How to shoot better auto photographs - UPDATED 11-15-02 - BMW M5 Forum and M6 Forums
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post #1 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 08:48 PM Thread Starter
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OT: How to shoot better photographs (long)

I edited this post 11-12-02. Half of the images were hosted at a site that doesn't exist any more - so I put them somewhere else. Truth is I am not at all sure I used the same examples for some of these as I had in the original.

It is all about light, focus, distance distortion, and composition.

1) Light is all important. As a rule, bright sunlight is almost always bad. There are exceptions, but cameras (digital or film) can't cope with big differences in brightness nearly as well as the human eye. Overcast days are excellent - especially for photographing people. Light cars show well then too. Even fog can be very dramatic:

The darker the car, the more reflections you get. On a black car, the photo is ALL ABOUT the reflections.

The following example shows this taken to an extreme, by shooting the black car at night:

Learn to "see" the reflections and overall shapes - not the car itself. Natural reflected light will be most dramatic in the "golden hours" which are the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset.

2) Focus carefully, and understand "depth of field". The surface of the car may be 1 foot from your lens, while the reflection may be 10 feet behind it. The focal length for a sharply focused reflection will be 11 feet. If you really want to focus on the car itself (to show swirls, orange peel or a logo for example) focus the camera at 1 foot. (Most cameras have manual focus capability.) If you want everything sharp, you have to compromise. Focus the camera at about 3 feet, and use the manual exposure mode to set the "aperture" to as small an opening as possible. Lens openings get smaller as the "f" number goes up - so f22 gets you the smallest opening and hence the greatest "depth of field." By contrast, f2 is a very "wide" opening wilh little depth of field. Good to know if you intentionally want to blur the background, as in a portrait. Note that the proper exposure is a combination of lens opening and shutter speed. The smaller the opening, the longer the shutter has to be open. So - for a shot at f22, you better have a REAL steady hand, or use a tripod.

This picture was shot at F2.8 - notice the blurred background:

this picture was shot at F11 - to get the logo and background sharper. If this camera had an F22 setting I would have used it.

3) Distance Distortion is a term I just made up to describe the following phenomenon. Wide angle lenses tend to make the closest object the only center of attention, and everything else gets real small, real fast as its distance from the lens increases. You can get a dramatic effect by getting very close to an object with a wide angle lens. For this shot, I really wanted to emphasize the "F40" embossed in the spoiler. No other composition could have done that while still showing the car in a recognizable way:

In the shot above, notice how the rear of the car more than fills the frame on the left, but by its nose it has already gotten very small. For a shot like this, movement of an inch in any direction changes composition dramatically. Use a tripod! (also a good idea in order to support using your camera's aperture-preferred mode, to "stop the lens down" all the way for maximum depth of field.) This shot was exposed at f11.

Note that convex curves on your car do the same thing to the reflections. In this photo, I wasn't all that close but the compound curve of the car made the fence look like it went for a long way - when in fact it only went about 8 feet:

This image, by contrast, works only because was shot with a long telephoto, which makes the distant cars recognizable. Had it been shot with a wide angle lens, everything past the 2nd or 3rd car would be ridiculously tiny and look even further away. What is harder to tell from this shot is that I had to stand a LONG way from the lead car (mine) - probably 200 feet.

Here's another example of a picture that just wouldn't have worked unless shot with a very long lens, photographer a good distance from the 1st car. Makes all the cars almost the same size:

4) Composition

One of the simplest guidelines I ever learned had the most impact on my photos - so I'll pass it along here. In your mind, divide the viewfinder into 1/3's horizontally and vertically. You should be visualizing a tic-tac-toe board superimposed on the image in the viewfinder. Now - if there is a strong vertical or horizontal line (and in particular, a horizon), place it on one of these lines. Do NOT place it in the middle! If there is a particular item of interest - say, a single flower, place it at one of the intersections of these lines - again, NOT in the middle. Follow this one rule and I promise better pictures instantly. The only bad thing is that auto photography doesn't lend itself to this rule too often. Too bad. But now you know!

With cars, I have a few simple rules. 1. FILL THE FRAME. Most people shoot from to far away. 2. Vary the shooting angle vertically, not just horizontally. Many amateurs photograph everything from eye level. Boring. 3. When in doubt, get closer. Examples:

From above:

From the ground (note the ground in the foreground)


Finally, avoid distractions. The human brain is very good at ignoring stuff within the field of view that it isn't "looking at". However everything in a photo seems to be treated more evenly. I have screwed more pictures by failing to see a piece of trash, a weed, a sign, a light pole sticking up apparently right out of the sunroof. Learn to look for these.

