How To Photograph Collector Cars
By Tom Benford
People have had a fascination with automobiles ever since the first tiller-steered horseless carriage belched out smoke and diffidently tooled down a thorofare scaring the dickens out of horses and some of the populace alike. Since that time this fascination has continued and for many (dare I say most) of us has developed into a true affection for their vehicles that defies all reason — this is particularly true in the collector car world where many owners (the author included) give names to their vehicles which they hold in high regard. Along the way automobiles have undergone a metamorphosis from utilitarian conveyances to rolling sculptures that, in many instances, can honestly be called works of art. Vintage cars and street rods are two such genres that frequently classify as such.
At first blush it would seem that photographing collector cars is no big deal; just frame the subject, make sure the exposure and lighting is adequate, and click away, right? Well, that's fine if you just want to have a snapshot of the car for your scrapbook or wallet, but that doesn't capture the real essence of the vehicle; doing that takes a bit more forethought and work. Actually, to do a really good job of capturing the soul of an automobile with your digital camera, it becomes a Zen thing — you must become one with the car.
Virtually every collector car has features that make it unique and set it apart from others of the same make, model and vintage. It is the ability to identify these unique features and photograph them at best advantage that sets a great car shot apart from a mediocre one. Having had a fair bit of experience in this area, I'm going to share some of the things I've learned so that you, too, will be able to take some great pictures of collector cars - both your own cars as well as others that catch your eye and fancy.
The tips, tricks and techniques I'm detailing here apply both to traditional film cameras as well as digital cameras. The real beauty of digital cameras, however, is that you can see immediately if you've got the shot or need to take it over again. Also, if you're not happy with a shot you can simply erase it and re-shoot again. And, you don't have the cost of film and processing to contend with, so you can shoot to your heart's content. Now that I've said my piece about the bountiful blessings of digital photography, let's get on with the nitty-gritty of shooting collector cars.
The best way to convey the advice and techniques I'm discussing here is to show you what I mean, so you'll have to refer to the captioned photos from time to time during my text narrative here.
All in One Eyeful
Getting a great overall shot of a collector vehicle more often than not means finding the right angle and view to shoot the car from. This can mean doing a full frontal shot, a full profile, or a 3/4 frontal or rear view of the car. Sometimes this can be augmented by altering the elevation of the camera as well. Photographing it in an uncluttered location or one that lends itself to the subject matter is also a real asset for the shot as well. Here are some examples:
The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe is a modern day classic since its split rear window was produced for only one year. A 3/4 rear shot of this vintage Corvette called The Jersey Devil is the best way to show this car's unique distinguishing feature. An unobtrusive background also helps to call attention to the car and, in this instance works well on a subliminal level (ocean background, Sting Ray, get it?).
A full profile shot taken at eye level of this Ford Roadster street rod known as the '32 Highboy and its matching Coca-Cola trailer makes a nice picture that tells you a lot about the car. The terra-cotta pavers help to provide even reflected light while the green grass and trees in the background deepen contrast for the subject.
A 3/4 frontal view taken from a kneeling position shows the unique stance and "attitude" of Low 35, this 1935 Chevrolet street rod. The light pavement of the roadway provided enough reflected light to bring up the flames on the side of the car, while the greenery background and water worked subtly with the green color scheme of the rod itself. In this case the fountain, rather than diverting attention away from the subject, acts as a magnet to draw your attention to the dramatically chopped roofline of the rod.
A 6-foot ladder was used to get this elevated 3/4 frontal view of this customized 1976 Corvette known as the Shark. The elevated perspective was the best way to show the unique features of the car such as the top "gills" on the flared fenders, Plexiglas-covered headlights, bulging hood, rear spoiler and iridescent blue/silver paint job. Doing the shoot on an overcast day minimized shadows and reflections. The location was a playground parking lot and there were several other cars in the surrounding area, but judicious framing eliminated them from the shot.
Another full profile shot, but this time taken from a prone position on the ground of a 1933 Dodge 5-window coupe dubbed Screaming Mimi. From this prospective it's easy to appreciate the incongruity of the massive big-block engine in this small coupe. The ladder-type underpinnings of the front end and the exhaust headers collecting into the boloney-slashed side pipes also give the message that this is a no-nonsense street rod — exactly what I wanted to convey with this shot. The colors of the fall foliage in the background complement the black cherry color of the car with its red flames rather than detract from it.
Each and every car is an amalgam of thousands of different parts working together harmoniously to comprise the whole entity. In photographing collector cars, however, the goal is to isolate those parts which are really unique as well as those that are deliberate attention-grabbers. Here are some examples of such automotive eye candy:
The recessed headlight of this 1950 Ford custom is said to be "frenched" owing to the uniform lip that surrounds it. The blue dot in the center of the light is another favorite customizing hallmark and it serves to be a focal point for this shot, providing nice contrast to the candy apple red paint job of the car.
