Five easy steps for better car photos.




If you ever sold a used car online using Craigslist or similar service, you know that one of the first things you have to do is take photos of the car. Since I had to do this myself recently (an it wasn't the first time) I though of writing a short tutorial on the subject. Posting good photos of your car can greatly increase your chances of getting an interested buyer. Here are the main steps I followed

1) Clean the car

You would think this step is common-sense, but a quick surfing through the "for sale by owner" adds on Craigslist often reveals a surprising number of cars that just look dirty. This will make it hard to attract those rich, germaphobe buyers:) So do yourself a favor and clean the car, both inside and out. Also don't forget to remove distracting items you normally carry inside (tissue boxes, solar shields, cables, dogs, etc.) You want the car to look as clean and uncluttered as possible.

2) Choose the right time of day to photograph

Many professionals use complex lighting setups for truly "artistic" car photography. For the purpose of this article, we will take a more practical approach and rely mostly on natural light. If you can, avoid mid-day where the light is harshest and unflattering. I prefer using the early morning time when the light is softer (and it's cooler outside). Overcast days also work well as you get a very "soft" and even light.

3) Select the right lens for the job

You don't need an interchangeable lens camera for this type of job. Even a good point-and-shoot camera can be more than adequate. Regardless of the camera used, it helps to have a relatively wide angle lens available for the interior shots. Interior spaces are crammed, making it difficult to get a good dashboard shot for example without a wide-angle lens. As wide-angle lens, I'm referring here to a 24 mm or shorter focal length (in 35 mm film equivalent terms) or 16 mm or less in APS-C cameras. I've used my to Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 for most of the interior shots. Wide-angle lenses also tend to give a "generous" sense of space (a trick real-estate photographers understand well).

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For the exterior shots, a "normal" lens in the 35 mm to 50 mm range will do fine. You don't want to use extreme wide angles for the external shots as these tend to distort the car's geometrical shapes and that can work against you...

4) Photograph

For the exterior shots, you'll want to cover all important views (left, right, front, back). Remember that buyers want to see the overall condition of the car before they take the time to drive and see it.


Figure 1 - Front View



Figure 2 - Side View



Figure 3 - Back View

Photographing the insides of the car can be a bit more challenging. If you got a hold of a wide-angle lens as recommended in step 3, you already have a good start. The issue now is to balance the very bright outside light with the dim interior. I recommend using your camera's flash for this. By forcing flash into the dashboard you effectively "balance" the interior and exterior light resulting in a better exposure, without very dark shadows or burned highlights. Another way to accomplish this "balancing" act is to use HDR. Take three photos at +/-2 stops and combine them later in HDR software (see my hand-held HDR article for instructions). Unless you do this for a living though, you'll find it easier and faster to simply use the flash method.



 Figure 4 - Inside view. Shot using flash to light the dashboard.



Figure 5 - Interior Perspective Using Flash.

5) Process and Post your Photos

If you followed steps 1 through 4, there shouldn't be much processing involved. I do recommend doing some cropping and resizing though before posting to the web. Cropping to remove superfluous background objects and keep the photo focused on the subject: the car. Resizing to make the files small as you would want for website posting. Some services such as Craigslist do automatically resize your photos, but it will take you a bit longer to upload them if you don't resize them in advance. Try to keep them under 800 pixels wide for compact sizes with acceptable detail. You may also want to apply some sharpening as the downsizing and compression processes often reduce the image's sharpness.