Collection of questions concerning creatively capturing cars with a camera?
January 24, 2012 6:06 AM   Subscribe

I am a novice photographer who would like to improve my skills at photographing vintage cars primarily outdoors in natural light. I am looking to replace my old Nikon D50 and 18-55mm lens with a Nikon D3300. What would be the must-have lenses, filters and accessories for my task? Also best camera settings? Also interested in tricks for getting compelling images. Close up? High angle? Low angle? Just experiment?

I have Photoshop and am pretty decent at post-production touch up and stuff. I know Photoshop can play a big role in great photos, but I want to start by capturing the best image. This is not a professional thing, I am just lucky enough to come across some sweet British motors on a regular basis and want to capture some nice images for myself.
posted by punkfloyd to Media & Arts (17 answers total)
Honestly, if I were you, I'd try to improve my photography skills with my current camera instead of upgrading right away. As you've probably heard, it's not the camera that takes good pictures, it's the photographer. I'm a beginning photographer myself and it is hard to resist the urge to buy equipment that I think is going to make me a better photographer when what it really takes is knowledge and experience. Good thing I'm on a tight budget...

The Nikon D50 is a solid DSLR, and you can do quite a bit with the kit lens, especially if you add an extension tube or close-up filter. That would help you with car detail no matter what the lighting.

Look for a course in photography at your local community college, or see if there is a photo club or meetup group nearby. Don't be afraid to ask questions; I pick a new brain every time my photo club meets.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:15 AM on January 24, 2012

Work on the fundamentals of photography before you do anything else. It will help you immensely to understand exactly what ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focal length, will do to your pictures and be able to use their differences as second nature. Spend a day photographing only at 18mm; spend another day photographing only at 55mm. Spend a day photographing only at f/2.8 (or whatever your lowest is); spend another day only photographing above f/16. And think about what different quality of light will use. A bright sunny day at noon is different from an overcast day at noon is different from a partly cloudy day at 5pm is different from the golden hour, etc. And always pay attention to what's in the backgrounds of your pictures.

Then look at every single picture you can find of whatever it is you want to photograph. The photobook section of a big bookstore is a good start, depending on the topic. Or look at flickr and focus on their "interestingness" metric. Here's a search for vintage cars sorted by interestingness. Look and look and look and look some more. Think about what needs to be done to take those pictures. You'll see some things that you won't be able to do straight off, including fancy lighting techniques or over-the-top photoshop work. But, you can still think about composition techniques, where the person was standing in relation to the subject, how their shutter speed and aperture were set, and what focal length they were using.

For instance, look at this picture and think about what went into making it look like that. It was a short lens (probably around a 24mm at full-35mm-sensor size; reading the info, it was a 17-35mm on a Rebel, which probably turns out to be a 22mm or so on the wide end). That makes the front appear really big and lets the background recede far into the backgroun. The photographer was low to the ground and close to the car. That puts the car above the horizon and emphasizes its angles. It was a pretty cloudy day, either early or late in the day. That gives a moody look to the light and nice clouds in the sky behind.

Do that exercise for every picture you come across that you like and then try to recreate those images.
posted by msbrauer at 6:30 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Currer Belfry is correct, of course. Improve your skills. The D50 isn't the limitation you think it is. Search for "photographing automobiles" and you'll get tons of good sites with hints, such as this one.
posted by blob at 6:31 AM on January 24, 2012

Best answer: I agree with Currer Belfry that the D50 is a great camera. So is the 3300. I think the main advantage of the 3300 would be that the higher pixel count gives you more freedom in cropping, which may not be that big a deal for the type of photos you take. You won't be handicapped by keeping the D50, but I would also never talk anyone out of getting a new toy!

Compelling images will come through experimentation. I will give you one lens recommendation: The Nikon 35mm 1.8 prime. It's light and lovely and is great for shallow depth of field.

Here is an album of photos I shot at a car show. I wanted to shoot details. Many of them are shot with the 35mm 1.8 lens, allowing me to achieve very shallow depth of field.
posted by The Deej at 6:32 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I don't know much about photography, but I like looking at cars.) I also like the idea of photographing details. Also lines, shapes, patina, groups of items, that kind of stuff.

Hemmings Blog and Hooniverse, among other car-nerd sites, sometimes post photos that might be inspiring.
posted by box at 7:04 AM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: Should have added that I am replacing my D50 because it no longer lets me adjust shutter speed, etc. The roller knob thingy seemed to stop working after 5 years of knocking the camera around.
posted by punkfloyd at 7:08 AM on January 24, 2012

A circular polarizer is a must for cutting glare. Since you're planning to photograph a lot of shiny automobiles I would consider this essential gear.
posted by komara at 7:11 AM on January 24, 2012

Searching Google for "polarizing filter car photography" gave me this link which covers just about everything you've asked, I think.
posted by komara at 7:13 AM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: I once heard that polarizing filters don't work well on digital SLRs. Is that true?
posted by punkfloyd at 7:17 AM on January 24, 2012

Oh wait... are you meaning the D3100? I don't see a D3300 as existing.

