Mark Houlahan
Tech Editor, Mustang Monthly
January 18, 2018

There are no doubt tens of thousands of great looking classic Mustangs in garages and driveways all over the world. We love to see and read about every one of them, and when we can, share them with our readers via Readers’ Album and sometimes as full-fledged car features in Mustang Monthly magazine and on our website, Mustang-360.com. We love to share these images because we know our readers and followers enjoy seeing them. People get ideas for their builds via these photos. Often an image will confirm their wheel choice or paint color ideas because a photo we’ve published/posted has just the wheels, interior, or color they’ve been considering and can validate how good it looks.

The problem, however, that often prevents us from sharing your great stories is the inclusion of subpar photos. We’ve seen everything from postage stamp–sized low-res images to parts of the car cut off of the photo frame, and even worse things like the photographer’s shadow splayed out across the car or a digital camera date stamp in the lower corner. All of these issues can easily be remedied with some forethought, planning, and a little photography education. Heeding the instructions and tips that follow will help you to create better automotive photography for your club’s newsletter, website, personal collection, or even a submission to our magazine.

Let’s start with an example of good intentions gone wrong. This image has the proper angle and the car is composed well. It’s an overcast day so there aren’t any shadows either, but the car was photographed on grass and at a car show. If they had simply taken the car to an area with a better background it would have been perfect.
Here’s another example of a well-intentioned photo gone wrong. While the overcast day helped with the blue topcoat, and it was photographed on asphalt, the tree in the background, the parking lot stripe, and the hood “popped” all say, “nice try, but you’re not going to make the cut.”

Camera Equipment
First off, don’t feel you need to have a pro-level digital SLR camera with an image-stabilizing lens. You’re not shooting on the sidelines of the Super Bowl; you’re photographing a large, static image. Your typical point-and-shoot can get the job done, though a pro-sumer level Canon or Nikon camera outfit does offer more flexibility with interchangeable lenses and higher-end camera features. That said, today’s higher-end smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the iPhone X, have incredible image sensors and software that create some pretty-darn-nice photos if you know what you’re doing.

Manual settings are available on most any camera, including the aforementioned smartphones, so don’t be afraid to use them and experiment with shutter speed, aperture settings, ISO settings, and more. Of course, if you have no clue what we’re talking about start with the manual and read what all the settings/knobs do on your camera. Next, make Google your friend and search your camera’s model number for tips and tricks, or even a YouTube video on how to get the most from your particular camera model. If you’re really intrigued, look into your local college or art programs for photography classes. Who knows, you might end up with a second career photographing weddings or something!

Besides the camera (and lenses if separate), having a reflector and a diffuser of some sort will help with dark spots (like an inset grille) or to tone down harsh lighting. A reflector can be made easily with some cardboard and aluminum foil. A large, white foam core board will work as well, or build an easy-to-assemble PVC frame that you can attach a simple, cheap white bedsheet to. You can also use the bedsheet to cover the windows when taking interior photos where the background through the windows is distracting. It’ll look like a white studio-type photo. Try it!

A solid fence or high shrub line can be a good background. As we stated in our story though be sure it complements the vehicle’s color. You don’t want to photograph a dark green Mustang against a lush green hedge row for example.
Here’s the same car, photographed from the rear. The angle is good and the background is a non-descript grassy hill. If need be the sky/fencing can be cropped out, but as is it is usable.

Your Subject
Photographing a car is a bit different subject matter than, say, a human being. For one thing it is much, much larger, so you really have to take your background into consideration. It’s also not easy to manipulate/move for different angles. Unlike a model, who would move for the photographer, you as the photographer need to move around the car. Having something 16-feet long (or longer) in front of your camera means finding a suitable background is a lot tougher than you may think. First and foremost, photograph your vehicle on pavement or gravel when at all possible. Cars don’t drive on grass, they drive on roads, so shoot them in their natural element. Stay away from parking lots or any other surface that has painted lines that will interfere with the car’s natural lines unless you shoot very low (like, literally lying on the ground with your camera). Often an under-construction housing development or a cul-de-sac will work. An old country road, be it paved or gravel, is another option. Sometimes we’ve used the top of a parking structure as well, but again, be aware of the parking spot lines.

