Stick with me. Things have been added which have made my original thread become pretty disorganized!
As in anything else, there's no one way to take a good looking shot of a car. Some guys like grungy garage pics. Others put it in 20% of the frame in what looks more like a landscape shot. Neither are "Wrong" if you get the results that you wanted, but I'd still like to see one shot in a series that makes the car/bike/etc. look as good as possible.
More about "as good as possible."
An "AWESOME" car does not make a great shot.
An "AWESOME" background does not make a great shot.
An "AWESOME" car in a "AWESOME" background does not make a great shot.
LIGHT that highlights the shape of the body & lets us appreciate the styling is what can help make a great shot.
A background that works to help put our attention on the car is what can help make a great shot.
Need an example? Here's a shot of a "plain Jane" Malibu in a parking lot. If you've got an "AWESOME" car, it shouldn't be all that hard to come up with one "AWESOME" image out of the eight that you can post in Transportation, right?
What I'm going to address here is mostly using the natural light that everyone has access to to make the car itself look as good as possible, without having to buy extra equipment for lighting. So think about starting with exciting light. Then throw out everything that doesn't make the image better. Results like these aren't all that difficult. (And BTW, these were all taken in a parking lot at a meet.)
Here's how to get them.
1. In most of these examples, read through the whole thread. In many cases, there are some things that I didn't put in the first post.
2. Keep in mind that, if you haven't calibrated your monitor & used a color managed browser, then what you're seeing isn't what most of the rest of us are seeing?
Cars are huge, curved mirrors that reflect everything in sight including you, the pole/tree behind you, & the people in the white t-shirts walking by 50 feet away. But reflections help to define the contour of the body & the sky is your friend if you don’t have the opportunity to get them in a studio where you can light with flats. Check out the studios here:
Car Studio Photography Set-ups
Note the rolling flat in image #4 used to bounce some light into the front. Without a studio, I might use a convenient building to do that.
2007 Chevy HHR
Scott Kelby in a studio.
If you have a garage with light colored walls, & you're clever, you can use them as "flats" to get similar results. Just light the walls instead of direct light on the car.
Or my personal favorite, use the sunset sky to highlight the contours of the body & add drama: Post #127: "The Beast"
Here's the full thread in case that link fails: UBNXOUS Beast! part #2.
Good info: Automotive lighting setups?
We used huge 15' X 30' frames (on casters) covered with cloth to reflect into the sides of the car. Some were hung as overhead flats. These were lit with 20K watt lights. Smaller, highlighting reflections were lit with 750's.
Maybe a bit of direct light was used on just the tires to bring the tread up to the overall level of light, or we’d put a bit into the wheels/hubcaps to give them a little “pop”. Hint: don't clean the tread - the dust helps here. Other than that, we almost never used direct light on the car.
Images #3, 4, & #10 here are also very close to what we used to use: Car Studio Photography Set-ups
Note the rolling flat in #10. (Well, ours had wheels on them, but you get the idea. And, no, we didn't use a turntable, but it might be nice for "walk around" detail shots.)
Scott Kelby - My First Studio Car Shoot (plus behind-the-scenes)
Notice image #6 & #9 with the large black bounce card. We used a matte black cloth & would place it along the bottom of the standing side flat to hide the highlights we had put in the side. This would add a little more shape to the very bottom of the body.
But if you're clever, you can get by with less:
Here's an example of a black 300 in a studio posted by spot9 in The automotive strobist setup pic thread.
And this dealership has 4 all white walls & only indirect light at the top of the walls in a room dedicated to shooting his cars: http://theautopalace.com/
The room is only slightly larger than the cars. He only shoots a front 3/4 view, but could get the same back view & full front/backs if he wanted them. The only thing there's no room for is a profile shot.
This is why I keep telling you guys to rethink lighting cars in garages unless you're willing to take the time to put every highlight right where you need them to show the cars shape.
This video gives you an idea of what you have to do inside to even start to make a car look good, & it's an OK shot, but not up to the standards of Detroit agencies in the '70s. It's why I keep telling you to take it outside & wait for the right light on them.
ProPhotoLife Video - '57 Chevy in a small studio.
Another option is: Painting with Light, a 'How to Guide' for car photography
It's fun to do, but difficult to control.