The rear quarter of this 1949 Mercury custom has lots of eye candy, starting with the dual '59 Cadillac bullet taillights that are tunneled into the fender and the flush-fitting gas filler door. The polished billet aluminum wheel provides a bit of contrast for this shot that was taken at a local cruise night. Isolating your subject in a crowded situation such as a cruise night or car show can be very difficult, and more often than not you'll pick up reflections of other vehicles, as evidenced on this car's trunk panel.
The gleaming chrome mesh covering the headlights of this pristine 1953 Corvette prototype, known as EX 122, are just one of many pieces of eye candy that make this car a show-stopper even after 56 years. The car was on display behind velvet ropes, so tight framing using a zoom lens was the ticket to getting this shot.
Custom paint work is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to rods and customs. That being said, there's always something that will catch your attention and stand out from the crowd. This airbrushed logo on the cove panel of the Shark exemplifies automotive paint artistry. While I could have framed it tighter, I purposely left it a bit loose to give a perspective of where this logo appears on the car by leaving the hood separation line in the shot. This was shot with available light on a tripod, since using flash caused too much unwanted reflection.
The "engine-turned" swirl pattern of this stainless steel dashboard belongs to the 1954 Plymouth Belmont prototype show car. Reflective surfaces such as this are very hard to shoot straight-on, so an angled perspective like this helps to minimize unwanted glare and reflection. The roll-and-pleat cream colored leather trim was innovative in its day when padded dashboards were unheard of.
Here's something you don't see on production cars anymore, since they were outlawed in 1967 by the DOT for safety reasons — original Kelsey-Hayes knockoff wheels. Though the knockoff hub of these wheels had a nasty habit of coming loose, usually at high speed, and the wheel parting company with the car, they are still beautiful to behold and make a worthy subject to photograph. This was a hand-held shot from eye-level using available light.
This elegant swan adorns the radiator cap of a pristine 1934 Packard V-12. A beautiful piece of sculpture in its own rite, it reminds us of the Great Age of Motorcars when form did not always equate with function. While the pink bushes in the background are slightly distracting, the swan holds its own in grabbing the attention spotlight. This was another handheld shot using available light.
The Details Tell Their Own Story
Subtle cues on collector vehicles can convey a wealth of information about the car to the viewer if the shot is composed correctly. When you're going to shoot a collector vehicle, take your time to examine the vehicle up close and personal. And, if the car isn't your own, by all means be sure to ask the owner lots of questions about what he or she feels are the really unique or noteworthy features about the car. Sometimes you have to look a lot closer to find the real visual gems, but therein is where the fun lies and the great pictures are separated from the mundane. For example:
The hubcap of this 1934 Packard readily identifies it as a 12-cylinder model once owned by the well-heeled gentry of its day. This shot is of one of the fender-mounted spare tires that grace each side of the car. The subtle detail here is the red baked glass (not enamel) background of the chrome letters that gives it the extra sparkle. This was another handheld shot using available light. Caution — you have to be careful when shooting chrome or other highly-reflective surfaces not to pick yourself up in the reflection.
This is what I mean about staying out of the shot when shooting reflective subjects. If you look closely at the extreme left side of the hubcap of this 1935 Dodge, you can see me holding the camera with the neck strap dangling as I took the shot. Fortunately, the extreme convex shape of the hubcap distorts my reflection so for all intents and purposes it is just an abstract artifact. Whenever possible, it's better to take a shot like this from a distance with a telephoto lens to prevent this sort of thing from appearing in the photo.
When shooting a detail shot such as this one, be sure to have your focus crisp on the main focal point, in this case, the air cleaner with its "front" stamped marking and the care/maintenance label. Notice that the focus is a bit softer in the background, evidenced by the fact that you can't read the serial and model number plaques mounted on the firewall. This was an available light shot hand held with the lens open very wide, hence the shallow depth of field.
Whenever possible, try to frame the subject as tightly as possible to emphasize the details you wish to focus upon. Showing the AACA and FOP badges along with the vintage 1935 license plate were all that I wanted to reveal in this shot, so tight framing was the order of the day.
The custom-made interior of this 1933 Plymouth coupe exudes detail in every stitch, as evidenced by the embroidered "Mayflower" logo on the headrests. A flash was used to lessen the shadows caused by bright mid-day sun when this shoot took place. Though it didn't eliminate the difference in lighting completely, it did tone it down to an acceptable level. Cropping this shot any tighter would have removed all evidence of where this fine needlework was located on the car. When doing location shoots lighting compromises like this are not unusual, so learning to think on your feet while sizing up a shot becomes an invaluable skill, and it's only acquired through practice — lots of it.
Depth of field can be a friend or foe when shooting detail shots. I deliberately shot the rams head of this '33 Dodge, Screaming Mimi, wide open to soften the three red butterflies of the scoop and to bring the casting lines of the radiator ornament into crisp focus. Don't be afraid to experiment with different aperture and shutter settings — any shots that don't work out can always be deleted. That's the beauty of shooting digital!
