How to Improve Your Automotive Photography
If you feel like you've plateaued, these tips might help you climb again.
Photography is difficult. Like other forms of art, it's subjective. There is no singular right answer. As someone with an Engineering degree, that's a difficult concept for me to comprehend. However through my experience I've learned that there tend to be certain answers that are more right than others. Being different isn't always good and you have to be open to advice and criticism. You need to be able to objectively look at your own work and identify your own flaws so that you can improve on them.
Over the past few months, I feel as if I've addressed a few of my shortfalls as a photographer. It's apparent that I've started to discover what the "right answers" are. More people mention my photography to me when we're speaking. They bring up their favorite photos and what cars they think are cool. My photos get featured more often on other Instagram accounts. I feel as if I've turned the corner, and I'd like to share with you how I did it. Here are 4 major tips that changed my photography for the better.
Use the histogram while editing in Lightroom
If you're editing photos, there's a good chance you're using Adobe Lightroom. It's a powerful program with a myriad of useful tools for editing your photos to your liking. One of those tools is called a "histogram". The histogram is there to help you edit your photo to an even exposure level regardless of what kind of screen you're working on; among other uses. Learning how to use this tool helped me immensely.
On the laptop I work on, images tend to appear brighter than they really are. This was causing me to underexpose everything I shot. Below is an example:
This is a Dodge Viper ACR that I photographed at a cars and coffee in late October, 2019. The image is dark, dreary, and generally uninspiring. I edited most of my photos like this for months.
This is an Acura NSX that I took a photo of in early August at a cars and coffee event. The photo is brighter and more realistic. It has more detail and vibrance, making it stand out in a roll of photos. Because I used the histogram, I was able to edit this photo to look great on any screen.
The histogram can be found in the upper right corner of Lightroom. In short, it's a graph that shows where different colors peak at different exposure levels in the image. The left side correlates with the darkest parts of the image and the right side the lightest. As you move the exposure slider to the right, the whole graph will move to the right. As a general rule of thumb, you want to have that graph somewhat balanced in the middle, with equal amounts of peaks (and area under the peaks) on the left and the right of the graph. Now you have a more evenly exposed image!
Get a circular polarizer
Most of the time that you'll be shooting your automotive photos, your setting will be outside under the sun (or clouds). Light from the sun tends to scatter off of objects and that can make it hard to edit your photos. Certain parts of the photo can be overexposed while others are underexposed and no amount of editing can fix this discrepancy, especially if your highlights are blown out. A circular polarizer can help filter out some light, resulting in a more evenly exposed photo that's easier to work on in Lightroom. It's like shooting in RAW, but for exposure instead of color balance.
The best part about polarizers is they're relatively inexpensive. I purchased mine from Amazon for $13. Here's the link:
Shoot your photos slightly underexposed
The logic behind this is simple: it's easier to pull detail from shadows than it is from highlights. By underexposing your image, you give yourself more of an opportunity to create a great image in Lightroom. This is much easier easier explained by showing you.
In early August, I took a photo of this Volvo at a cars and coffee event. This is how the photo looks right out of the camera. As you can see, this original image is pretty dark. Instinctively, this looks like something that should go straight to the garbage bin.
However when you look at the final image, it all makes sense. By underexposing this image, I was able to keep the detail in the sky while bringing the shadows to life using Lightroom. There are no weird color anomalies in the highlights to ruin our image.
In order to consistently shoot underexposed, I've set my light meter to -0.7 +/-. This means the light meter tells me I'm perfectly exposed at 0.7 stops below true perfect exposure. This allows me to set my f-stop and shutter speed to a slightly underexposed setting every time I shoot. The process of setting your camera to underexpose may vary between brands and models so you should consult your owner's manual or the internet for help with doing this.
Invest in some presets
No, I'm not going to plug any presets of mine. In fact, most of my presets are just variations of presets by Peter McKinnon, a photographer from Toronto who created a YouTube channel to help other artists. By using his presets, I was able to understand better how to manipulate images using all of the different sliders and tools within Lightroom. I made adjustments to his presets to match scenes I worked on and ended up with a library of different presets for different looks that are unique to my editing style. If you feel like you could use some help with editing in Lightroom, invest in a preset pack and play around with each preset. Take note of how each one changes the image. Look at which sliders change certain aspects of the image and start changing them yourself.. Find what works for you and start making presets that you like. You can get started by downloading them here:
Feel free to check out his YouTube channel as well. It has been immensely helpful and I'm thankful that he's made a career out of helping other creatives be successful.
Which tip helped you the most?
I hope this guide has helped you discover what might be missing from your photos. It took me a long time to learn these tips, so I hope that by aggregating them here, I am able to help you be successful without going through as many failures as I did. Let me know what tip you found the most helpful.
If you feel like this guide might have been too advanced or if there's more you'd like to learn, check out my first article about how to get started with automotive photography.