How To Shoot Cars: </br>Feature Photography 101

Speedhunting

From the outside looking in, it might look like we just spray and pray at every cool looking car. But Speedhunting involves so much more than just firing away with a bazooka. The neat thing about it is that anyone can do it, so I wanted to let you in on a few tips and tricks that I have learned over the years photographing feature cars. I had my friend Arslan Golic shoot me, while I shot this Porsche 930 Turbo. It was Speedhunt-ception.

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Before I fire off a single shot I always take some time to look at the subject from a variety of different angles and see what needs to be accentuated. I talk to the owner about what they like about the car and the areas that they are most proud of. Sometimes that’s what it takes to understand the passion associated with the car. I also look at the lines of the car and check the cleanliness.

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Location, location, location. In my mind there is nothing more important than location. What’s behind and around the car will ultimately make the image, so it is very important for you to consider the background. Keep in mind that we at Speedhunters like to portray a realistic setting, so we never Photoshop cars into different locations. A general rule of thumb for me is to imagine the car is not there at all. If it wasn’t, would there still be a strong image? You also have to consider telephone poles and other distractions.

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Generally speaking, my style has always been to shoot with natural light. It’s fun to explore different lighting situations and methods, but strobes take up space and weight when you’re traveling overseas, so packing a portable lighting set up is generally not an option for me. Some Speedhunting trips take us to three countries at a time, so we all generally carry the minimal amount of gear required.

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I am all about moving fast, because taking less time per shot and per angle, means more variety. It also helps to be fast when I have five shoots to do in a single day!

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Focus on one type of shot at a time. Start out with exterior, or interior or engine bay – but don’t jump between them. Finishing one area before you start on the next makes it much easier to keep a mental checklist on what you have shot and what you still need to shoot.

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In order to be as efficient as possible with your time, minimize your lens-switching too.

Asian squat

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It’s easy to guess the height of your average photographer, because often they’ll tend to get lazy and shoot from standing eye level. I can’t stand that, so I utilize my Asian squat genes to my advantage.

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You can go high or low, but is much easier to go the latter if you don’t have a step ladder handy. Be creative with your angles.

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Sometimes it means having shooting at a Dutch (tilt) angle. Of course, our friend Linhbergh will give me five lashes for dishing out that kind of advice.

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It doesn’t matter how much photo gear you have, because you are physically limited to how much you can carry. If anything, having more gear will slow you down.

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I love shooting Porsches because I don’t have to spend much time on the engine bay.

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People always ask me why I use prime lenses. Granted it’s the cool thing to do, but I actually feel like I have much more control over my images.

The big guns

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Generally speaking, fixed focal lenses have a lower f-stop, which allows you to control the look of the image more than you can using a zoom lens.

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It would be much harder to get so much bokeh with a zoom lens at this focal length. So even if you had a 70-200mm with a 2x extender – effectively giving you 400mm on a full frame DSLR – shooting the same image wide open on a 400mm prime lens will not produce the same shot.

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Professional equipment is always going to be expensive, but these days it’s actually more affordable than it’s ever been. A good lens will last a lifetime, and in fact, I still have the very first pro lens that I’ve ever bought, and I use it almost everyday.

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One thing that you have to watch out for when you are using long focal lengths during the daytime, is shooting through heat waves.

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A trick that I found is that grass does not retain as much heat, therefore your shots will be clearer if you shoot over foliage instead of black asphalt.

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I don’t actually use my bazooka for range – I use it more to get the look I’m after. I zoom in and out of my subject by moving either closer or further away.

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Shooting fixed focal length lenses also forces you to work on your composition.

Inside and out

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Shooting the interior of a car is always one of the trickiest aspects. Depending on what kind of light is available, it can be super-easy or your worst nightmare.

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Luckily for me the light was very soft in Sweden and I did not have to do anything special to produce these evenly-exposed interiors. If you are shooting in harsh light the best thing to do is to find some shade, or maybe try and shoot the interior in a garage.

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It’s a great idea to spend lots of time on the details of the car, because that’s where much of its personality can be found.

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When shooting black interiors it is very easy to overexpose the shots because your camera thinks that you are shooting something that is very dark. Underexpose a bit and you will get great detail and accurate blacks.