That's about the best I can do. Go out and shoot a lot. Remember, when you see a bunch of photos from a photographer you like, you're looking at the ones he was pleased enough with to show you, not the possibly hundred he threw out! And finally, one last hint: There are exceptions to every rule. These are guidelines. They work - but they are not law.

You can find more of my pics here and on my website.

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Last edited by greg; 15th November 2002 at 06:01 PM.
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post #2 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 08:53 PM
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Thank you Greg!!!!!!:pop:

Did I ever tell you that you are my hero? Im serious!

Thanks so much!

Hopefully one of these days I can find a way to repay you for all the help that you have given me(and the board!)...

P.S. Im so interested in how Greg is a pro at everything. I would LOVE to hear his life story!


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post #3 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 10:46 PM
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Thank-you, Greg, for giving us our first lesson in photography. I've always admired the exquisite pictures in National Geographic magazine and, of course, the car magazines. But after that photo contest thread a few months ago and now this interesting lecture from you, I am very interested in learning to be a better amateur photographer. Photos can elicit such emotions from a viewer. For example, those sunset photos on your website are so serene and peaceful. And the spider-web photo reminds me of the afternoons I spent as a young'in admiring the design of a spiderweb. Makes one feel happy to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and to "sit back and smell the roses."

Just remembered I'm on a car board. I meant, "sit back and smell the exhaust fumes from shrieking engines."

P.S. How did you manage to make the camera "see" the rainbow in the British Columbia photo?
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post #4 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 10:52 PM
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Duncan said it best: Thanks Greg! Awesome post, and as usual very informative. Simple techniques that even a complete amateur like myself can make use of. I'm going to have to try the "gridlines" method now!

I don't know about Greg's life story, but I can say with certainty that in my experience, when Greg decides that he wants to get into something, he REALLY does the due diligence and does his best to master the subject, be it heel-and-toe, painting a fence, making a car model or shooting awesome photographs!


I just went through that album, some AWESOME photos in there. One that really struck me was the one on Seaport Blvd....where on Seaport where you and HOW did you manage that one?? Simply spectacular.

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post #5 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 10:59 PM
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Greg, Awesome as usual!

Question: Were all or most of these pictures taken with your new Olympus (??) digital camera? I am nearing the point where I will be investing in a new digital camera and would like some guidance. From what I have read in the mags, there are many new models now in the "over 5 megapixel" range. But, like many other things in life, the decision on which to purchase I am certain comes down to this and some other important factors??

Can you give us some guidance on which features are "gotta have" and which are just cool??



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post #6 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 11:51 PM
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great post! Is there a subject you don't know much about?

The tips are great. I've known & understood most of the tips for 15 years. But you know what? I still just snap off the pictures without thinking. I often do the rule of thirds horizontally but I keep forgetting to put the subject left or right of center. As soon as I get the pictures back, I think geesh, I could have done better.

One note. I have found the digital cameras to be great tools for learning. You immediately can see the result and if no good, poof it's gone and you try again. I just wish I could go for a Nikon D1 or similar to get the flexibility of an SLR in a digital.

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post #7 of 45 Old 21st January 2002, 11:53 PM
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By the way,

I have some pics that I took with my Olympus 3040 here: It has one gallery of outdoor pics, and two from the car show.
I would really appreciate it if you guys would take a look and vote for your favorite pictures.

Also, I have some pictures that I took on Sunday posted here: It was really bright out, and there was snow on the ground. I used the conditions to compare my Olympus digital camera to my 35mm Pentex camera. Lets just say the digital won. With the 35mm, almost all the pics came our really dark. but with the digital, they all come out near perfect! I was very impressed.

I would really appreciate any comments that you guys may have about my pics! Thanks!!

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post #8 of 45 Old 22nd January 2002, 12:23 AM Thread Starter
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I'll try to answer your questions:

Maverick asked "P.S. How did you manage to make the camera "see" the rainbow in the British Columbia photo?"

