How to photograph cars like a pro

Want to take great photos of your own car, or fancy ones at motor shows? Follow our tips to help you get the best shots.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon Editor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
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  • Shortlisted for British Photography Awards 2022, Commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2022
Andrew Lanxon
6 min read
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Do you want to take dramatic photos of the awesome exotic cars you'll find at motor shows? Or perhaps you want to get great shots of your own gorgeous car?

Car photography isn't always easy, but if you follow a few simple rules then you'll quickly start to improve your shots. It doesn't take much equipment to get started either -- just your camera, a car and a passion for great photos.

I've put together some of the tips that I always keep in mind when taking photos for CNET and our sister sites Roadshow and Carfection.

Get your gear together

The only two pieces of gear you really need are your camera and a car. Even your iPhone can capture impressive car shots, but if you want professional-looking results, shoot on a dSLR. A reasonably wide lens (around 24mm) will help you capture the car resplendent in its environment. A macro lens -- I use Canon's 100mm f/2.8 -- will be necessary when you want to get close up on details such as wheels, badges or interior components.

When setting up your camera, ensure you're taking shots in raw format. This will give you more scope to tone down highlights or lift shadows, both of which may be critical. I'll come back to editing later.

A tripod is a good idea as it'll help secure your camera, allowing you to take longer exposures, which lets in more light when you're shooting in darker conditions.

If you're shooting your own car out and about then make sure it's as clean as possible before you leave home. It'll still pick up the odd splash of mud when driving to your location, however, so make sure to have a roll of cleaning paper and some sort of liquid spray to wipe off any marks.

Consider your location

If you have the option to shoot in different places, think carefully about what sort of location suits the style of car. For this how-to, I borrowed a stunning Bentley Continental GT V8 S -- it's a luxury cruising car, designed for the best of British roads. To me, the Bentley would be right at home in the stunning landscape of northern England's Peak District National Park -- a place full of beautiful scenery, perfect for driving the Continental.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A modern business-focused car like a sleek, black Mercedes would suit a city scene well. A little Fiat? It would look rather out of place on a mountain, so try a pretty little town instead. It's not difficult to find an appropriate place for your car. Just avoid taking photos in a car park -- those painted white lines on the ground don't add much to a dramatic photo!

Get your angles right

If you're shooting your own car on location, you'll be able to move it around to find the best angle. Many photographers place their camera at a low level, almost looking up at the car, to give it an imposing, dramatic look.

Shooting towards the front corner of the car (known as the three-quarter view) is common too. Not only does this angle show a lot of the car in a single frame -- notice in this shot how the front grille, the side panel and the hood of the car are all visible -- but it has the added benefit of hiding your reflection. Shooting side-on to the car, on the other hand, essentially turns that large side panel into a big mirror, likely to reflect you. Sure, it's possible to Photoshop yourself out of the shot, but it's easier if you're just not in it in the first place.

You should position the car so the best part of your chosen background is behind it, and if you can use the car to hide any distractions like bollards, or road signs from your scene, even better. When you park the car, make sure to turn the steering wheel fully away from the camera -- it'll show off the car's wheels to the camera, giving a more dramatic pose.

Watch this: The Bentley Continental GT V8 S throws tradition out the door

Don't forget the details

It's tempting to spend all your time trying to photograph the entire car from a variety of different angles, but don't forget to move in close to show off some of the key details. First, get inside and snap your shots of the interior. Look for hand-stitched seats or steering wheels, interesting gear-shift knobs, real wood panels or anything that makes the car stand out.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Look around the outside, too -- perhaps there's a cool-looking dual-exhaust vent around the back that's just begging for a close up? If it's a high-performance vehicle, there might even be a "V8" badge on the side, which will be great to photograph as an indicator of the powerful engine within.

Of course, don't forget the main badge. The badges of performance marques such as Bentley, Aston Martin or Lamborghini are as iconic as the cars themselves -- including pictures of those among your shots is a must.

Pan the camera for intense action

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Panning simply describes moving the camera in order to keep your subject (the car) in the frame as it moves past you. Though it may sound simple, it's a technique that takes practice.

While it's easy to simply use an extremely fast shutter speed (over 1/1,000 second) to freeze the car in motion, that method will simply make the car look like it's parked in the middle of the road. What you need to do to properly capture the action is to use slower shutter speeds -- below 1/180 second, although the shot above is even slower at 1/80 second. Then, as you pan with the camera, the car will be kept in sharp focus, while the background will be blurred, giving a real sense of motion and drama.

This way, it's very clear that the car is hurtling past you. Set your camera to burst mode too, so you can fire off a lot of shots as the car moves past, hopefully increasing the chances that at least one of your shots comes out properly.

Before the car arrives at your shooting location, get into a comfortable stance where you can twist your upper body to allow you to follow the path of the car as it comes past. I also recommend using manual focus, setting your focus point in advance on the part of the road where you know the car will be. If your camera's autofocus isn't very fast, it's possible the car will have driven off before you've even had a chance to fire a frame.

Watch this: The Mercedes-AMG GT R is an apex predator

Boost the drama in post production

Don't think the creative process stops once you've pressed the shutter on your camera -- there's a lot you can do to your photo afterwards to make it really stand out.

I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my photos, which gives really easy control over the highlights and shadows in a picture. If you have to contend with a bright sky in a sunny outdoor scene, for instance, the first thing you'll want to do is tone down some of the highlights. Next, look at the car itself -- has it fallen into shadow? If so, you might want to lighten the darker areas slightly. You might even want to use the Adjustment Brush tool in Lightroom to "paint" on the car to brighten it up, without making the background itself any lighter.

There's no real right or wrong way to do your editing. If time allows, play around with different things to see what sort of cool effects you can achieve. Just like when deciding on your location for shooting, think about the theme of the car when you're editing. For the beautiful Bentley, I wanted to maintain the grand, sweeping autumn landscape, so I used warmer colour tones for the background, and lightened the car to make it stand out from the scene.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With the Mercedes-AMG shot above, I wanted to create a strong feeling of drama and aggression from the edit, to echo the brutal performance of the car itself. I boosted the contrast and the clarity, then brought the colour saturation down slightly.

Get out and practice

As with most forms of photography, practice makes perfect. The more shots you take in different conditions, the more you'll learn about how different lighting changes the look of a car. With each shoot, you'll come away having learned something new that you can use to make your next shoot even better and more impressive.

Practice the physical motions involved in panning for striking action shots, and spend an evening just playing around with Lightroom to see how each settings slider alters the mood of your image.

Practice these tips and it won't be long before your simple car snaps start to become truly superb images that will turn heads -- almost as much as the cars themselves.