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It’s all in the details. That is how I found out that Krister – the owner of the 930 Turbo – was a big Resident Evil fan.

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I usually like to save the car-to-car shots for last, because it’s usually the most time-consuming part. Again, due to having to travel super-light it is near impossible to bring a dedicated rig, so I am always forced to improvise.

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Luckily for me Arslan brought out his EK9 Honda Civic, but unluckily there was a J’s Racing cross-bar support in the way. Every time I needed him to slow down or speed up I would have to scream over the road noise and the Civic’s raspy exhaust note.

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It still worked out well and I only ended up with a few bruised ribs.

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I am a firm believer in giving the owners some goodies after a successful shoot. It’s a good idea to build a relationship with everyone you encounter at car meets or track days. Who knows, they may build another feature-worthy car soon enough and want to give me an exclusive.

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I hope you Speedhunters out there learned something. If any of you have any questions leave a comment, because I read every one of them. See you guys out there hunting speed soon!


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71 comments
JoshSchock
JoshSchock

This was a wonderful read. I will make good use of this advice. I think that I learned more in this article than I did in my automotive photography class in the last 15 weeks. So thanks SpeedHunters and Thanks Larry Chen! You are my favorite auto photographer. You are truly an inspiration to photo journalists!

KrisMoffatt
KrisMoffatt

Now I can see where I've gone wrong when I did my own "feature" shoots. You're a genius Larry!

Nikhil_P
Nikhil_P

some great advice! would never have come across my mid to shoot over foliage because of the heat!

ArtVartanov1
ArtVartanov1

400mm 2.8 OMG do you ever get payed enough to justify that with autosport? i need to earn more.

thomas456786
thomas456786

How would you recommend doing silhouettes and doing half car shots but getting the car flush with the frame if that makes sense? I haven't done a legit feature for somebody before but I plan too. I prefer long exposure shooting, would lens choice affect the color or light at all? I know that a lens that allows for a lower stop and changing the ISO can provide a brighter exposure but will that affect the sharpness? Sorry for all the questions, just trying to absorb info from somebody who knows what they are doing. 

KeseanC
KeseanC

Great post and good read. Best point for me was the pre-shoot walk around. In the past I've found that I'm so eager to get photos that I forget to sit back for a few minutes, relax, take in, and examine the "whats" and "why's" of  a car. I need to spend more time figuring out what the strongest part is, why its the strongest, and why I should focus on it. Thanks for the great advice. 

JapCarVideos
JapCarVideos

Awesome advice, plenty of things to put into practise there

stian_sjue
stian_sjue

Loving the lesson. A few new things to think of.

Will you be doing a similar post about shooting cars at speed? I have been struggling a bit with it, and could use some pointers.

Thanks for now.

avvblanc
avvblanc

First up, you are one of my favorite car photographers ever. I feel like people tend to over process car shots but you managed to avoid the photoshop bug and still have exceptional images that look REAl!

having done a bunch of car to car shots, it always seems to be a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to getting a stable image where me or the car I'm in didnt shake and mess up the shot. Any tips and tricks to keeping the camera stable or is it just luck and road condition? thanks!

susej1981
susej1981

love this photography series of speedhunters

do you or any of the speedhunters guys still post on dieselstation? I knowklingelhoefer used to, but whether he still does or not I don't know.

I'd love to see an article all about composition (i.e framing, complementary colors, leading lines, patterns, what makes a photo good) or an article that breaks down a photoshopped image into what it looked like coming out of the camera

cheers!

Gomez85
Gomez85

Love these articles, keep them coming-PLEASE!!

DaveT
DaveT

Neat. I never thought about shooting through heat waves before. Maybe something more specific to Cali than here in Canada.

Have you ever dealt with the issue of particularly reflective cars (ie chrome bumpers etc) and getting yourself or your gear out of the photos? I always do that post but I was wondering if there was some more obvious trick I am missing.

bladerunner
bladerunner

Larry, are you shooting with a 400mm f/2.8 IS mk I or mk II?  For someone whose looking into stepping up to a 400mm, do you find it beneficial spend thousands more for a mk II over the mk I?  I understand the weight saving is significant, but the mk I still produces amazing images like its replacement. 

