When looking in from the outside, photography is a hugely technical pursuit. However, it’s not essential to know it the technical ins and outs like the back of your hand.
In fact, I know some very good photographers that aren’t in the least way technical. They couldn’t bore you with tales of pixel density, the inverse square law, or the correct hyper-focal distance for any given focal length – but they can still take blindingly-good photos. Their skill comes from years of just ‘doing it’.
By the way, if you missed Part I, where we covered kit, then click here to catch up first.
OK, let’s talk exposure modes, which in a topic as vast as photography seems like the first thing you’d dial in before taking a photo.
As a rough rule of thumb, ‘aperture priority’ (A on some cameras, Av on others) is the mode that you’ll use most often when shooting static cars in daylight. You simply select the aperture (and ISO unless you’re using auto ISO) that you want to use, and the camera sorts out the shutter speed for you. Easy.
The only thing that you need to do from there is to make sure that the shutter speed that it has chosen isn’t so slow that you’ll get blur from camera shake. If it is, you can either use a tripod, select a wider aperture (lower number f/) or choose a higher ISO. Compose, focus, click, done – you’ve just taken your first photo.
It’s probably not great – nobody’s is – but don’t worry, it’ll get better.
When shooting moving cars, ‘shutter priority’ (S or Tv on the dial) is usually the most useful mode. Here you choose your shutter speed and the camera sorts out the aperture for you. You need to pick the shutter speed that best corresponds to the speed of the car, and how much blur you want. More on this to come.
It’s worth noting that neither aperture and shutter priority modes are foolproof. They’re semi-automatic modes after all, and both ultimately rely on your camera measuring (metering) the exposure in the scene correctly.
Here’s a general guide to how it works: Your camera will look at the scene in front of it and try and achieve a ‘mid’ exposure. It does this by taking into account dark and light areas and averaging them out. Unfortunately, metering systems are easily fooled by bright or dark cars filling the frame, by patchy lighting or even illumintated car headlamps. For example, you’ll often find that photos of light cars are slightly underexposed and dark cars are overexposed, as your camera will try to ‘correct’ the exposure. Bless it.
Thankfully, there’s a really easy control that you can use to fix this – exposure compensation. This is usually applied by holding down the corresponding button (on some cameras it looks like a +- symbol) and turning the camera’s control wheel. On other cameras there’s a dedicated button with a range from +3 to -3 on it, or similar. You either add exposure (+ symbol) or remove exposure (- symbol) to adjust the image.
At first this will involve taking a shot, realising it’s wrong and then taking another one with it fixed. However, with experience you’ll soon be able to predict how your camera will see the scene before shooting, and be able to compensate accordingly. Some cameras, such as mirrorless models, will allow you to see the exposure before you shoot, which is handy.
And then there’s manual mode. There are a lot of myths surrounding the use of manual – most involve the notion that pros only use the mode, and it’s what you should be aspiring to. This is utter crap, by the way – pros use the mode that will give them the results they want. Most will use aperture and shutter priority mode except when using flash, or when aiming for consistency over several frames.
Manual mode involves you choosing everything yourself. You’re on your own, and if your exposure is way off the mark then it’s up to you to fix it. It isn’t as daunting as it sounds, however, and if the light isn’t changing then manual mode can be a good way to avoid any exposure mistakes.
With your mode selected it’s best to understand how an image is exposed next. There are three factors that determine an exposure – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It’s important to understand that all three are linked – change one and you affect the others. Finding a good exposure, and the type of image that you want to capture is about balancing all three.The Exposure Triangle
The aperture is quite literally the opening inside the lens that allows light to reach the sensor (or film). It comprises of several blades that move, creating a larger or smaller opening. The bigger the opening, the more light enters. Easy. However, the aperture has another effect on the image too, however; it also alters the depth-of-field – i.e how much is in focus. This can have a dramatic effect on how your image looks.