Once you think you’ve found a suitable location for your photos, your next step is going to be placement. Always, always, always have the sun at your back, and plan to take your photos at sunup or just before sundown. These are the “golden hours” when the sun is low on the horizon. You don’t want to take your photos at high noon with harsh shadows from things like door handles and sideview mirrors all over the side of your work. That said, be cognizant of your own shadow and the shadow of any poles, buildings, or other structures that might come across your subject matter.

The last thing to consider is the background behind your subject vehicle. With the right surface, the proper time of day, and so forth, you can still “screw the pooch” by having an ugly and disturbing background. Stay away from light poles and trees that appear to “grow” out of the car. Ensure you have a clean, uncluttered background that complements and contrasts with the color of your subject. For example, don’t shoot a red Mustang against a red-stained fence. A red car against a large green hedge row is a much better option in that instance. Sure, some things can be fixed in Photoshop, but the cleaner the original image the better and the less corrective work that will need to be done in the “digital darkroom” by us.

Tossing a little angle into your photo is always a great trick. You want to angle the side of the image frame down to give the final result the up-angle you’re looking for. In other words, make the car drive uphill, not downhill.
Of course you can go too far with the angle too. Some like the extreme angle and some don’t. But like we said previously, in a digital world it’s OK to take 300 photos and try different things.

Preparing the Shot
So, you’ve found the perfect spot (and have asked for any permission that may be required), you’re up bright and early, you have all your gear charged up, and the background is complementary and clean. Now what? Hold on to that shutter button for just a few more minutes, because we need to discuss properly “staging” the car for your photos as well. By staging we mean prepping the car for said photos. For example, you know how tire dressing leaves that “arc” on the ground at each tire you spray? You don’t want that in your photo, so prep the tires at a different location, either just off camera, or even before you leave the house if the drive isn’t too far. Check the area for small branches, leaves, rocks, weeds, and trash, and clean the area. You don’t want an errant fast-food wrapper in your background.

For the car itself check and ensure the car isn’t missing any lug nuts or trim pieces (preferably far in advance of your shoot so the items can be replaced in time). If the car was recently waxed or detailed verify there isn’t any wax residue still on the paint surfaces. If you’re going to photograph at dusk or early morning with the car’s lights on make sure they work and that a taillight or headlight isn’t burned out beforehand. When photographing the interior you want clean carpets and floor mats. Bring a brush or hand vac with you. The interior should look showroom fresh with the steering wheel straight, no keys dangling in the ignition, nothing hanging from the rear view mirror, and so on.

Taking photos of a car’s details can be a great addition to the main photography. While the background isn’t critical because you’re going to be shooting tight on the detail, you do have to be aware of the reflection in the detail, as it can ruin a good image. Something like this Mustang’s shaved drip rails is an interesting detail to photograph, but having the reflection of a building, trees, a car, and so on in the B-pillar and door glass ruins it. Use a reflector or large sheet to block these reflections.
When it comes to engine compartments they can be black holes. We always use a tripod and an extended exposure time to allow more natural light into the image. Again, experiment with different angles (straight, low, high, from the corner of the fender, etc.), but be aware of the other side of the car. In this example you can see a wheel of another car parked next to this car. Also note the chrome in the engine bay has a red-tinted reflection. Chrome is like a mirror. Use a reflector or bedsheet to eliminate the reflection.

Taking That Money Shot
OK, you’ve got the perfect location, the sun is spot on, and you’ve got the car all cleaned up and in position. Now what? Now is when you make the magic happen. The worst thing you can do is just stand there and click off a shot all “willy-nilly” style. You need to compose your shot. If you’re planning to take multiple pictures (front, rear, interior, details—please do), then be sure to create a shot list. At a minimum you want that perfect front three-quarter view, where you get the side and the nose of the car at an angle. You can do the same angle but from the rear, which requires turning the car around. Don’t be lazy and walk to the other side of the car, the sun will be wrong, your background will be wrong, etc. Then add in interior photos, engine compartment photos, possibly trunk photos, and of course details like emblems, trim, wheels, and more. Putting it into a list ensures you don’t forget that one shot you really wanted.

Remember that your own body has joints, so use them. Kneel down with the camera or even lie on the ground for that perfect “worm’s-eye view” of the car. Bring a small ladder, milk crate, or other item to stand on. Just getting a couple of feet in the air makes for an interesting exterior shot as well. Tilting the camera so that the nose of the car is higher than the rear makes for a great shot too. Remember, to do this you need to tilt the camera DOWN on that side of the image frame that the nose of the car is on! For interior shots and engine bay shots find a large shady tree, parking structure, or other location with even shading so that you don’t have shadows or hot spots of light in the image. For interior and engine photos we recommend a tripod with a longer exposure. This allows more natural light into the image without using a flash.

