How to Create An Atmospheric Car Portrait

How to Create An Atmospheric Car Portrait

Taking a photo of a car is easy, point and shoot, the problem is that this will result in just a photo of a car.  If you want to create some atmosphere which really creates a ‘mood’ and add that bit more to the photo then there are some things to consider and a few tricks you can use….

Preparation for a car portrait

  • Equipment
  • Camera (obviously)
  • Tripod
  • Flash gun (not essential but adds the choice if needed)
  • Change (for the car park if used)
  • Cleaning cloth (birds WILL aim for your car on the way, sod’s law!!!)
  • Sheet/Mat – if your going to get low then you need something to sit/lay on!

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Before you go out to take the photo consider the following;

Are you going to take a photo of your car or a friends? If it is yours then great, you can choose when and where to go and how to take the photo, if however you are going to take a photo of a friends car then they will obviously need to make themselves (and their car) available at the time and location of your choice.  You will also need to ask them to clean their car (unless you are going for that ‘just driven through a bog’ look!).

Time of day? – when do you want to take the photo, remember the golden hours (late afternoon or early morning), this will help with the light and give a nice soft hue to the photo, you can also play with the changing colours and shadows as the sun either goes down or comes up.  If you are using a location with artificial light then the time of day is less of a consideration but should be remembered as natural light will still factor in the overall effect.

What overall effect are you looking for? – I went for a grungy and moody (as always!) look and feel and so was prepared for a little HDR.  You may be going for an entirely different feel such as action shots, if this is the case then you may require a faster lens, flash and an extra driver (unless you own Knight Rider!).

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Locations to consider for a car portrait;

Multi storey car parks – as in my example multi storey car parks are great for bright coloured cars (see colour section below for more details).  They are under cover (so weather not a factor), self lit and also offer a wealth of textures, angles and shadows that add drama to the shot. Remember to get there either early or late to avoid over crowding, I went at 8am on a Sunday and had the choice of 3 floors with no other cars!  Long distance shots are great from a low position as these add a great depth of field to the photo.  When shooting in artificially lit conditions always remember to adjust your white balance accordingly and not to use AWB.

Office building forecourt – Great for reflections using the glass and also adds a bit of ‘class’ to the shot, remember to ask permission if on private property (usually the security guard is fine if you ask them politely first).  This location works well for both brightly coloured cars and silvers/whites as you can convert the image to black and white and you usually also get colours from the surrounding objects reflected in the glass.  Whenever using glass in your images it is wise to invest in a Polarizing Filter, this will enable you to control the strength of the reflections to your taste.  Also, remember not to be in the reflection yourself, I have done this quite a few times and only realised when processing the images!

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Woodland – A bit more tricky to get a car actually into woodland (not many woods are accessible and those that are will usually cover your car in mud!) but if you can and it’s legal then the colours from the trees (especially in Autumn) reflecting of the car’s bodywork add a great dimension to the photograph.  The trees also provide shadows and highlights that you can experiment with.

Industrial Estates – Loads of contours, lines, textures and interesting buildings all add to a great photo.  Be careful not to include too much in the background though as you will lose the car in amongst the other objects in the frame.  If you live near a large factory that has those steam chimneys then these are great for adding a grungy feel!

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High Street (at night) – When everyone has finished shopping and it’s quieter, why not try the high street after dark.  The numerous different coloured shop lights reflecting off of your car will really look striking.  It also adds an ‘urban’ feel to the shot.

Fairground – For the reasons above this location is brilliant due to the sheer number of lights and the option to slow the shutter speed down for that blurred effect on the rides etc.  Just be careful for obvious reasons though!!

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Colours

What colour is the car that you are going to photograph?  If it is a bright, non metallic car like mine for instance, then choosing a location with neutral colours that do not clash with either each other or the car will make your car ‘pop’ out from the background (there is another trick for this which I will explain during the tutorial below).

White/grey cars will reflect colour better and so you can choose locations with more colour in the background.  Coloured lights also work well as they reflect off the car.

Black cars reflect light well but it is difficult to capture the contours of the bodywork.  Try and position the car so that the light helps to show the lines of the bodywork, angle the car diagonally in front of a street light for instance so that the light reflects down the side of the doors.

Metallic – Any metallic paint comes out brilliantly if you bracket your shots and process them as an HDR image (detailed below).  Be careful not to overdo it though (no one likes an overdone HDR photo!).

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Car Position

I like to take photos of a car from an off centre angle and low down.  This adds a ‘menacing’ appearance to the car and usually helps to capture more of the atmosphere from the location.  Angles and positions are up to you really and the only way to get to know what works well for different locations/cars is to experiment.  If the car has alloys then turning the wheels so that the one on the side of the car you are taking photos from is pointing inwards will make sure you get the full wheel in shot.