Lenses are branded with the maximum aperture that they offer. Generally speaking, the larger the maximum aperture, the more expensive the lens. The benefit here is that you can shoot those lovely images with a soft background and lots of separation between your subject and the world around them. However, just because you’ve spent all that money on an f/1.4 lens doesn’t mean you have to shoot at f/1.4 all the time. Why? Well, most lenses tend to get sharper around f/8, and the more stops that f/8 is away from your lens’s maximum aperture, the better. So you might find that an f/1.4 lens is sharper at f/8 than an f/5.6 lens is at f/8.
Confusingly, depth-of-field is also affected by focal length. The longer the focal length of the lens you’re using, the shallower the apparent depth-of-field. So, shoot a car at f/4 on a 200mm lens and the background will be more blurred than if you shot at f/4 on a 24mm lens.
There’s a simple rule that I was taught many years ago: f/8 and be there. This phrase essentially means that you can sidestep a lot of the technical complications of photography by selecting an aperture of f/8 and just being in the right place – at f/8 most subjects will be in acceptable focus front-to-back. Generally speaking, I try to be between f/5.6 and f/9 for a generic three-quarter angle static, or I’ll stop down (use a wider aperture) a bit more if I want the image a bit more stylised.
For side-on profile shots, and head- or tail-on shots, I find that you can stop down a bit more as there’s less ‘depth’ visible in the car. Generally, around f/4 works nicely here.
For close-up details, interior or exterior, I like the look offered by a wider aperture, as you can use the depth-of-field to choose exactly where your viewer looks. The above was shot at f/2.8 and there’s nice depth-of-field fall off. Between f/2 and f/4 is pretty sweet.
For wide interiors I’ll shoot between f/8 and f/11 – this not only gets the whole of the interior sharp, but also the scenery through the windows. Because aperture and shutter speed is inherently linked, you’ll find interiors shot at smaller apertures like this will require longer exposure times, or flash, to light them sufficiently.
The shutter speed that you, or the camera, chooses dictates how long the sensor (or film) is exposed to the light coming through the lens. It’s measured in fractions of a second, so 1/8000sec is a very fast exposure, whereas 1/2sec is a long exposure. Your camera will usually offer exposures up to 30 seconds long. Anything over this you’ll need to use the ‘bulb’ mode – this is done with a remote shutter release and involves you basically telling the shutter when to open and close, and timing the gap between. In truth, you’ll really only use this when shooting cars if you’re light painting (more on this to come in the future).
The shutter speed that you choose also dictates how much motion is recorded, both in the car you’re shooting and any camera movement too. If you’re shooting from a tripod and the car is static then you can use as slow a shutter speed you like, as neither camera nor car is moving. However, if you’re shooting handheld then there are some considerations.
Generally, you want the car sharp, so camera blur isn’t desired (the exception is panning, which we’ll get to). A good rule of thumb is to make sure that your shutter speed is at least equal to your lens’s focal length. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens then try to make sure that your shutter speed is at least 1/200sec. For a 50mm lens, stick to 1/50sec or faster. If your lens and/or camera has image stabilisation then you can push this a bit further, but in the name of sharpness it’s best to err on the side of caution.
When shooting moving cars, then using a slower shutter speed is a great way to make your images more dynamic, and to show motion. This is achieved by ‘panning’ the camera to follow the car, keeping the car in the same place in the frame throughout the exposure. We’ll cover panning in more detail later in the guide series.
So, what about ISO? The name ISO comes from the days of film, and refers to the sensitivity of the film to light. In digital terms it’s much the same.
Increasing the ISO will make the image sensor more sensitive to light. This is great news, right? More sensitive means we don’t need to use slow shutter speeds to record the light? Yes, and no. The higher you increase the sensitivity, the more ‘noise’ is introduced to the image, and the lower the image quality. Each camera has a ‘base ISO’ – this is the ISO setting at which the camera will produce its best image quality. Where possible, and where the light and conditions allow for it, sticking as close to this will produce the best-quality images possible. However, you can’t always shoot at ISO 100 – as light levels drop, the ISO needs to come up in order to create a good exposure.
