t feature a shutter anymore. However, the longer the ‘shutter’ is open for, the more time light has to figuratively burn itself onto your sensor (or literally if you’re using film) and vice versa. I tend not to think in specific shutter speeds when shooting. Instead, I’ll react to what the situation requires. Am I panning a race car? I’ll use a slow shutter speed. Am I shooting a head-on action shot with lots of movement that I need to freeze? I’ll use a fast shutter speed.

But what exactly is a fast or slow shutter speed? This will often come down to personal preference and your technique. A good rule of thumb is that for a non-moving object, your shutter speed should be matched to somewhere around your focal length. Shooting on a 200mm lens should see a minimum value of 1/200s for example. Because every situation is different, you can then make a decision whether to increase or decrease your shutter speed. If your image is blurry at 1/200s, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed. Similarly, if your image is too static for your tastes, start decreasing your shutter speed.

Shutter speed is a key component of the panning technique. That is, following a car or other moving object with your camera. There are thousands of guides online with regards panning and how to achieve the best results. In my opinion, these specific guides are a waste of time. The most important aspect of panning is improving your technique. This takes practice and lots of it and there’s no substitution for it. Some people can achieve sharpness at extremely low shutter speeds whilst others struggle at significantly higher speeds. The difference is nearly always down to technique. I always try to stand with my feet a shoulders width apart and to ensure that my torso is facing forward when the car reaches the specific spot I want to capture it in. Breathing plays a part too, but only when you start getting closer to single second long exposures.

A lot of even experienced photographers either forget or don’t allow for variables outside their control when shooting at low shutter speeds. How fast is the object moving? How smooth is the surface?  Is the car travelling perfectly parallel to me or is it passing me at an angle? These all play a huge part in achieving good results whilst panning. It’s worth noting that the slower your shutter speed, the less likely you are to achieve good results. With a higher shutter speed, you will have a higher hit rate but at the risk of a more mundane photograph.

To sum it all up; If you want more blur and movement, decrease your shutter speed. If you want to freeze the action and achieve maximum sharpness, increase your shutter speed.

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Aperture

The second component in the exposure triangle. Where shutter speed dictates how long light has to leave its mark on your sensor, aperture dictates how much light gets in during this time. You can think of the two as the opposing sides of a weighing scales. To achieve a perfect exposure, you have to balance how much light is left in and for how long. If you decide too leave too much light in, for too long a shutter speed, you’ll end up with an overexposed image (too bright). Likewise, if you don’t leave enough light in, for too short a shutter speed, the opposite will happen (underexposure / dark image).

As an example, if you use a wide aperture (i.e. f/2.8) which is allowing a huge amount of light in, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed (shorter amount of time) to balance this. Lots of light only requires a short amount of time to create the image. Again, if you’re stopped down (using a smaller aperture i.e. f/22) it’ll take longer for that amount of light to create the image so you’ll need a much slower shutter speed. It’s for this reason that sports photographers pay large amount of money for ‘fast glass’ (lenses with large maximum aperture openings) as it allows them to use faster shutter speeds in low light situations.

The other side of aperture is its affect on depth of field. The depth of field is the area of a photograph that’s in focus. When you use a large aperture (i.e. f/1.2) you would have an absolutely tiny depth of field. This will often create some beautiful background blur, which is great if you want to hide a messy background. But if you want to keep, for example, the full length of a car sharp, you will need to stop down (use a smaller aperture i.e. f/16) to achieve this.

You will often come across people online and even sometimes in the real world who can reel off the exact depth of field at any given aperture at any given distance. It’s utter nonsense and a complete waste of time to memorise these numbers. You don’t need to bog yourself down with these at all. Instead, you just need to know that if you want more background blur, open your lenses aperture and vice versa.

Where shutter speed and aperture are the base of the exposure triangle, ISO is the tip. ISO is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. On bright days, you’ll need a low ISO and on darker days, a higher ISO which is more sensitive to light.

