Let me preface this write-up by saying if you're looking for a quick and easy way to follow a few instructions step-by-step and think you're going to go out there and create some amazing photographs you can think again. Good pictures dont take themselves. It doesn't matter whether you have a $200 point-and-shoot or a $2,000 digital SLR you can still get solid, quality photographs if you follow some basic guidelines and hone your skills and techniques. This is a very basic guide to get you started down the right road but no write-up will take good pictures for you. You have to experiment with lighting, camera settings, technique, and post-processing to improve your pictures. Practice truly does make perfect when it comes to photography. With that said lets get started.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR CAMERA (Settings):
Check your owner's manual for all of these features as they are good basic settings for most any camera...
File Size and Quality: This needs to be addressed first and foremost. Make absolutely sure you're shooting at the absolute highest file size and the absolute highest possible quality. If it doesn't offer you many pictures, get a bigger memory card. This is something alot of people miss and without the quality, no matter what else you do, your pictures will not look good.
Shooting Mode: Aperture Priority. Set the aperture (sometimes refered to as f-stop) to lowest possible numerical value. This creates the in-focus subject and slightly out-of-focus background, or a shallower depth of field (DOF). The camera will automatically adjust shutter speed to properly expose the picture according to the camera's internal light meter from here.
ISO: Set this to the lowest numerical value possible. Anywhere between 50-200 will work well to begin with.
White Balance: Auto is always a safe bet, but playing with this never hurts. Experiment if you'd like and see how it effects the end result. Its always good practice that when you first start shooting in any light to try auto, daylight, and cloudy/shade. When the light changes dramatically or you go to a new location play with the white balance again.
Flash: CUT IT OFF! No camera's built-in flash is adequate enough to evenly and properly light a car no matter the lighting (yes, even if you're using it as a fill-flash in daylight it's still not up to the task). Circumstances where the flash is useful are very few and very far between (I've taken thousands of pictures of cars and I dont think I've ever turned out a picture I was proud of where I used the camera's built-in flash). If its dark enough to need a flash just to light the subject, you need to adjust the exposure accordingly through shooting in fully manual mode, not through a built-in flash.
Exposure Value (EV): Dont adjust this now, but make yourself familiar with it. Once you get out there and start shooting, review the image and if it looks to light or dark this is what you can adjust without touching anything else to make things easier on you. If the picture is too dark, adjust the EV to the positive side a bit and shoot again. If its too bright adjust the EV lower and shoot again. If you get the other basic settings down, then get your white balance set on the first few shots to see which looks best in the light you're shooting in, this will be the only thing you need to adjust as you continue to shoot at a location to try to get the best quality pictures.
WHEN TO SHOOT (Lighting):
Lighting is the most critical element of capturing a good picture. Maybe you didn't catch that the first time so let me repeat myself. Lighting is THE most critical element of capturing a good picture. Its also the one thing we cant really control (without getting strobes, soft boxes, diffusers, and other complicated and expensive photography items). But we can choose what light to shoot in. You never, ever, ever want to shoot in the middle of the day under harsh daylight. For beginners the easiest times to shoot are early in the morning just after sunrise (you get more useable light than before sunset), in a completely shaded area, or preferably on a heavily overcast day when the light is more diffused. The most critical thing is to have the car well lit, so you generally dont want to be shooting at dusk, but without the light being so harsh that it screws with your colors and blows out your highlights.
Everyone loves to spend all morning cleaning up their car then go out and snap pictures. That harsh afternoon light washed out colors, creates harsh shadows, and freaks your camera's internal light meter out completely. When it's that nice out forget the pictures, grab your keys instead of your camera, and go cruising... perhaps to scout out some locations for taking some pictures later when the lighting is better.
WHERE TO SHOOT (Location):
There are places to take picture everywhere. You can find a lot of good locations by driving around the backside of your local Sam's, Home Depot, etc. Just keep your eyes open. You dont want backgrounds that are too busy. Keep things simple. Alot of times if you're just trying to get a good picture of your car find a solid colored brick wall to shoot against. Pay attention to pictures you see in magazines and what backdrops they use.
HOW TO SHOOT (Composition):
Now that you have good camera settings, are working in good light, and at a good location it's time to work on your composition. This is where thinking comes into photography. What you're trying to do with your composition is to create a picture that is visually interesting. Photography is about the artist displaying a point of view that the viewers may not normally be accustom to seeing. This makes pictures interesting. First and foremost lets talk about the position of the car within the frame.
Now that you understand how to place the vehicle within the frame, its time to position the car where you want it in relation to the backdrop and start snapping. Generally speaking front and rear quarter shots show cars off well. Tire tread isn't interesting so make sure your wheels are straight or turned where the face of the wheel is facing the camera. Lower angles tend to work well also. Try kneeling, squatting, or even laying on the ground to take your shots. If you have a step ladder or can use some of your surroundings to climb on top of to get a higher angle do so. Taking pictures at standing height is boring because thats how we see cars every day. Use your photography to present a more artistic, interesting vantage point.
