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How to Photograph Your Car

You’re reading a few car reviews and a late model car catches your eye. The performance, the striking exterior, the heated seats, even the fuel economy is enough to keep you up at night. You’ve done some research and decided to sell your faithful, or maybe not so steadfast, vehicle and upgrade to the latest and greatest, if for no other reason than to start sleeping again. You’ve investigated trading the jalopy in, but decided that selling it outright simply makes more sense for one reason or another. While leaving a “for sale” sign on the windshield and driving around might produce a buyer, the reality is that you will only expose your car to a tiny sliver of the potential market.

When you decide to sell, photographing your vehicle is possibly the most daunting task. Good photos will help your car sell quickly and often for more money. The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” could more aptly be stated as “good photos in an online ad are worth thousands of dollars.”

I want to share some of my own personal experiences in photographing vehicles. My goal is to help you develop a successful strategy for taking clear, well-framed and interesting pictures that clearly represent your automobile online.

Choosing Your Equipment

If you own a fairly recent smartphone there is a good chance that you might be reading this article on your camera. Many of today’s phones are able to produce photos that rival what some of the better point-and-shoot cameras can provide. I have attended new vehicle launches were journalists from large outlets take photographs for print or online publications exclusively with their iPhone or Galaxy. However, a smartphone does have limitations, and if you have had trouble taking clear photos in the past, you may want to look into purchasing a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. Even a camera that costs less than $100 will take excellent pictures if you take your time.

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(CARFAX, Inc.)

Personally, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, which is digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. My camera is certainly not the latest or greatest, some DSLR cameras cost thousands of dollars, but the D7000 takes high-quality photos and it was within my budget. Unfortunately, as nice as DSLR cameras are, they can be a little complicated to use if you’re not familiar with the format. Still, an entry-level DSLR can be a great investment if you enjoy photography.

One of the values of using a DSLR camera is that you quickly and easily interchange different lenses, adding to the functionality and value. The lens that I usually use for my exterior automotive shots is a relatively inexpensive (less than $200) Nikon 35mm F1.8G prime. Additionally, I use a wide angle Nikon zoom lens for interior photos. The “kit” lens that comes with many DSLR cameras will also work just fine for both exterior and interior shots.

I should stress that a DSLR camera is not required, especially if it sounds too complicated or expensive. A newer smartphone or inexpensive point-and-shoot camera should work just fine.

Where and When

Smartphone, digital point-and-shoot or high-end DSLR in hand, finding the right location will make all the difference in creating a poignant “selling” photo or one that gets skipped over. While many settings will work for photographing your car, it is important to find a wide open spot with plenty of nothing in the background. If you are shooting photos for an adventure story the backdrop becomes a big part of the photo, but when you are preparing a sales listing there should only be one interesting item in the shot: the soon-to-be sold vehicle.

(CARFAX, Inc.)
(CARFAX, Inc.)

You might already have an ideal location in mind, if not pay a little attention as you are driving around your neighborhood, almost any wide open parking lot will work perfectly. Just make sure there aren’t any other cars in the photo, the last thing you want is for your Honda Civic to get upstaged by a Mercedes-Benz C-Class that is sitting right behind it. I have also found that tree lines, a body of water, or the wall of a large building work equally well as backdrops. Just be careful that there isn’t some printed advertisement stealing attention away from your car. Even more importantly, make sure there aren’t any trash cans or dumpsters in view. Maybe this is a pet-peeve, but I cringe whenever I see a photo of a car for sale and there is a giant blue dumpster behind it. I actually think the garbage receptacle sends a subliminal message to the potential buyer.

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(CARFAX, Inc.)

As far as when to shoot, save the bright sunshine for beach days and look for softer light if possible. I’ve found that dusk and dawn work really well, but an overcast day can be equally rewarding. That said, you can shoot the car’s exterior in almost any natural light with some careful planning, but please avoid flash photography and artificial lighting like florescent gas station bulbs. Unless you are in an absolutely controlled lighting environment like a studio, artificial lighting and car pictures don’t mix. The light is uneven, the reflections are distracting, and most importantly, no one will get a true idea of your vehicle’s condition.

