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Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography

Listing a vehicle on ClassicCars.com or AutoHunter? Here's how to take better pictures to maximize your profit.

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If you’re reading this, there may be a good chance are you’re a customer of the Journal’s parent, ClassicCars.com, or maybe even its sibling, AutoHunter. Selling cars can be fun but, if the debate between Kennedy and Nixon has ever shown us something, it’s that presentation and optics goes a long way. So why are so many people poor at taking photos of their cars?

Honestly, taking pictures is not as easy as it seems, but the first step in getting better is awareness. Once you’re aware of what not to do, it becomes easier to know what to do. And, truth be told, those of us at the Journal aren’t professional photographers, but we’ve learned a thing or two from looking at ClassicCar.com, AutoHunter ads and tons of car magazines. We are keeping things simple for this primer, so we assume you’re taking photos from a mobile phone.

One caveat: awareness is merely the first step. It likely will take practice to get it right. Don’t get discouraged! And when it comes to the shadows and the sun, those with dyslexic tendencies may face more of a challenge, so push through. You’ve got this!

Here are some elements to think about before we show you photographic examples:

The number of the beast. Take as many pictures as possible. Don’t be shy! It’s better to have too many pics to choose from instead of too few.

Composition. Arrange the visual elements within your frame so that your point of view complements the vehicle. Be sure to include the whole car aside of pictures highlighting detail.

Location location location! Carefully choose your background because it will make or break the success of your pictures. Poles and trees can be your enemy.

Here comes the sun. So make sure you aren’t facing it when taking pics. Leave that for the artsy set.

Time is Everything. You don’t want the sun to be too bright. Taking pics early or late in the day works best for soft light.

What’s your angle? When you compose a shot, try doing it standing, the same on a stool, and the same crouching down. You’ll be surprised how in less than a minute you’ll have three very different shots. And shuffle around left and right to see what other pics you can take.

It’s all in the details. Yes, wide-angle pics of your car are mandatory, but take detailed shots too.

Interior shots. This will be more difficult than you think. Make sure the interior is clean (especially the front floor), and the seat belts should be presentable. Turn the steering wheel straight and adjust the rear-view mirror so it doesn’t catch your reflection while appearing to be positioned correctly.

Here’s a nice 1998 BMW 740. Hard to believe it’s almost 25 years old, right? That’s almost an antique in car years. Why not honor the middle-aged German by choosing a platform that doesn’t detract? See those white lines? Avoid them. Ditto the oil stain. And that trailer in the background? None of these elements help this Bimmer.

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While we’re at it, don’t take pictures on grass. Repeat: don’t put your car on the grass for photographs. That green has a way of sucking the vibrancy out of colors. Other times, grass will give some colors a green tint.

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It also would help to keep the vehicle within the borders of your lens. All the photographer had to do was back up a few feet and the car would fit. Also, if you move your eyes towards the center and the top, it looks like there is a tree growing from the top of the car. It truly pays to be familiar with your background and how it interacts with the subject.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

It’s a similar thing with this 1961 DKW. What’s that blue door? Or even the open garage door? Moving the car forward, and the photographer positioning him/herself accordingly, would make all the difference.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

This Road Runner has a more subtle distraction: look at the bottom right and you’ll see the base of a tower. The photographer repositioning him/herself ever so slightly would allow the rear of the car to obscure the tower—just some visual sleight of hand. A bit more sun would help show the twin flat back stripes on the trunk that you currently can’t see, though that could be rectified by detail shots.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

When taking pictures, be sure to avoid reflections that will draw attention from the subject. That white SUV is not doing the fat-fendered Mopar any favors. And why is the front being shrouded by shrubbery? Then there’s the issue of lighting—notice how it’s sunny all around except from this position.

