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Tips For Photographing Old Cars

Every now and again I find myself photographing lots of old cars, like during my trip to Cuba or at a classic car event. Vintage vehicles are so much fun to look at, colorful and nostalgic with interesting details, but tricky to photograph. Reflective, shiny surfaces are everywhere and backgrounds and foregrounds tend to be cluttered.

Here are a few tips of things to consider that have worked for me:

The Frame

  1. Carefully frame and simplify your composition. Always look at the background first. If it is cluttered with lots of people, buildings, other cars, objects, or unnecessary poles and signs, look for a perspective that reduces the clutter.
  2. If you are out walking in a city or rural environment, not at a car show, look for a background that reflects the place you are visiting and that tells a story. Include people walking by or leaning against the car. Show the faces of the driver and passengers.
  3. If you find an excellent background but no cars, wait for the right car, or person and car combination, to appear and then make your photograph. In Cuba I even waited for a specific color of car that would contrast with the background nicely.
  4. If people detract from your photograph, be patient and wait for them to move. Always check carefully for people. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten home, looked at my images on the computer, and found unwanted reflections of people in the window glass, (including my reflection) that I had not seen when taking the picture, or an arm and shoulder visible in the window of one of the last cars in a line-up of cars.
  5. Use your creative tools to reduce clutter. Adjust your depth of field so that the background or foreground blurs out. Create a high key image, over-exposing highlights and blowing out the cluttered background.
  6. If you cannot find a way to decrease clutter, clone and crop the clutter away in processing. Consider how to compose the photograph before you shoot, so that your cropping and cloning goals can be easily accomplished without jeopardizing your composition.

The Light

  1. Walk around the car you are photographing and carefully look at the direction and quality of the light and how it impacts your subject. Pre-visualize how you want your subject to appear in your photograph and make a conscious decision of where you need to stand to achieve that result.
  2. Bring a polarizer filter and use it when possible to minimize reflections. Polarizers work best at maximum effect, when your line of sight is perpendicular (90 degree angle) to the direction of the sun.
  3. Incorporate reflections into your composition. For example cloud formations reflected on the hood of a car make an interesting foreground or background to a photograph of a hood ornament.
  4. Photograph early or late, when there should be fewer people around and the quality of the light is usually nicer. It is also a great time to do street photography, if you are walking around a city.
  5. Be wary of intense hot spots from the sun reflecting off the car. Try changing your perspective to eliminate such spots or wait for the clouds to move and cover the sun.

Become The Artist You Have Always Wanted to Be

  1. There is nothing better than a classic car to get your creative juices flowing. Don’t just point and shoot, relying on the beauty of the car itself to make a pretty image. Think about the tools you have at your fingertips to really make a photograph.
  2. Use a wide-angle or fish-eye lens at interesting angles. Shoot really, really low for fun perspectives. I usually shoot between the equivalent of a 15 mm lens and a 37 mm lens. 
  3. Use close-focusing, macro and medium telephoto lens to photograph details such as hood ornaments, horns, wheels, logos, or interior shots, or to get more intimate images of the driver or passengers. Look for abstract designs in the patina of the car’s surface. I love using my Fuji 16 mm f/1.4 lens, which is the equivalent of a 24 mm lens, because it focuses within inches of my subject and is so fast that I can be creative with my depth of field.
  4. Move around and try lots of different perspectives and viewing angles. Keep changing your distances from the cars.
  5. If the car is moving, pan to blur the background. See my previous article on using shutter speed to creatively blur your image for more information on panning. Otherwise shoot at a very fast shutter speed. I usually shoot between 1/1000 and 1/2000, depending on the speed of the vehicle.  
  6. Use depth of field as a creative tool. If you are new to photography, controlling depth of field means that you decide how much of your image is sharp and how much is blurred by adjusting your aperture. The smaller your aperture (larger f-stop number) the greater the area of focus in your image. The bigger your aperture (smaller f-stop number) the smaller the area of focus. The depth of field also depends on the lens you are using. A short lens opened to f/5.6 has a greater range of focus than a telephoto lens set to f/5.6. Experiment with different apertures and different focus points.
  7. Don’t forget your tripod or monopod on a dull day, or when you are shooting very early or very late. Slower shutter speeds may be necessary since there will be less light, and it is important to keep the subject of your photograph sharp, unless your intention is for a blur.
  8. Have fun processing the image. HDR software such as Aurora HDR 2018 or Photomatix work great on old car photos, even with just one image and no bracketed shots. Convert to black and white for a vintage feel. I enjoy using the vintage black and white preset which is offered free in a starter package at sleeklens.com. Tonality by Macphun also provides excellent black and white presets and tools.    

This article is about cars. Of course most of these points apply in general to any photos you are taking. Frame and compose your subject carefully. Always consider the direction and quality of light. Be the artist you have always wanted to be.

What’s in My Camera Bag

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