Nihilation
Nihilation

How long would you say the typical car shoot takes and how many shots would you say you take when shooting a single car? Do you have a breakdown of % of interior vs exterior shots in mind when you go on these assignments?

SharpMedia
SharpMedia

Very good advice for an up and coming photographer like me!

KanePotter
KanePotter

Awesome!  I try to utilize alot of this when shooting.  Great write up, and thanks for being the peoples champ.

midgeman
midgeman

If little to no work in post, your deep blue skies come from a polarizer? I have always wondered about this. They are especially apparent in your Porsche dream drive photos up Pikes Peak.

viktor0matrai
viktor0matrai

Great story @Larry Chen ! Hope you can do some more in this topic. I am about to buy a canon 70d or a 7d with an 75-300 f4-5,6, a17-85 f4-5,6 and a fix 50mm lens with f 1,4. I'm not sure if it will be the perfect choice. Should I buy a 7d (i've read 70d is better in some aspects than 7d) or newer machine with better hardvare? Or should i buy a used 5d mark II ( I am a bit afraid of a used machine)?

RichieAnker
RichieAnker

Love your work brother , the best , is that bazooka u have a 300mm or 200mm ??? cheers mate Rich


highlorddad
highlorddad

I've been following Speedhunters practically since its inception, and I've always found your photos to be my absolute favorite. Photography isn't a hobby of mine, though. All I can say is that I really admire stunning photos like yours. But I do love reading the how-to articles, because I find the art and approach so fascinating. Thanks so much for connecting with us Larry, and for sharing your hard work! 

TokyoCarGuy
TokyoCarGuy

Thanks for very good advice, Larry!

I am somewhat addicted to zoom lenses, because they can achieve a lot in terms of versatility and light travel.  I think i will still stick to my 16-105 on my Sony A57during car shows, but I will definitely try to use my 50 f1.4 during road trips.  

I am curious about what would be your general advice on composition, in terms of how to position the car in the shot? I try to follow the 2/3 principle and in my ideal shot the car would occupy bottom right facing in direction of the "empty" 1/3 (kind of like i did here http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Qh-pGkCyG6c/UkxEJcBAtEI/AAAAAAAACzo/dAtILd7TG1c/s1600/DSC09029.jpg). Kind of creates balance in my view.  Is this the right mentality or is it better to place the car in the center? 

I also generally try to avoid the top-down shots, unless there is something specific that you want to pick out (carbon roof?) 
In any way, keep up the great work and happy speed-hunting!

@TokyoCarGuy 

http://t-c-p.blogspot.com

avidMedia
avidMedia

Speaking of primes, have you ever had the chance to shoot with the Canon 300mm f/4 IS? I really have a lot more fun shooting with primes versus zooms and I'm wondering if it may be a better purchase than a 70-200 f4 IS (budget restrictions, can't afford the 2.8 line)... Especially since it's a lens I'd really only use for motorsports and I always find myself wanting more reach, even with a crop body at a track like Lime Rock which allows you to get quite close to the action. I was thinking maybe a 300mm and a 1.6 or 2x teleconverter.

envyxf250
envyxf250

great post Larry! I certainly learned a trick or two. reading this has made me somehow even more keen than I already was for this years show season (its not far from starting in australia) and I can't wait to put my canon 550d through it's paces again :) 


d_rav
d_rav

i see some photographers use 2 cameras, 1 with a huge lense and the second without... was this your method for this type of shoot as well??

DougJohnson
DougJohnson

These little tips are great for us amateur automotive photographers! I look forward to these posts more and more, thanks Larry! 

ben
ben

I am currently using a Sony A77 DSLT and would love to get a decent all-round zoom lense as I could not afford getting 2 different lenses, what lenses do you recommend?

GonzaloPaniego
GonzaloPaniego

señor Larry  su guía es perfecta para la gente que estamos aprendiendo a innovar en el tipo de tiro que queremos conseguir de un coche le pido por favor que echara un vistazo a esta página y que me diese su opinión para mejorar porque se lo agradecería mucho y invito a todo el mundo que le gusten los coches que la vea www.gapphotos.wordpress.com gracias a todos.