Actually, it was pretty vivid thanks to the dark sky in the background. I can't recall for sure (real pros keep records - I don't) but I might have used a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters are truly wonderful - a really great accessory. Their performance varies with the angle you're shooting at relative to the sun, but they can dramatically reduce glare AND increase contrast - particularly of the sky. You get a deep blue sky with great clouds.

Bobafett: Thanks. That is one of my favorite pictures. I dunno where- about half way down. I used to work for a company out there, and I had "seen" this beautiful building and reflection many days when I was returning to work late on a winter afternoon and the light was low. The color of the water in the salt pond varies a lot too depending upon the phase of production. So I had vowed sometime to take the picture. However this shot was taken at 1:00 in the afternoon in August - we had given my son a new camera for his birthday and he wanted to go out on a shoot. I was really surprised that the colors and contrast came out as well as they did, given the high light angle. The secret, once again, was a polarizing filter. This picture also deomnstrates the "1/3" rule - the natural tendency would have been to put the horizon in the middle of this shot - but it would have ruined it.

AndyMenard asked "Were all or most of these pictures taken with your new Olympus (??) digital camera?" yes, almost all of the pictures were taken with my present camera, which is the Olympus E10. I love it. At least one picture ("tallac_n_marsh") was shot with its predecessor - an Olympus 2500, which was also a large format SLR, but 2.5Megapixel as opposed to the E-10's 4. How much you need depends on how big you want to be able to print. 3 Megapixels is really quite enough for very good 8x10's. I have a friend with an Epson 2000 printer - which is their high-end "archival process" printer, and it can print larger formats than mine. He has printed some of my photos for me at 12"x18" - and they are still amazingly sharp. You would need a magnifying glass to see any differences between these prints and those made from a 35mm shot.

As for features of cameras - that is tough. It truly does depend on what you're looking for. If you have experience with a 35MM SLR and want that kind of control, as well as that kind of creative flexibility, you really need one of these larger cameras. The size of the CCD determines the size of the focused image. clearly smaller CDD's cost a lot less to make, but they also alter the optics from what you're used to in such a way that it is very difficult to get anything BUT infinite depth of field. I'm not an optics expert, but I also know that "sharpness" and "megapixels" are two different animals. I'd rather have a 3 megapixel camera with great optics than a 5Mpix camera with lousy ones. On the other hand my camera is BIG - bigger than my 35mm SLR. NOT a convenient one for snapshooting. My recommendation is to go visit - an excellent site. They have form where you can list your requirements and they'll tell you what cameras fit the bill.

Richard in NC asked "Is there a subject you don't know much about?" Uh, yeah - plenty! I just don't write about those..... By the way, I totally agree with you about digital cameras being great for learning. I love the "instant gratification" - although I really can't tell if I got a great shot by just looking at the LCD display. I also love the freedom to shoot a lot of pics and know it costs nothing to throw the bad ones out later. And finally, Photoshop works wonders. I generally do NOT mess with the content of a picture (i.e., eliminating/adding a person or object), but I do use the tools to do what the pros with their own darkrooms have always been able to do - adjust saturation, contrast, color balance. It rescues a lot of great pics that the camera just couldn't quite capture.

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post #9 of 45 Old 22nd January 2002, 02:26 AM
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Greg, excellent post! I completely agree with your tic-tac-toe recommendation. I use this technique a lot and it really pays off. Here's an example:

Here you can see that my wife's head in at one of the intersections and the horizon line is along the top 1/3 line. Both help to make the picture seem balanced. Another thing to consider is where the person is looking. I this photo, my wife is looking to the left as if she was looking into the rest of the frame. If she was looking the other way it would seem odd.

I also look for ways to frame the image as with this example:

This is much more interesting that a similar picture without the tree and stones framing the shot.

Here's another one that shows both the framing technique and the 1/3 technique. Notice that it doesn't have to be precisely on the 1/3 line to be effective.

This picture also shows another important technique called balance. Here, the two major features (the Statue and the twin-towers) balance each other out. Without the towers, the same picture would feel out of balance and the viewer would feel like the photo is about to fall over. Unfortunately, this specific photo can never be taken again.


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post #10 of 45 Old 22nd January 2002, 03:53 AM
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Great photos greg. I've used SLRs for years and now migrating to digital, likely the E10.

What camera did you use for the Turbos lined up. A great subject always looks good but I liked the composition as well. I didn't think the E10 had a long lens like that though and that's why I'm curious.

ps I liked the humming bird. That must have taken some time, and flash no less.


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