More: jjphoto's excellent examples using black cloth for "Negative Lighting": Photo Cornucopia - What is a car studio and why use one?
Shooting cars inside a warehouse / indoors?
Car Studio Shots
In our case where we're shooting cars at meets in parking lots and we usually can't move it, wait for the late light, WALK AROUND & LOOK at what the light is doing! (I shouldn't have to say that, right?) Here's an example of what I usually have to work with. Which ones look better to you?
While we have one brain, we're given two eyes, so maybe that's a clue to look twice before we shoot?
LOOK at what is growing out of the body! Poles, signs, heads...
LOOK at what is reflecting in the body! Trees, people, other cars, buildings... (I shouldn't have to say those either, right?)
More on this here where I had the option of moving my Malibu: MOVE YOUR FEET! A <rant> of sorts.
& in Post #41 on page 2 of this "Tips" thread.
Background: It makes a big difference. Look how the dark background makes the bike pop out here:
And here: 1985 Harley Sportster with a '75 Goldwing front end.
Same with the #8 "Beast" shot: UBNXOUS Beast! part #2.
Here's another late light example. It was almost dark & the cars were leaving the parking lot with their lights on. Look at how the light still in the sky highlights the contours of the body & separates it from the darker background. While the location is far from perfect, they still look better to me than the typical full sunlight shot: 'Cuda & Cobra
If I have the option to move a car, the first thing I look at is the background because it's at least half of the image, isn't it? As I said at the beginning, "An "AWESOME" background does not make a great shot." But a crappy, conflicting background that draws our attention away from the subject can ruin a shot in a second.
Advantages to "Wait for the late light":
The car will look it's best. Use the reflections in the body to show off the contours of the design. THIS IS WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT!
Look at the hood of this Malibu as an example:
Doesn't that look nice? Can you get that effect using only strobes? Yes, but you'll have to put the light on something else that will reflect in the body, & it's going to be a PITA to get it right.
The problem that I see with most strobe shots is that they totally overpower the natural highlights from the sky. They remind me of "For Sale" shots on eBay where I want to see every scratch, rust spot, & nut & bolt. The paint looks flat, without character, & the car could be a cardboard cut out against a background that's more interesting than the car is. Where's the romance? Where's the feeling that you get when you look at the car in real life? This is not the sort of image that we want to hang on our wall.
So if you must use strobes, let the natural highlights from the sky come through by kicking in just enough strobe to fill the totally dark areas, maybe -2 or -3 stops. Experiment to get the right combination.
You can certainly do it in a studio or a garage with light colored ceilings & walls that will reflect in the body without adding other conflicting reflections, but until you can get something as nice as this I think you're wasting your time when the sky is free & easy to use.
Should you do it in a garage as a lighting exercise & learning process? Sure, go for it! Just remember what end result you should be working toward.
This is a recent shoot using only "late light". No strobes, no circular polarizer (CP), and minimal post processing (PP):
UBNXOUS Beast! part #2.
Same thing here, "No strobes, no circular polarizer (CP), and minimal post processing (PP): Evening Biplanes
So even air shows can benefit from dramatic late light: Aviation-themed sunsets
But I was thinking more of Jay's shot #8 of "Paradise By The Taxiway Lights" here: (Air) Great Light and a Nice Mix
Then there's just one thread of Nigels' shots: Eagle dawn (aviation)
How about using it on a boat? Queen Victoria - Adelaide arrival
Actually, these were "Early light". We used to shoot dawn & dusk. Daytime was reserved for location hunting.
Need more drama? Try even later light: Malibu in the snow.
NOTE: I prefer to not use a CP (Circular Polarizer) for these. More here.
Disadvantages of "late light":
The perfect light may only last for 5 minutes, & usually comes after you've put the cam away. So keep shooting!
The good light may only last for 10-15 minutes.
Acceptable light may last for an hour, & sometimes like in this series A "GREAT car": '69 Plymouth Road Runner 440, a building will shade the hot light off the car so you can shoot earlier than you expect.
Sadly, sometimes you just have to shoot before the light is right. If you can't move the car, then move yourself & try some different angles. Here, the late, but not late enough (for me) sunlit ones look pretty good.
'40 Fords - Three of 'em!
"Hot" Sunlight: Cars in sunlight don't have to look terrible (to me), but it helps if you can move it to promote the reflections that you want to see in it. Sometimes you don't have a choice, & here you can see that some angles work better than others.
