Choosing the right car photography settings for any car photo shoot situation can sometimes be confusing. If you’re new to car photography and want to quickly learn the best car photography settings, then the following guide will help you to understand how the best car photographers have a handful of magic bullets. Settings that they have memorised for any car photograph. This enables them to be able to instinctively shoot quickly and get the right camera settings for car photography in almost any situation.
This may sound like a hard skill to master, yet in fact, it revolves around the simple understanding of exposure and how the combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO all contribute to affect the final image. Follow this simple guide on car photography camera settings, practice and memorise them and you will find your photography will quickly improve.
So What’s Wrong with Program Mode for Car Photography Settings?
There’s nothing wrong with it and if you lack the confidence to experiment, then ‘Program’ mode is just fine. However, if you’ve been using that setting and are a little disappointed with your results, it’s time to move on. Learning more about car photography and understanding car photography camera settings involves experimentation and a little failure along the way. Moving out of the automatic mode is the first step to understanding more about all aspects of photography, not only car photography.
You need to get a firm understanding of exposure and how it relates to car photography settings. Not just the correct exposure using the camera’s built in meter, but the different effects that changing the shutter speed and aperture have on a photograph. The correct exposure is achieved using a combination of shutter speed and aperture. There’s often no single solution for this and the shutter / aperture combination you choose will have a direct affect on the look of the final shot and this is the thing you really need to become instinctive about when shooting cars.
If you leave the camera in Program mode, then the camera will take an ‘average’ setting. It’s a setting it knows will give you a correctly exposed image, though it will not provide you with some of the best effects you could achieve, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble of buying some quality lenses too.
Tip – want to experiment without having to write down the camera setting to remember later? All modern digital cameras record the settings in a data file called EXIF, so you can use your favourite photo software to recall the settings you used later. Simply open up the EXIF data panel and you will see exactly what settings you were using on your camera at that time.
Shutter vs Aperture
The shutter speed is the duration of time that the sensor is exposed to light. In a DSLR, you will see the shutter behind the mirror which flips up to reveal the camera sensor The aperture is located inside the camera lens and is size of the hole the light comes through. See, easy, isn’t it? Correct exposure is achieved by a differing combination of shutter speed and aperture, but we knew that, right? The faster the shutter speed, the bigger aperture (hole) you need to balance out the exposure. Selecting a large (wider) aperture lets in more light, so you’ll need to speed up the shutter speed so that it’s not open as long, reducing the amount of light to balance it out.
So to recap, at any one time, you’ve got several choices of aperture and shutter speed you can choose that will all give a satisfactory result. The difference between all of those settings for a car photographer will be whether you need to have the shot frozen and pin sharp, or whether you’re looking to create blur for effect. You’ve probably guessed that you control those things with the shutter speed.
Perhaps less obvious is that by using different apertures, you can control which parts of the shot are in focus and which aren’t. Why would you want to do that? It’s called ‘depth of field’ and by controlling depth of field you can give emphasis to the part of the subject you want to. You see this effect every time you watch a movie drama on TV. You will see the cinematographer using a shallow depth of field and then move the focus to help you move your eyes in the scene as the conversation moves back and forth. You see it in still photographs, particularly action shots, all the time.
ISO – What Used to be Film Speed
Finally, the other thing that has an effect on exposure is what used to be film speed, but is now sensor ISO. Modern digital SLR’s have stunning sensors with the ability to deliver lovely shots in incredibly low light at ISO settings that used to be virtually useless just a couple of years ago. Sensor ‘noise’ used to create fuzziness in shadows and created ‘mush’ that make pictures taken in low light pretty much unusable. This means that historically, photographers used to try and keep the ISO at around 100 as often as possible. Today, we see images shot at ISO12500 and ever higher figures that look clean and sharp.
Today, DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras come with superb sensors that allow you to increase sensor ISO and keep on juggling the settings in ways you never could before. In short, you’ve never had it so good. This means that ISO has changed in recent years from being something that was always kept as low a value as possible to becoming an additional tool to help exposure in low light situations
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have good flash technique. That’s a subject for another post.
So that’s the basics of aperture, shutter speed and ISO out of the way, time to figure out what effect you’re looking for and how to use combinations to create effects.
You’ve probably seen the pin sharp, head on shot like this one. The car jumps out of the background due to it being pin sharp but the background is soft and out of focus, drawing the eye to concentrate on the main subject. This is Sandro Munari, driving a Lancia Stratos at Goodwood and was shot on a Canon 1DS with the brilliant 70-200 f2.8 zoom. Wider apertures of course mean faster shutter speeds, making it perfect for head on action shots like this.
This is called shallow ‘depth of field’ which is the term used to describe the distance between the nearest in focus point and the point furthest away. The smaller the aperture number ie f2.8, the more shallow the depth of field. Smaller aperture numbers, f22 for example, will ensure that more of the picture is sharp, with less out of focus areas.
You would use a small aperture for recording a general static scene for example, where you wish the cars and also the background landscape to all be sharp.
This image of a Jaguar XK-RS was shot on a small aperture. The car wasn’t moving so the shutter speed could be slow. By using a small aperture, the shot is sharp from front to back.
Controlling Shutter Speed
Anyone thinking of car photography for the first time automatically assumes that you’re going to need a fast shutter speed, particularly for action. After all, these cars are fast, so you need to stop it, right? True, but the danger you have with going that route is that too fast a shutter speed and the car just looks like it’ s parked. Cars look best when they’re moving and some of the most exciting action shots are often shot at slower shutter speeds to give a greater impression of speed. Getting lost? Flick back to the earlier section on exposure. You know, the bits you skipped past..
So how slow is slow and how fast is fast? That’s what you need to figure out and that takes a little experience, but don’t worry, it will come. To get you started, here’s a few examples of motion blur and the settings used to get them.
This is a classic panning shot of a Porsche 959. The car is sharp, with the background blurred to enhance the suggestion of speed.
This is another panning shot of a Corolla World Rally Car, on a frozen lake in Norway. By using a slower shutter speed and panning the shot, the car remains sharp, but the background is blurred giving a true representation of the speed the car was driving at on the frozen lake.
For tips and a guide on car photography in winter time, read this blog post on the most important things you need to consider when shooting car photography in cold temperatures.
You can see how a fast shutter speed is actually undesirable much of the time for car photography and that can be a difficult concept for someone just starting out to get their head around, especially if you’re used to setting “P” on your control dial. But have the courage to move out of of the auto mode and you’ll be rewarded with more control over what comes out of your camera and better results all round.
A final tip to help you practice your car photography settings. If you lack the confidence or the understanding of exposure to move fully to Manual mode on your camera, then take some baby steps. Read this post on how Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are actually the secret sauce settings that help you get the effect you want while the camera helps you nail the exposure without worrying too much.