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Easy Exercises

I’m a staunch believer that practice is more important in photography than reading words off a page. With regards to what we’ve already spoke about, try these two simple exercises out. You’ll need a camera with manual controls and a tripod.

  •  Shutter Speed – Head to your kitchen and put an empty glass into your sink. Set up your camera on a tripod and select your shutter priority mode (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon). Turn the tap onto a high flow and let the glass fill and overflow (the more splash / bubbles the better). Take your first picture at 1/1000th of a second and start working your way down until you reach around 5 seconds. Once you’ve cleaned up your mess, review the images on your computer. Notice how the water drops are frozen at first, but slowly begin to blur until eventually you have a completely different type of photograph. You’ll be able to see how the water is moving so fast that the camera can’t capture it accurately. As such, it streaks and blurs across the image.
  • Aperture – For this one, head out side and stand in front of your car. Setup your camera on a tripod at about head height. Using a wide lens (make sure you get some background in) focus your lens on the front badge of the car. Select the aperture priority mode on your camera (Av on Canon, A on Nikon) and select f/22. Take a picture and reduce your f/number and take another. Keep going until your lens is wide open (at its maximum aperture / smallest f/number). Again, review your images afterwards and notice how the sharpness in the background slowly reduces. Also, notice when you’re shooting how the shutter speeds get faster. This is your camera compensating for the aperture value.

Once you’ve got an appreciation for how they both work, separately and together, you’ll be able to progress rapidly as a photographer.

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Simple Tips & Scenarios

Your camera has a plethora of built-in features which will make your life easier. Don’t be afraid to use them. Priority modes are at the fore of this. If you’re only concerned about shutter speed, use shutter priority mode. If you’re primary concern is depth of field, use aperture priority mode and let the camera do the rest of the work for you. If you find that an image is too bright / dark using either mode, use the exposure compensation to tell the camera that you want the photograph to be a stop or two brighter or darker. It really is as simple as that.

Let’s talk through a couple of scenarios, motoring related, that you might come across on your ventures…

  • Car coming directly towards you into a braking zone – Because the car is coming straight at you, it’s always going to be difficult to show the speed of the car. Instead, it’s often preferred to blur out the background so all the focus is on the car. Selecting Aperture Priority, choose the widest aperture available (smallest f/number). This will not only give you the softest background, but by default will also give you the fastest shutter speed available ensuring that the car is nice and sharp.
  • Car passing you from left to right on a straight – This is pretty much the opposite of the above scenario. If you were to deploy the method mentioned above, you would end up with a photograph of a car on a track with barely any movement. The car will for all intents and purposes appear parked on the track. Nobody wants this. Instead, you want to emphasis the speed and movement. Select Shutter Priority mode and choose a shutter speed you’re comfortable enough with, let’s say 1/125th. Shoot and review the result immediately. Is the car still to static or is too blurry? You can then choose to increase / decrease the shutter speed depending on what you want to achieve. Don’t forget, the slower your shutter speed, the more images you’ll have to discard afterwards,
  • Your car parked at a scenic viewing point – So, you want to shoot your car at the top of your favourite driving road and take in all of the scenery behind it. You’ll need to choose Aperture Priority once again, but this time you’re going to increase your f/number and close that aperture opening right down. This will help get everything in focus, but it has the downside of requiring a longer shutter speed. This could be fine on a bright summer’s day but if it’s dull or even late in the evening, you may need a tripod to keep the camera steady. You could use a higher ISO, but be careful not to go too high as grain and image noise becomes more prominent.
  • Cars lapping in the dark at a night race – This is definitely one of the most difficult situations you can find yourself in. If you try to shoot head on, you’ll just get the glare from headlights. At night events, I like to shoot long exposures from a static position. Try to find a vantage point that gives you a nice view of a corner or two. Set your camera up on a tripod and shoot a long exposure using Shutter Priority to capture the light trails of the car as they pass by and illuminate the circuit. It’ll give you a different result and different is often very good when you’re competing with other photographers.

 

Want to know more? E-mail me at paddy@pmcgphotos.com

 

How To Photograph CarsPaddy
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