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Alright, so we have sun here, but we also have a shadow being cast against the front end, which is cut off anyway. And there’s that white SUV again! For the love of God, at least drive this 1947 Chrysler off the driveway and find a better location

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This 1936 Hudson has some sun, but it’s pointed at the photographer. You can see how the image is washed out at the top due to the sun. Until you are comfortable with a camera and can handle artsy pics, just keep the sun behind you, if not at an angle, for proper illumination.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

Do you dream of being famous? I can’t speak for this gentleman pictured behind this 1966 Lancia, but let’s make him famous for being an errant human in a pic used to sell a car. Lots of other problems with the background too, as you probably can figure out by now.

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Artificial lighting at night can make for a cool image, but it doesn’t help that the front is not illuminated, nor does it help that the shadow is prominently displayed. And unless the gas station is vintage, this is probably not the best location.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

This 1971 Mark III also suffers from a similar but natural problem: the positioning of the car in respect to the position of the sun has created a shadow that hides the rear. And you want that shadow positioned behind your point of view, not obscuring anything in front of it. This is where dyslexics may have issues, so it may help to get a chair to pose and see where the shadow lies, then adjust the position of the car in response. The chair also comes in handy to create a different effect, as you can see here the photographer is standing above ground level for a different perspective.

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The top of the car is uncomfortably close to the top margin of the picture, but the biggest transgression is how the front wheels are turned—no one cares about seeing the tread. Show us the wheels! Plus, properly turned wheels can give a vehicle more of a road-hugging look, so it pays to take photos both of the wheels straight and turned, in this case, turned to the left.

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The interior to this 1972 Cutlass Supreme looks like it was taken using a special lens, which makes for an odd perspective. Other quibbles include keys in the ignition—not a good look—and the steering wheel not being straight, plus take a gander at those outside distractions seen through the window (which should be closed in most cases).

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The interior of this 1970 442 has similar issues. See how bad the steering wheel looks when it’s not straight? Plus, it is unnaturally obscuring the instrument cluster. This particular 442 came with a clock but not the Rally Pac, so it’s difficult to see there’s no tachometer and vitals are instead maintained via idiot lights. This is not an unusual thing, but it will be a surprise to some. Also, do you see the open hood through the windshield? Always keep it closed when taking interior shots, though the background isn’t doing the car any favors.

Here are several images to get an idea how presentation is an important consideration when selling a car. To wit, we have this 1969 442:

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The photographer looks like he’s crouching, which gives a different perspective. And look how the tires are turned to the right, giving a particular look while displaying detail of the Super Stock II mags. This convertible is properly illuminated too from all perspectives. And the background doesn’t distract. This is a great example of how you should aspire to photograph.

automotive photography, Fundamentals of Automotive Ad Photography, ClassicCars.com Journal

Same car, but now with the photographer above the ground. See how a simple adjustment of height makes for a completely different image? Plus, look at the shadow and you’ll see it doesn’t impede the illumination of the vehicle—it’s just tucked in underneath. Those stains in the pavement may make a magazine editor shake his/her head, but it’s not a dealbreaker for an ad selling a vehicle.

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Care also was taken while photographing this 1989 Acura Integra. Notice the sun is not being used to illuminate the car, but it’s being put to good use overall. Notice the front tires turned to the proper side, and the illuminated taillights add a nice effect. A stickler could make a fuss about the curb to the left but taking pictures of the same images from several heights will allow you to determine which one works best. In fact, you should always do that for every front- and rear-¾ view because having more pictures to choose from is always better than less.

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Or just move back and/or left or right and see what happens to the curb.

Trying a photo like this as a novice may be difficult, but you can see how its presentation can only help its sale.

Diego Rosenberg
Diego Rosenberg
Lead Writer Diego Rosenberg is a native of Wilmington, Delaware and Princeton, New Jersey, giving him plenty of exposure to the charms of Carlisle and Englishtown. Though his first love is Citroen, he fell for muscle cars after being seduced by 1950s finned flyers—in fact, he’s written two books on American muscle. But please don’t think there is a strong American bias because foreign weirdness is never far from his heart. With a penchant for underground music from the 1960-70s, Diego and his family reside in the Southwest.

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