Tutorial – My car in a multi storey

OK, I chose a multi storey car park for the shot in this tutorial, I went on my own and had previously cleaned the car.  Time of shoot was 8am on a Sunday.

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Tools used;

  • Canon 50d
  • Sigma 17-70mm lens
  • Tripod
  • Photomatix
  • Photoshop
  • Car! heheh

OK, so I chose the car park for the neutral colours (as my car is bright red) and the ‘urban’ look and feel (and because it is close by and it was raining!).  I went to the upper most floor that was not outside (in case people started arriving and filling up the lower floors).

Next I chose the spot on the floor that contained a bit of colour (the pillars etc) but not so much as to draw attention from the car itself.  I reversed the car in (for obvious reasons) and deliberately didn’t park in a space as this looks a bit weird and boring.  I also left the wheel on the side of the car I was shooting from turned into the car, to capture the alloy wheel fully.

Next I took three bracketed shots of the car in Aperture priority (F12) and using the camera’s self timer to avoid camera shake….

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I took loads of photos from all different angles and this was my personal favourite from the shoot.  I deliberately included the two pillars on either side of the car to frame the shot.

Post Processing

In Photomatix I processed the 3 images after exporting them from the camera’s PC software as 16 bit TIFF files.   I chose to ‘Align Images’ but if you have used a tripod then this is not necessary (I do it by habit more than anything!).  Once processed the first preview looks like the one below…

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This is nothing like the photo that will be produced so do not worry at this point, click on the @Tone Mapping’ button to begin the fun!

OK, I used the settings below on the ‘Details Enhancer‘ tab (I don’t use the ‘Tone Compressor’ tab!);

  • Strength – 100
  • Colour Saturation – 50
  • Light Smoothing – second check box from the right
  • Luminosity – 10

‘Tone’ tab

  • White Point – 1.517%
  • Black Point – 5%
  • Gamma – 0.93

‘Colour’ tab – all left at ’0′

‘Micro’ tab

  • Micro Contrast – 10
  • Micro Smooting –  1

‘S/H’ tab

  • Highlight Smoothing – 0
  • Shadow Smoothing – 0
  • Shadow Clipping – 50

’360 degree image’ check box left un-ticked

I then Processed the image…

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As you can see the image looks a bit grainy and the car does not really stand out from the background yet.  To get the car to ‘pop’ out from the background I did the following in Photoshop;

  1. Sharpen the image (Filter/Sharpen/Sharpen).
  2. Sharpen the edges (Filter/Sharpen/Sharpen Edges)
  3. Add a layer (CTRL+J)
  4. Select ‘Blur’/’Gaussion Blur’ from the filter drop down and set the ‘Opacity’ of the layer to 50%.
  5. Create a ‘Layer Mask’ by clicking on the icon on the layers palette that looks like a square with a circle in it.
  6. Select the brush tool and choose a brush with a soft edge, make sure the colour of the brush is set to black.
  7. Now, when you paint on a layer mask with black it actually removes that part of the layer, so what we are doing here is painting the car and any other areas of the photo that you wish to sharpen up (pre ‘Gaussion Blur’).  In my example I painted the car and the signs behind it and to the right (by the door).
  8. I then Added another layer and in the layer style drop down I selected ‘Soft Light’, I then set the opacity of the layer to about 45%, this darkens the image and increases the contrast so be careful not to overdo it!

That’s it……..

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Written by Barry Chignell

I believe that advice should be free, with this in mind FPR contains over 500 photography articles covering all aspects of the photography world, from Wedding Photography to HDR and interviews from online retailers to professional photographers. I am always interested to hear from anyone in the profession regarding new and exciting ideas and ventures and am happy to help photographers publicise their work. If you would like to discuss your photography and how FPR can help, email me at bchignell@gmail.com.

6 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Byrnes

    This is a very valuable resource for educating people on how to look at a car not as an object but as a subject in which a portrait can be constructed. Images of cars can be more than just snap shots. They can in fact be portraits, in which you display quite well in this tutorial.

  2. Amanda Moore

    Love the notes on this technique as I absolutely love photographing cars (either in action or standing still – though I prefer standing still). I love the low angels as well as they seem to give the car more agressive stances and appear lower to the ground as well. I haven’t used blur & softening techniques, but will definitely reference this for future photo testing. :) Nice car by the way!

  3. Barry

    Hi Amanda, thanks for your comments. I really enjoyed writing the article as taking the shots of my car. The softening is not always the best technique but for this example it worked well to highlight the car against the background…;0)

  4. Bobby Bash

    wow! those are the coolest pics. and some of the stylish cars you have showed us. for making this cars we have to be very talented and more potential to be our standards.

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