If so, that is a fine camera, but you might want to look into the D5000 instead. The D5000 is discounted since it's been replaced by the D5100. The D5000 has has less megapixels than the 3100, but has a better sensor and does much better in low light. (I have a D5000 and my wife has the D3100 so I'm very familiar with both of them.)
posted by The Deej at 7:19 AM on January 24, 2012

punkfloyd: I've used CPLs on several of my lenses and camera bodies over the years and had no problems. I've never heard about incompatibility between CPLs and DSLRs.
posted by komara at 7:46 AM on January 24, 2012

Best answer: Close up? High angle? Low angle? Just experiment?

Something I've noticed with my own car, not sure how universal it is though - the lines of the body were very clearly designed in orthographic plan/front/side. If you take a photograph that approximates those angles, the body leaps out as absolutely striking, while photos angled closer to, for example, isographic, look like a lumpy bloated bleugh.

To approximate an orthographic perspective (or more correctly, lack of perspective) you want to be far away and use zoom, and often be fairly low (eg waist height). In my case, square-on isn't necessary so long as you're low.

The above is for full-car shots. Doing the opposite works too - get really close, really low to ground, maximize perspective, too close to get the entire car in shot, etc.

But doing middle-of-road worst-of-both-worlds shots (eg full-car shots taken too close by being zoomed out, etc) seems pretty hard to get good shots - the perspective subtly distorts the proportions, it just looks off.

(I feel that surely a truly great designer would have designed a car to be viewed from eye height rather than perspectiveless, but I haven't looked into whether such a car exists.)

Another interesting thing to do - use a tripod and a polarising filter. Take a short exposure of the body exterior, then without moving the camera a long exposure to get the interior through the window, and combine them in photoshop so you get enough dynamic range to see the interior. Use the filter to cut down glass reflection for the interior shot.

(The filter would probably also be useful for controlling the highlights reflecting off the body.)

Take a look at car photos that look great and pay attention to the reflections in the bodywork. (Assuming the vintage cars are gloss paint rather than matte). A fair bit of effort goes into making cars look good by reflecting lights off the body. I'm sure there are tricks that can be learned and used even when you can't control the lighting, just the shot angle.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:11 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great responses so far. To prove how lacking my skills are, this is the best I could do with a 1965 Jaguar E-Type...a car that is almost impossible take a bad picture of!
posted by punkfloyd at 8:20 AM on January 24, 2012

Also, watch out for what I think of as lost lines - when you look at a car, you can see its lines because your brain knows the shape of the car, but a lot of the time, a defining curve (which you have no trouble seeing) will disappear in a photo by lacking any contrast with the bodywork around it, and the car will look off because when all a viewer has to look at is a photo, your brain can't fill in those gaps hard-to-see shapes like it does when you've just been walking around the car with 3d vision. Again, reflections off panels are a way to make important body curves stand out from their identically-painting surrounds
posted by -harlequin- at 8:25 AM on January 24, 2012

Looking at your example reminds me of something else - the ground in that shot is almost as light/bright as the sky, so there is very little contrast in the reflections on the panels, making them look matte and dull (you can barely see the horizon in the reflection). Ground colour, by the same token affects paint colour. A white ground can make a darker colour really pop (or a red look pink?), a black ground can make a murky colour murkier... or it can create great contrast with the sky in the horizon reflected in the panels. Or both.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2012

If I ever shift to car photography (which is unlikely, but stranger things have happened) I'm going to come back and re-read -harlequin-'s words here because he or she obviously has put a lot of thought into this particular type of shooting.

punkfloyd: the thing that immediately stands out to me in the photo of yours that you showed us is the bumper being slightly cropped out. If you want to include the whole car in an image you absolutely gotta include the whole car. If you want to make it a detail shot, make sure it's a detail shot. I'm not well-versed enough to comment on the angle at which it was shot, or the lines you did and didn't capture, but that one little bit of the bumper being out is breaking it.
posted by komara at 9:37 AM on January 24, 2012

think about editing as well, not spending hours in photoshop but editing your collection. practice picking out your favorite photo from 100 photos. your favorite view from the 10 you shot, and your favorite of the dozens you took from that view. delete most of your photos. all things independent of your equipment, and extremely important.

there is also the question of picking the best photo vs. what your favorite is...sometimes for me professionally my favorite one isn't the one I need for the project or product i'm working with. learn to tell the difference.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:58 AM on January 24, 2012

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