Experiment and try different angles, heights, and more. Remember, digital images can just be dragged to the trash can if you don’t like them. It’s not like the old film days with the expense of developing the film or slides. We’ll often take hundreds of images to get just what we need for a feature shoot project. Most importantly, remember that the car is the star. Keep it in focus, keep it in frame, and shoot on your highest settings possible. You never know when you might want that image as a huge wall poster!

Now look at the air cleaner in this engine bay shot. While we didn’t use a reflector or a large white sheet, the neutral white paint reflection in the chrome shows what we were referring to in the previous photo. Use some clothespins to cover the underside of the hood with a sheet or reflector and you’ll have a nice, evenly lit photo with no body-colored or dark reflections in the engine chrome.
Interiors don’t have to be tricky, but here we recommend a tripod and extended exposure as well. Many vehicles have dark interiors, so you have to come to a compromise with your exposure. Get it light enough to see into the “dungeon” that is the passenger-side floorboard and the rest of the interior will be overexposed.

Saving Your Images
With today’s image sensors a high-res photo can get fairly large, taking up a lot of room on your phone or camera’s memory card. Transferring those images to your computer for storage/archiving is your best bet. With a smartphone you can either use the phone’s transfer cable or a software program to transfer them via Wi-Fi. One of our favorites is WeTransfer. They have both an iOS and Android app you can install on your phone to easily transfer images. For your DSLR or other stand-alone camera you can simply remove the memory card and use a card reader to transfer the images (many cameras come with transfer cables as well, but pulling directly from the card is always faster). Once you have the images on your computer, and if you would like to email them to us for a reader’s submission, ensure your email program sends the photos at full resolution and does not reduce their quality/file size any.

Interiors don’t have to be tricky, but here we recommend a tripod and extended exposure as well. Many vehicles have dark interiors, so you have to come to a compromise with your exposure. Get it light enough to see into the “dungeon” that is the passenger-side floorboard and the rest of the interior will be overexposed.
Detail photos can be a great point for interiors as well. Light the detail from opposite your camera angle or use natural light in a shaded area to prevent harsh shadows across seats, etc.
While not everyone has a show-ready trunk, if you do be sure to snap a few photos of it as well. A well-detailed trunk, especially if it has audio components (a nitrous bottle, etc.), is a great edition to a photo shoot. All the same rules apply to photographing a trunk as an interior or engine bay.

10 Tips for Better Photos
• All images should be well composed, well lit, in focus, and the image should not have any of the car “cut off.”
• There should not be other cars in the shot, unless you’re taking a group image of cars owned by the same person/family. Do not take a picture on a show field full of other cars.
• Try shooting from different vantage points in addition to eye level. Got a pickup truck? Stand in the bed for a different photo angle. Try shooting at twilight or sunrise for a more dramatic effect.
• If you turn the front tires (and you should!), don't aim the tire tread's face at the camera—show us the face of the wheel.
• Try using a reflector to bounce sunlight into the grille or lower valance area to brighten the spot without making the whole car overexposed. Lots of different things can be used as a reflector.
• Use a tripod to steady your camera. If you don’t have a tripod, you can rest the camera on the ground and use small Ziploc bags filled with rice to steady the camera and help position it for the shot.
• If you don’t know how to color-correct or adjust a digital image in either the camera’s software package or something like Photoshop, it is best to leave it alone. You can take a decent image and flat-out ruin it if you don’t know how to use the software.
• Engine bay have a lot of chrome in it? If so you’ll often get reflections of the underside of the hood. To create a cleaner image use a plain white sheet under the hood and clamped to the edges to make the chrome bits pop without any color saturation in the reflections.
• Experiment with different exposure settings, ISO settings, and shutter speeds. Really slow shutter speeds will require a tripod, or remote trigger, but you can get some interesting images from these tricks.
• Bring friends with you to help position reflectors, hold flashes, direct traffic, move extraneous debris, and to help you position the car. Extra friends/vehicles will help if you decide to try your hand at car-to-car motion photography too (that’s a whole ’nother conversation for sure!)