'65 Mustang "Best of Show"!
Silver cars in sunlight look good almost anytime: Post #52
Notice how the shots of the shady side are more interesting? The ones in direct sunlight have little contrast & look flat in comparison:
Photoshoot with a GT500 Shelby Super Snake
Try the shadow side. Look at the difference between these two shots. Which looks more dramatic to you?
Sometimes we have to shoot even though the sun is shining, & we have the option to move the car. If you can find the shade of a building, hopefully one painted white, it will act like a white flat. Some of these were shot that way.
2007 Chevy HHR
Another in the shade example: '33 Ford Pro-Street 3 Window Coupe 454
The alternative to the studio, but not my first choice, would be to shoot outside if it's overcast & the sky becomes an overhead flat. The problem with cloudy days is that the clouds can make uneven reflections in the car. See the hood in this one: Patrick's Camaro
My personal favorite is just after sunset with a clear, blue sky, as I like the warm, low contrast quality of the light. Just before sunset works best if there are some low laying clouds or haze to filter the direct sunlight. It works well without the "cloud filter" too, but the highlights in the body are stronger. Sometimes a distant low building will give the same effect of filtering/blocking the hot sun, but still keeping the brighter sky to reflect in the body.
Sunrise gives similar results to "late light", except that the car will be cold & you’ll have condensation problems, so you’ll need a lot of towels!
Preferably, you'll have a BIG, uncluttered area like a BIG parking lot behind you to minimize crap reflecting into the car. That wasn’t the case in the 1st pic below. It was a parking lot, but we’d get 100+ cars all parked together & they’d reflect into each other. So, after sunset worked well here, cause hopefully the cars on either side of the one you wanted to shoot might have left.
Image #3 was taken at 8:10 PM on August 26, 2004
300D, RAW, Kit lens @ 37mm, f/11, 1/10 sec., ISO 100.
The final PS shows it with some of the reflections in the side & hood cleaned up.
What seems to be the hardest part of the changes to the 1st pic would be the selection of the car before removing the background. It doesn’t have to be. Try out the “Selecting areas in PhotoShop” example I put here.
Here's a final treatment of that shot using the hood as a background: http://img.photobucket.com ...OOD_0021.jpg?t=1275406703
These were all shot in a parking lot:
UBNXOUS Beast! part #2.
Blown '37 Willys - A Beauty with a Beast!
Shown in the frame in post #17:
Jammin' Jerry's '67 Mustang. - 1st shots/thread.
Mike's '55 Chevy proof
FstopMiami123's freighter at sunset.
Three HDRs that work for me: Sweet Chopper
And this thread: Reno Air Races F-7F Tigercat HDR
ScubaDude's My car in HDR
And an especially nice bike "portrait" with out HDR: JCP's shot of a friends Vincent.
Some shots of Jim's '68 AMX: See post #39 for other background ideas and some minor retouching.
Turning the lights on can add visual interest:
2007 Chevy HHR
Links to Black cars, Red cars, + a sliver car in sunlight example: Silver cars in sunlight look good almost anytime: Post #52
Note: This link is duplicated in the "Hot" Sunlight topic above.
Image #4 was shot in a studio on 4” X 5” film, but there’s no reason that you can’t do a similar shot outside. The main lighting was light bounced on a white painted 4’ X 8’ sheet of plywood at the tripod angled toward the front of the bumper. This could be simulated by a white building behind you. Or even late light from the sky.
The cove background could be white paper extended horizontally & taped to a wall. Or a garage door.
Google Search: photography "background paper" for a lot of links.
Note that the "good highlights" that I keep talking about aren't seen in this shot. That was because I had to show the paint as much as possible for the client. To spice it up a little, I did have the parking lights on in one shot, but couldn't find it 40 years later. ; (
Try a few shots with the cars lights on for part of the exposure. Use a tripod & don’t be afraid of long exposures. It makes it easier to get the proper partial exposure of the lights.
Malibu in the snow.
If you're doing INTERIORS, start with some light bounced off the headliner. We would put a 30” X 40” white card up there & hold it in place with those "S" hooks they use for hanging curtains. Maybe put a card against the seat back to reflect some light into the dash. Art board with gray on one side & white on the other side gives you options for the amount of light you're bouncing in.