Interior shots are a different story; you really need consistent shade or indirect natural light. The shadows made from direct light coming through the vehicle’s greenhouse will make the photo inconsistent and almost impossible to view. The shaded areas will be too dark and the sunny spots appear blown out.

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(CARFAX, Inc.)

Preparing Your Vehicle

If you’re selling the vehicle “as is” you can skip any time or money spent on repairs and concentrate on making the vehicle as presentable as possible without a sizeable investment. A good wash and a coat of wax, even the quick spray-on type, will help your car’s exterior look its best. Cleaning the inside requires careful vacuuming and using a slightly damp towel to wipe down the dashboard, door panels, seats and any other non-porous surfaces. Stubborn stains can be remedied with upholstery cleaners and shampoos; you may want to consult your local automotive store or detailer for advice.

Finally, pop the hood and once again use a soft slightly damp towel to wipe away any dust and dirt on the engine. Be careful here, if you aren’t gentle you can do more harm than good. My recommendation is to simply clean out any leaves, sand and dirt with a bristle brush vacuum attachment and then follow behind with that damp towel.

If in doubt, inside or out, bring your vehicle to a professional detailer and let them take care of it for you. A clean, detailed vehicle will not only look better in the photos, but typically sells for more money than a filthy one.

Taking Your Photos

Your vehicle is prepped, you’ve made it to the location and the lighting is perfect. So now what?

The goal is to provide clear, clean photos that represent enough angles and details of your vehicle that a prospective buyer will feel compelled to pick up the phone or send an email for more information. You do not need to take 100 photos to do this. A dozen pictures or so should do the trick, maybe less if the vehicle is in excellent condition.

Frame each shot so that the entire vehicle is in the picture unless you are focusing on a particular aspect of the car. I’ve make a quick checklist that you can take along with you on the shoot and included a gallery of examples below. Think of this as a must-have list and go from there. The basic idea is to work your way around the car taking pictures as you go.

Must-Have Photos for Online Listings:

1. Front fascia.
2. Rear fascia.
3. Side of the car, both if either has any damage or distinctive marks.
4. An angle from the front and back that shows the trunk and hood.
5. Front and rear wheels, all four if any are damaged.
6. Tire tread, if any are worn or older post pictures of all four.
7. Front seats, particularly the driver’s seat which often shows the most wear.
8. Rear seats.
9. Audio or Infotainment system.
10. Steering wheel.
11. Gear shift mechanism. Not only is this a great way to help people envision themselves driving the car, but it will alert the buyer to whether it is a manual or automatic transmission car.
12. Gauge cluster/odometer to reveal the mileage.
13. Engine bay.
14. Trunk.
15. Close-up photos of any damage, with a reference if necessary.
16. Any special features that add value to the car like a sunroof, graphics or special badging.

Be as honest and forthcoming with the pictures as possible, hiding damage only to have a prospective buyer discover it when they inspect the car usually means lowered prices. Use your photos to put it all out there and the face-to-face transaction will go far more smoothly for both parties. A helpful tip is to use masking tape to attach a dollar bill near any scratches or damage to help with perspective.

Editing, Cropping and Posting Photos

Once you’ve shot your photos, take a few moments to crop them so that the majority of the shot is the car and not the surroundings. Although a beach scene is attractive and artsy, no one is buying the background, they are trying to decide whether or not to invest in your car.

Do not correct scratches or blemishes in the software. It is easy to use a clone tool to zap out scratches and dents, but not only is that dishonest; it will come back around to haunt you at negotiation time. What you can do is use a photo editor, including the software that comes in your smartphone, to brighten a photo a little to reveal any details that may be hiding in the shadows. Just don’t overdo it, small changes go a long way.

If you are uncomfortable posting your license plate, take it off before you shoot the photos or use the “blemish” tool in your software to fuzz out a few of the characters.

Once you’ve edited and saved your photos, all you have to do is follow the directions on how to upload the images to the online listing website, sit back and wait for the responses.

Happy shooting!

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