There are some general rules to follow with ISO. Firstly, don’t rely on auto ISO all the time. If your camera is looking at a black car then it might mistake this large dark area for low light, and use a higher ISO when it’s not needed. As a rule of thumb, ISO 100 is ideal for outdoors in full sun, ISO 200 for outdoors on overcast days, ISO 400 for dark, cloudy days, ISO 800 for low light and indoors, and any ISO above this for night or dark interiors.
However, there are times when you might use a higher or lower ISO than the conditions call for in order to get a specific type of shot. For example, when shooting cars on track and trying to freeze a moment of action, I might choose ISO 400 on a sunny day because this will allow me to use a faster shutter speed. Make sense?
Another vital piece of advice is that if you’re not using a tripod then a higher ISO can also be used to avoid camera shake. I’d say it’s always best to capture a sharp shot with a bit more noise in it than a blurry shot that’s noise-free, so if you’re recording camera shake then increase the ISO a bit.
As mentioned earlier, aperture, shutter speed and ISO are all linked. You can record the exact same exposure at a wide aperture, fast shutter speed and low ISO as you can at a narrow aperture, really slow shutter speed and low ISO, but the images will look very different. Photography involves balancing your priorities for the image and choosing settings to suit. Ask yourself, is it more important that the shot has a shallow depth of field, or is it more important to add some motion blur? Is freezing a moment important for the next shot, and can you sacrifice image quality a bit to achieve it? You’re essentially spinning plates all the time, but with experience comes the ability to make these calls and adjustments very quickly without much thought at all.We’re Not Quite Done Yet…
Whilst aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three pillars of making an exposure, there are a couple more factors to consider too. White balance is a big one when shooting in colour. Different light sources, as well as atmospheric conditions, have different ‘temperatures’ of light to them – you’ll already know this as you know that sunrise and sunset are more golden (i.e ‘warmer’) than the middle of the day. However, your camera doesn’t know whether it’s seeing yellow because it’s sunset, or because it’s a yellow car, so it needs to know what the ‘base’ setting is for white balance.
Your camera will have an automatic white balance mode that’s easily fooled, especially by strongly-coloured cars (again, yellow cars can make the image look too ‘cold’ and blue), so it’s best to set your white balance according to the conditions. As a rule, I tend to leave my camera on ‘Daylight WB’, as I find that the ‘Cloudy’ and ‘Shade’ settings make things a bit too warm. However, you can actually boost the warmth in a sunset by using these settings. The other thing to note is that if you shoot in RAW you can change your white balance at any time during processing. If you shoot in JPEG, then you’ve far less scope to play with.
Focusing is important, right?
First things first – change your camera to single-point autofocus; this allows you to select the exact point that you want to focus on. When shooting a car as a whole, I’ll almost always focus on the front number plate, if it has one, or farthest headlamp if it doesn’t. When combined with the right aperture this should render the whole car sharp.
When checking for sharpness, I’ll always zoom in on the number plate, or that area of the car, first. For static cars, single-shot AF allows you to focus once, and then recompose the shot; as the car isn’t moving the focus distance won’t change. For moving cars, select continuous autofocus – this will track the distance of the car (providing you keep the focus point on it and the shutter button half-held down) and continuously adjust until you take the shot.
In terms of file format, only ever shoot in JPEG if you’re running desperately short on card space and need to maximise the number of images you’ll fit on it. Otherwise you’re just wasting precious image quality and data. RAW files essentially contain all the raw data from the camera, and allow for additional manipulation when editing. JPEGs on the other hand have much of this data compressed and/or discarded. Therefore, always choose RAW if you can; it’s not only a safety net for colour and exposure, but will offer far more scope for adjustment when editing whilst preserving image quality, whereas a JPEG file will begin to deteriorate in quality the moment that you start to edit it.
Some people mistake shooting in RAW as a ‘professional’ thing to do, but in reality it’s much easier and more forgiving to shoot in RAW than in JPEG.
You made it to the end? And you’re still awake?! Thankfully that ticks most of the basics off. The technical side of things is also something that just clicks (puns ahoy) once you shoot more and more. So try and take in how it all works, but don’t get too tied up in the technicalities. As always, time spent shooting will teach you more than time studying.
Next up in the guide we’ll look at shooting cars using natural light.