The most important thing is to pay attention to everything within the frame. Dont use the display to frame your shot. Looking through the camera properly forces you to pay more attention to everything you see within the frame. Make sure your shadow isn't in the picture. Make sure there are no light poles or trees directly behind the car as it detracts from the car and distracts the eye to them instead of your subject. Watch for things laying on the ground around the car. You dont want any distractions. There is no set rule to composing a proper shot, it's something you're going to have to experiment with and refine on your own. Again, pay attention to other pictures you see and like and use them to get ideas from.
The most important thing is to truly think about the pictures you're taking with a goal in mind. Dont just start snapping and hope to get a good shot. You need to think about what you want the end result to look like.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
Keeping the camera steady is key in making sure your pictures are sharp and in focus. Compose your shot, take a deep breathe in, breathe out slowly and smoothly and press the shutter button. If you just cant get a sharp shot pick up a tripod. You can get them cheap online or at your local camera shop. Most people never think to get one because they think they dont need one or that they are too expensive. If your shots are suffering, $20 or $30 for an affordable, quality tripod with a decent level of adjustment is priceless. No matter how steady of a hand you have it'll never be as steady as a stable tripod.
Angles and tilting the camera can help to create more interesting images, but everything in moderation. You dont want people needing a chiropractic alignment after looking at your pictures because they had to tilt their head see what you were taking a picture of.
Filters can do wonders for your photography. Circular polarizers are considered a must when shooting automotive photography in natural light and outside of a studio setting. If you have a dSLR pick up a circular polarizer for it immediately and try adjusting it as you shoot to see how it effects the color of the car and the reflections on the glass. If you're shooting with a point-and-shoot and have a pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses hold one of the lenses over the front of the camera's lens for a similar effect.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR PICTURES (Post-processing):
Just like how cameras dont take good pictures by themselves, good pictures dont "photoshop" themselves either. Work is involved but putting a little in can get a lot out of your already solid photographs. No decent picture in any reputable magazine got put in there straight out of a camera. There is a reason models are airbrushed and there is a reason photographs are edited and touched up. Photography is just like painting cars. A good, solid photograph straight from the camera is a lot like a quality basecoat on a car. You can definitely see that there is quality there, but you wont really see the true "shine" and "gloss" until the clear coat, or in this case the post-processing, it added. So now that you understand that you'll need to do some work after the pictures have been captured lets get started.
Editing Program: Adobe Photoshop is king and if you purchase it or have access to it most of your guides online and most users who you can get input from use it as well so it'll make life easier if you have it. If you dont though there are freeware programs available. Programs like "The GIMP" have all the same tools that Photoshop utilizes, you just go about using those tools in a slightly different manner depending on what you're trying to do. If you dont have Photoshop, go to GIMP - The GNU Image Manipulation Program and download the latest version of The GIMP. Now that we have the means to process the pictures lets cover some basic editing processes.
First and foremost you need to decide whether you want to crop the image at all. You want your composition as close as possible out of the camera but this is where you fine tune it. Remember the rule of thirds and pay attention to your overall composition in this step. If your initial composition is solid you may not have to crop at all.
Next, you need to resize the image. You dont want to do any exposure or color management until the image has been resized to its final size because if you do this at the full size then downsize it you run into quality loss. Choose the size you want the picture to be and resize it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Sharpening is the absolute last thing you need to do when editing photos as you want the photo to be done before sharpening to avoid your adjustments affecting the image causing it to be oversharpened and/or adding noise (visible as grainy looking areas in pictures). You may also want to play with the Brightness/Contrast adjustment as well. Again, less is more here and you only want to add a little if you do because it degrades the overall quality of the image. Once you have all your basic adjustments taken care of, do your sharpening and you're done. If you want to add a border you can do so at this point.
Adding a basic border in Photoshop: Select the rectangular marquee tool, mouse over the image, and hit Ctrl+A to "Select All." Right click the image, go to Stroke, and set your pixel width and color.
Adding a basic border in The GIMP: Go to Script-Fu, Decor, Add Border. Set your pixel values for the height and width of the border, select your color, and select your value (a value of 1 will make a black border solid black whereas a higher value will make it more transparent).
Now all you need to do is upload and post your pictures. Be aware of your host and if they resize the pictures or not. I'm a big fan of Imageshack as you dont need an account to upload pictures (but you can create one to store the pictures and go back to them later), they offer plenty of bandwidth, and they do not resize the pictures. Photobucket is another popular host but they do resize pictures and it can really kill the quality. No matter the host you choose just make sure they aren't degrading your pictures with any resizing.
So now you have all the tips and tools at your disposal to turn out some very high quality pictures. Get out there and start sharpening your skills and techniques so you can get the most out of your pictures and be sure to post your progress as you start getting better results. While it may seem like a lot of work putting a little extra time and effort into your shots can yield some truly amazing results. I hope this helps some of you guys and I look forward to seeing your progress. Thanks for reading.