PVGUK
PVGUK

Excellent feature and guide Larry. I love to photograph cars and will take these tips into my next club shoot :)

RossJukes
RossJukes

Amazing article, very useful! Any advice on the car-to-car shots? Shutter speed, car speeds etc? 

zephoto
zephoto

Good stuff Larry.  Nice to see the behind the scene shots where you're shooting :)  I try to follow the same mentality of finding odd-ball angles/locations to shoot from.  It really is the most important aspect.

KTaylor96
KTaylor96

What is a good and affordable first lens to buy for a canon. Thanks for taking time to show us all these tips :)

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@DaveT It does not matter what country you are in, If the sun is out and the asphalt is super dark, you will get heat waves.


As for chrome, you are spot on. Just remove yourself in post.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@bladerunner I have both, and honestly you can't tell the difference in image quality or speed with either. The reason why I have the mkII is because of weight. I hurt myself pretty badly at the Nurburgring this year carrying around the version one for hours upon hours. If you can handle the weight then you are golden. I only weight 150 lbs myself. So with the 400mm two bodies and a few lenses really weigh me down.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@Nihilation It most definitely depends on how much time I have available. Typically when I am shooting out of country I try to be quicker as we are always trying to pack in more shoots into a small amount of time. When I am back home in California sometimes I can take up to four hours depending on how far the owner of the car is willing to drive.

Sometimes cars interiors just don't look all that great, so I will excluding it and focusing on the strong points of a car. So there is no percentage. 

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@midgeman I always try to use a circular polarizer and or neutral density filters when I am shooting outdoors. Also one of the reasons why the sky is so blue at Pikes Peak is because it is extremely high altitude.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@viktor0matrai I would stay away from the 5D mk II, the autofocus is not very good for motorsports.

The best thing for you to do is try the 70d and 7d in your hand at a Camera store. See which one you like better. Try shooting a few frames with both.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@TokyoCarGuy There are so many was to compose a photo of a car, it also varies on the shape and the size of the car. More importantly it's about the background. I always try to step back a bit to show more sky.

I love shooting from high places, as I think there are not enough shots of cars from above, but that's just me.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@avidMedia it depends on what you want to focus on more, If you enjoy shooting trackside then the 300mm on a crop body would be great, but it is also pretty similar to using a 70-200 with a 1.4x extender, which comes out to 280mm also at F/4.

Although the 300mm will be faster focusing and it will be sharper as well. You just won't have the versatility of a 70-200.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@d_rav Two bodies is mostly for speed, it is very time consuming to switch lenses, also you tend to miss more shots if you have one body. Although I shot for over 7 years with just a single body.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@ben It depends on what you are planning on shooting more, If you want to use a walk around lens for shooting car shows then I suggest a wide angle zoom lens. If you are planning on shooting trackside then you can get a cheap 70-300mm usually about $200.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@RossJukes One thing that you have to take notice is the shadow of the cars. Make sure the shadow of the car in does not get in the way of the car you are shooting.

Keep the speeds slow, otherwise it gets bumpy and shooting slow shutter would not work very well. I understand this does not work sometimes when you are on a public freeway though.

Keep your shutter speeds below 1/100 and go lower depending on how fast you are going. The slower you go the less likely the shot will come out.

Make sure you shoot with a super wide angle, preferably wider than 28mm.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@KTaylor96 50mm f/1.8 is a good start. Shoot at f/4.5 for the sharpest photos

Also you can try the 40mm f/2.8 that is the sharpest lens for your money.

avidMedia
avidMedia

@Larry Chen That's a good point. I also only carry one body, so maybe I'm better off with the 70-200 (just in case the focal length becomes an issue)... For still shots/car portraits I usually use my 85mm 1.8... I'm still shooting with a 60D but have plans to go full frame eventually. I'm eyeing the 6D but not sure how capable it is for motorsport. A local guy uses one and seems to have good results.

avidMedia
avidMedia

@RossJukes @Larry Chen If I'm forced to do car to car shoots on a public highway, I've found that matching the shutter speed to the speed you're traveling works out well... i.e., 1/60 if you're traveling 60mph, etc.


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