My buddy Jay Lenza shot me a message the other day on Facebook saying we should do a regular feature on the worst photography in Craigslist from people trying to sell their cars, after he found this ad for a 1989 Volvo 240 literally off the road in the bushes. You don’t have to be Ansel Adams, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to shoot a decent picture of an automobile you’re trying to sell.
Some of the photos in this are mine, but most are photos I grabbed off of a quick search on Craigslist in the last 10 minutes.
Let me preface this by saying I’m not a great photographer. I’m ok at taking pictures of cars because I’ve done it a lot, and I had great teachers, like Jeff Koch who still takes some amazing photos at Hemmings, and now Dave Nutting, who takes some insanely nice photos for BangShift.
Those guys have given me some tools that I use every single day to take a halfway decent picture that looks good enough for most purposes, and about 9,248 percent better than most photos you see on eBay or Craigslist. I have seriously sold cars based on a decent photograph that looks better than most of the lazy, lousy pictures that people with better cars have taken.
I use these seven tips every time I take a picture of anything, and they have always served me well.
1. Don’t Worry About Equipment
If you think you can’t possibly take a decent picture because you don’t have a $4,500 camera, you’re going about things all wrong. It is quite possible to take a really nice picture of a car with the phone you have in your pocket.
The first week I came to work here, I was in dire need of a new camera. I still using a Canon 10D, which was put together some time in the late 1840s. Not that it wasn’t capable of taking a decent photo, mind you, but after years of using it to take photos of guys welding and grinding floor pans, it was beat.
I ordered a new camera, but in the meantime, a Jaguar F-Type showed up in my driveway for a few days and I needed to get it shot. I grabbed my phone, found a decent location and let it rip and the results turned out pretty well.
The camera that’s in your iPhone is infinitely capable of taking very nice photos. I’ve been using the HDR feature when I really want to make something look nice and the lighting conditions aren’t perfect. It essentially takes three photos, overexposing one and underexposing another, along with one right in the middle. Then it automatically blends them together into one really nice looking photo. I wish I had that capability in my old 10D.
2. Watch the Light
Some things don’t look bad in full sun, but big, shiny things like automobiles can look awful. You end up with huge flares on some parts while the rest is completely obscured in shadow.
With relatively few exceptions, most people who take decent photos of cars don’t even take the camera out of the bag unless it’s first thing in the morning, or just before sunset. There’s perfect light just as the sun begins to rise over the horizon, and just before it sets again, but don’t worry so much about that. Just don’t have the sun blasting the car to oblivion and you’ll do well.
This Shelby is a good example of what full sun does to a black car. It’s a gorgeous car and it’s been amazingly detailed, but it’s black and it’s shot some time in the mid-afternoon, judging by the shadow. With the black paint and black wheels, shot on the shadow side, the entire car just disappears.
The best is when the sun is setting beneath a heavy bank of thunder clouds. The clouds act like a giant light box. Capture that a few times and you’ll find yourself going out to take pictures driving your Geo Metro rental car.
3. Keep an Eye on the Background
Plenty of people drive around looking for cool old barns to take pictures in front of and end up with photos that look busy and distracting.
Nice R8, right? Why is there a tree growing out of the roof?
Think about what you want to see in the photo: the barn or the car? If it’s the car, then focus on that and don’t lose yourself taking pictures of the barn.
Barns are really only cool for a couple of reasons: First, they offer some context. Is the car a Mustang? Then a barn makes some sense. (Horse…mustang…barn…get it?) Is the car a Tesla? Then a barn makes NO sense.
Second, they often provide a large, uniform backdrop for a car to be in front of. The same can be said of giant piles of gravel, huge retaining walls, even massive stacks of junk cars. Anything that makes for a uniform backdrop that doesn’t distract from the car is good stuff.
Used to be you had to look through a tiny hole in the back of the camera to see what kind of picture you were going to take. Now you’ve got a beautiful, high-resolution screen that shows you exactly what the picture’s going to look like.
Use that screen to look around a bit. Make sure you don’t have anything growing out of the car: telephone poles, light standards, radio towers, that kind of thing. And take a look to see that your kid’s tricycle, your car wash bucket and the old toilet you removed from the bathroom aren’t in the photo. If they are, move the car somewhere else. Nobody wants to see that.
4. Hit the Deck
Nine times out of ten, when people are taking pictures at a car show, they walk up to the car, hold the camera up to their face and snap away, and the photos lack any sense of composition.
Cars don’t look all that good when they’re photographed around 5 feet 11 inches off the ground. Get low, though, and all of a sudden, cars start looking menacing. Same lens, same distance from the car, a low angle can be really dramatic. Getting low also makes parking lot stripes magically disappear.
5. Don’t Cut Anything Off
This should go without saying, but don’t take pictures of cars and cut half the car off.
6. Remove Everything
I cannot tell you how many Craigslist photos I’ve seen with $82 worth of empty Burger Chef bags in the passenger footwell, on top of disgusting floor mats, with a nasty Dunkin Donuts cup jammed in the cupholder.
For the love of Mike, get a black trash bag and fill it with all the crap that’s accumulated in your trunk, and hit that thing with a Shop Vac. You’ll spend 15 minutes doing it and instantly add $400 to your asking price.
7. Fill the Frame With What You’re Taking Pictures Of
Here’s the scenario in about 42 percent of eBay ads I see: The seller is trying to show a picture of the dash and he’s nine miles away so you can mostly just see the steering wheel.
Get up on that thing and fill up the frame with what you’re trying to show. There’s no sense in taking an engine picture from 20 feet away. That’s a photo of the underside of the hood and the front fender. That engine’s not going to bite, and you don’t need to show a lot of it. A close picture that eliminates the fender, the underside of the hood and the fan is just fine.
None of this takes any time, and none of it requires much of an investment. It’s just a little bit of thought ahead of time that can result in hundreds of dollars when somebody wants to buy your car.