Here I used a building to bounce diffused light into the dashboard: 2007 Chevy HHR
OTOH, in the Malibu link above, I just let the automatic interior lights fade out during the shot.
I you’re doing a side shot (profile), you might place a 30” X 40” white card on the ground to reflect into the wheels. here's an animation showing how I used one to light some chrome on a Harley: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/218276414/Set-Up_Anim.gif
On a car, be careful that it doesn’t reflect into the sides. That can be controlled by putting a black card over part of the white card. It's easier to try the Layer Mask work in PS in the link below, & it's much easier to control. I usually use a longer focal length lens for these when I have the room.
Rear shots, especially of cars with huge tires, look awful with a wide angle lens. Try to get back as far as possible.
Finally, if you can, shoot RAW. It makes post processing SO much easier if you're working the highest quality file. And it can save your butt if you screw up!
Why I love RAW - '53 Ford Sunliner
This should be enough to get you started. For more ideas, go to your local auto dealer & pick up some brochures, or check out the Ad's in the better car magazines.
Cropping/framing: Keep in mind that they often use a crop that doesn't make the car shot look good, because they need space for text. They also crop tighter to fit a small image on a page. Some examples of crops are in this thread: MOVE YOUR FEET! A <rant> of sorts.
If you want your car shot to look good, try to leave more room at the front for it to "move into."
Have fun, & let us see your results.
A few other things I learned relating to exposure:
I don't want the cam to do anything I didn't tell it to do, & I don't trust the programming geek at Canon to set the exposure where I want it. Here's what started out as one reason to use manual settings & I learned how highlights affect digital metering:
Gray card: Why your meter may be lying to you! I started out to check one thing & learned about another.
Also, see why Auto WB (White Balance) is something I don't use in the gray card (last) example of the 2nd image. An "incorrect" WB can allow one channel to be blown out & you're going to have a heck of a time trying to correct it in processing. This might not be a big deal shooting a car at sunset where the "correct" WB is whatever you want it to be, but what if you're shooting portraits?
The quick answer is in "How the subject affects the exposure & why manual keeps me worry free:" Post #47
Film "tricks" for exposure:
Here's a good starting point for exposure. Pick the aperture and shutter speed you want & set them in "M". Then you only need to adjust the ISO to get the exposure that you need.
Need an exposure crutch?
EDIT: White balance
Reality isn't everything. Would we try to make a sunset neutral? The "Correct" WB may not be the "Right" WB for a image. Remember, you're the judge of your own image. We used to use gels to add "romance" to our car shots for ad agencies.
More in post #12.
Gray Card…White Paper. What’s best?
EDIT: Take a look at this thread for how to use a Layer Mask to selectivly lighten/darken part of a pic: Airport runway shoot
More here: You can level out the exposure using a selection & a Layer mask. See post #9; PS Elements in Post # 14
A question about sky
In the middle of this thread I posted the Layers Palette showing the "workflow"that I used in PS7.
I've added a workflow using Layer Masks to replace a background here:
Need to remove a background from something?
EDIT: Red's question on Studio Car Shots.
There's a lot of good info in Car Photography for Dummies. Be sure to check out his Catching the Eye of an Editor links. too.
EDIT: Lambocars offered up 16 good tutorials here.
Car Photography Tutorials - OVERVIEW
Note: Mark likes to use a CP (Circular Polarizer). I don't use them. I'd rather find the right location & angle on the car. But that doesn't mean that you can't try one. It's just personal preference, except that I find that when I remove the bad reflections, & also lose some of the good ones. And polarizers usually make the late model headlight plastic covers show a "rainbow", and I can do without that.
Capture Motion in Car Photography with these Shot List Tips
EDIT: I don't agree with everything he says in here, but I'm posting the link if you want another opinion for info:
Popular Hot Rodding - Car pic tips.
actionscripter's lighting & PS tutorial links: Car Photography Tutorials
Blend If sky replacement example: Easy Sky Replacement tutorial in Photoshop
Garage shots: See post #40
Adding a feeling of motion when shooting moving cars at night: The 2008 Woodward Dream Cruise threads:
EDIT: There's a comparison of two shots of a '34 Coupe in late, & even later light, added a few posts below.
I hope that it helps you out.
Good light vs. Bad Light