Art doesn't have to hang in a gallery. It can be seen everyday prowling the streets. It is through the innovative aesthetics of design that the car has evolved from an amorphous, utilitarian conveyance into a rolling, metallic sculpture. How does one capture the personality of such machines on film?
To begin with, most of us do not have the luxury of choosing the desired background to do a car shoot, nor do we have a hangar-sized, fully-equipped studio to accommodate such vehicles. It's all very well to have someone say: "Why didn't you shoot the Lamborghini on a wet tarmac to reflect its sinewy lines or position the Shelby Cobra at a 45 degree angle on a stretch of desert highway and shoot it at a high angle with the highway fading off into the horizon? What do you mean, you can't do that?"
In most cases, vintage, custom or the super exotic cars are often accessible only at various car shows. Outdoor shows can be frustrating because of the vortex of spectators standing around each exhibit. Indoor car shows are equally hindering due to the crowds, the rope barriers and the harsh lighting that pepper the surface of each vehicle.
Nevertheless, the benefit of photographing vintage cars and street rods is that each one has their own unique feature. The objective is to articulate these traits by separating your subject matter from its ilk. It is the ability to find these idiosyncratic features and photograph them to their best advantage that will make your images irreplaceable. This article is to help you get the best in your car photography without the expenditure of distant travel or the expenses of studio time.
1. Ground Up Shots
To begin with, you don't always have to take an establishing shot (an overall shot) of a selected vehicle. Instead, find the right angle that illustrates the essence of the car's distinct character. Explore your options. For example, to present a car with a menacing or intimidating appearance, shoot from ground-up (or "belly shot") such as this 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. This angle has enhanced the heaviness of the car, the snarl-like design of the chrome of its era and avoided any superfluous distractions - like people. In addition, the photo is balanced by equalizing the bulk of the car with the lightness of the sky.
Another example is the stable of grocery trucks. Again, an eye-level shot would have been bland and an aerial view would not have the obvious feel of power, but a ground-up shot casts a more potent effect of solidarity.
2. Medium to Close Up Shots
Why should you shoot a close-up of a car? Sometimes intimacy is more seductive to the viewer than the whole ensemble. By focusing on a car's evident gems like the tail fin of a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, an E-Type Jag's headlamp, or the rear lights of this '63 Corvette Coupe, close-ups can whet the viewer's appetite for more. At the same time, it says so much with so little. Plus, if you are shooting cars at an indoor show, close-ups can avoid the harsh lighting effects. Providing the close-up is composed correctly, it can convey a wealth of information to the viewer such as the era of the car, the style, class and personality. Beware of reflections off the car. In this particular case, the reflection of the palm tree off the trunk heightened the Corvette's sex appeal. It garnered an image of fun in the sun.
Often show cars are paraded behind velvet ropes, so tight framing is required using a zoom lens. Instead of using flash, bring a compact reflector with you. There is generally enough lighting at these shows to provide perfect illumination with the reflector without overexposing the subject with flash. If you can get close enough, use a macro, wide-angle or even a fish-eye lens with a tripod. All this equipment may seem awkward, but the end result is truly satisfying. Besides, the cars are there to be admired. Although this 1958 Buick 8 was photographed outdoors in the mid-day sun, I used PhotoShop (post-production) to darken the ground and background to give the car a more sinister appeal - especially with that piranha-like mouth of a grill.
3. Setting a Mood
Like any good photograph, it is essential that you set a mood with your subject. I happened to fortuitously come across two vintage cars parked together along a street in downtown Toronto. It was raining and the setting looked like a scene from a grainy film noire or a 1940's gangster movie. The vehicles were actually part of a car show. With any "mood" shot, the composition is critical. Be as innovative as you can by using irregular angles rather than just shooting the vehicle in a conventional horizontal or vertical format. I used a 45 degree, bird's eye angle to shoot this 1965 Shelby Mustang GT 350. It gives the car another dimension without diminishing the respect for its power. Such angles can add intrigue that can result in show-stopping results.
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