Taking good engine shots is an art unto itself. Not only is it difficult to decide what components are the most eye-catching, but the angle and reflectivity can also be problematic, especially when there's lots of bling as was the case with this nitrous-boosted '33 Plymouth coupe named Nasty. By shooting from an angle I was able to use the mirror-polished firewall to my advantage in showing additional details of the motor not visible from the front or sides. Creative thinking can often turn a shooting problem into an opportunity with a little time and thought.
This Packard V-12 engine calls out "take my picture" with its chromed acorn nuts against the olive-green enameled engine block and heads. Providing stark contrast to the shiny stuff is the ribbed black radiator hose and the wrinkle-black fuel pump and generator/starter motor housing. Such textures and contrasts are the meat and potatoes of great engine shots. This one was a tripod shot with flash on for fill-lighting purposes on an overcast day.
What's Your Angle?
An angle and elevation that works well for one car may not be suitable for another. It helps to think of collector cars as individuals — as indeed they are — and searching for the best angle for each individual is the way to go. Here's what I mean:
A folding ladder was used to get an elevated shot of this 1934 Packard V-12. A 3/4 frontal view would have been too much of an angle, whereas shooting from about 15° to the right of the center of grille bar gave me just the perspective I wanted to convey. The long hood of this very large car, its meticulous finish, bright work, side-mounted spare tires and foldable canvas top are all here in this shot. Although background distractions couldn't be totally eliminated, close framing kept them minimal.
Nasty is what the owner of this 1933 Plymouth Coupe named it, and from this low-level perspective it's easy to see why. The wide front fenders flanking the massive chrome grill give this nifty street rod a menacing look even when it's standing still. "Belly shots" such as this one are easier to achieve and more comfortable if you use a creeper or a sheet of cardboard to lie down on. I would have been much happier if I could have taken this shot where no telephone pole, bushes or power lines were in the field of view, but such is life. I guess that's why PhotoShop was invented, although I'm loathe to use it!
An elevated shot taken on a three-foot folding step-stool at about a 30° angle from the rear of the car shows off Nasty's clean lines and flawless pearl purple metallic paint to best advantage. Very tight framing eliminated just about all of what was a very busy background. Doing shoots of custom cars like this one in public areas always attracts onlookers who, well-meaning though they might be, often get in the shot. Having an assistant to act as a diplomatic "people wrangler" makes the shoot go easier, something you may well want to consider.
Once again I used a three-foot folding step-stool to gain a slight elevation when shooting this 1937 Ford street rod known as Wild One. The slight elevation adds emphasis to how low the car sits — just a couple of inches off the ground, thanks to air-ride suspension that can adjust the height from dashboard-mounted controls. The terra-cotta pavers and overall brown/tan color scheme of the New Hope, PA, train station lent themselves well as a complementary background for the car. It wasn't until after the shoot was over that I realized I could have pushed the cart with the barrels on it out of the shot completely. Again, taking some time to survey the subject and everything that surrounds it can eliminate such oversights.
Sometimes Less is More
Frequently giving your viewers a "tease" is more alluring than a full-blown shot of a vehicle. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean by this here:
Corvettes had retractable headlights from 1963 through 2004, and that can make for some interesting pictures. Here, the headlights of this customized Corvette, dubbed 76SHARK, are in the open position and give the impression of eyes focused intently on something in the distance to the right of them. Simple, clean and uncluttered subjects like this often produce very dramatic results when photographed from the right perspective.
The blue sky and the quarry background provides a dramatic contrast to the black and charcoal color scheme of this '32 Ford Roadster which has minimal bright work. A teaser shot like this makes your viewers yearn to see more of the car — but that's the whole idea, isn't it?
Playing with Light
Like all other photography, when you're shooting collector cars you're basically painting with light. Not enough light is a bad thing, while too much light is also a bad thing. Finding the happy medium between the two often means using supplemental lighting such as flash or fill lights or redirecting the available light using reflectors. Here's an example of redirection:
Using a reflector judiciously can yield extraordinary results, as you can see in this shot. By aiming the reflector at the center portion of this Corvette's raised hood, I was able to produce a halo-like effect around the center "stinger" portion, thus turning just another "open hood shot" into something special.
As with anything else, practice — and lots of it — will improve your overall digital photography skills. And you don't have to go to a classic car show or a cruise night to practice — I'm sure you have a most worthy subject sitting right in your garage or driveway right now. The same principles and techniques that I've described here for collector cars apply equally to contemporary vehicles such as the family Wrangler or PT Cruiser as well if you don't want to practice on your collector vehicle for some reason (e.g., it's being repainted — but that would be a great time to shoot it!). Probably the most important piece of sage advice I can give you is to compose your shot in your head and your mind's eye before you ever click the shutter. As I said earlier — it's a Zen thing: become one with your subject and you'll amaze yourself at the results you can produce.