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Automotive Photography 2: Equipment primer


John Jovic

The equipment you use wont take the photo's for you, however, it is important to have equipment that doesn't hamper your efforts either. The best approach is to use the gear that you already have and if you find it has limitations then look into upgrading that part of the equipment.

The creativity you bring to a shoot is more important than your choice of equipment so don't get too hung up about it.

Which camera?

The table below briefly compares some of the different types of cameras commonly available today. There are so many different models in almost every category that there will always be exceptions in each category so it's not reasonable to go into too much detail.
  Advantages Disadvantages
Point and Shoot
  • Cheap (often)
  • Small/Compact
  • Easy to use
  • No need to focus
  • Difficult to use filters such as ND grads and Polarsing filters
  • Limited lens choice if any
  • May not offer RAW files
  • Significant shutter release delays
  • May not allow full manual control, including focus
  • Poor high ISO noise performance
4/3, MFT, APS-C and similar Electronic View Finder (EVF) cameras
  • Small/Compact
  • Interchangeable lenses, including many Alternative or Legacy lenses (ie non OEM) with the use of adapters
  • Similar disadvantages to Point and Shoot except that they have interchangeable lenses however many of these cameras have features very similar to DSLR's
Crop Cameras (DSLR)
APS-C/H (Canon
APS-C (Nikon)
  • Fast frame rate, often due to having a smaller file size
  • Larger/faster buffer than most full frame cameras
  • Option to use many Alternative or Legacy lenses (ie non OEM) with the use of adapters
  • No major disadvantages except that the sensor sizes makes it harder to achieve a very shallow depth of field than a larger sensor, but this can be seen as an advantage too.
  • Can be inexpensive
  • May need dedicated lenses to achieve a wide angle of view, such as Canon EF-S lenses, which can not be used on full frame bodies
Full Frame (DSLR)
(35mmx24mm sensor)
  • Large file size
  • Excellent high ISO noise performance
  • The larger sensor allows a shallower depth of field than crop cameras so offers slightly more creative control
  • Large choice of lenses
  • The full frame body is usually the 'flagship' camera for each brand so they are normally a 'pro' body with all the bells and whistles (features) that professionals need so are the most flexible in their use
  • Option to use many Alternative or Legacy lenses (ie non OEM) with the use of adapters
  • Expensive
  • Can be heavy/large
  • Slow frame rate, not suited to sport or action photography where a high frame rate is needed
Medium format
  • The larger sensor allows a shallower depth of field than full frame cameras so offers slightly more creative control
  • The sensors don't have Anti Aliasing (AA) filters which reduce sharpness on Full Frame and Crop cameras, however this can cause Moire.
  • Very expensive
  • Limited selection of lenses
  • Generally large, heavy and cumbersome to use
  • Slow frame rate, not suited to sport or action photography where a high frame rate is needed

The single most important point when choosing a camera is that you should be able to have full manual control of the camera and lens, and you should know how to use them. Many point and shoot cameras don't allow this so level of manual control so are best avoided for this reason alone, but some are just fine.

The end use for the images will drive your camera choice as will the subject matter itself. For example, even a 6 mega pixel camera is fine for web use, if that's all you want to do, but the camera may limit the size of any prints made from it. If large prints are needed than this might be a valid reason to upgrade to a camera with a larger file size (not necessarily a physically large sensor).

If you are shooting motorsport or action such as panning or tracking shots then a high frame rate, usually faster than 5 frames per second, or a large buffer will allow you to shoot more frames without having to wait for the camera to process and save the images to a card. It's not that you always need a camera that will shoot 10 frames per second, although that can also have it's uses, but a camera which forces you to stop shooting because it hasn't processed it's data is a major nuisances and should be avoided. This type of photography is much easier with certain crop cameras which have smaller files than full frame cameras and can shoot and save the image to a card at a much faster rate (than many full frame cameras).
Using an expensive and heavy Full Frame camera for a rig shot isn't necessary when a Crop camera would be lighter, cheaper and often have a faster buffer too.  

Crop cameras are often lighter than Full Frame cameras so can be a better choice for that reason alone.

The decision to use a crop or full frame camera is a personal one however full frame cameras have the advantage of offering a shallower depth of field than crop cameras so can offer a level of creative freedom that might be harder to achieve with crop cameras. This advantage, shallow depth of field,  increases with the size of the sensor so medium format cameras have this advantage over full frame cameras.


The subject matter also determines the kinds of lenses used. Motorsport demands the use of fast aperture and fast auto focus telephoto lenses, because of the distance between the photographer and the subject, whilst static car photography is much less demanding of lens choice.

The most efficient way to work is to use zoom lenses so most professional car photographers use several zoom lenses, from very wide to short/medium telephoto. Good quality lenses are far preferable to so called 'kit' lenses. If expensive 'pro' zoom lenses are simply beyond you budget then consider prime or fixed focal length lenses which are usually much cheaper but generally offer very high image quality. The advantage of a zoom lens is simply it's flexibility and speed of use but this may not be an important factor for everyone.
Shot at F1.4 with a 50mm lens.  

Shot at F2.8 with an 80mm Tilt lens adjusted so the focal plane was tilted at the same angle as the subject.

Specialised lenses can be used for creative effect or simply to resolve technical issues like controlling the focus plane. Very fast lenses can be used for their shallow depth of field or possibly for their bokeh. Tilt/shift lenses can also be very useful, particularly for detail shots, however they can be expensive, slow and difficult to use.

Ultra wide angle lenses are required to shoot interiors. A typical interior might be shot with a 16/17mm lens on a full frame body or a 10/12mm lens on a crop camera. Even wider lenses can be used for effect, such as full frame fish eye lenses which give a much wider view of an interior than is possible any other way.

Tripods and supports

The single most important and overlooked piece of automotive photographic equipment is the tripod. If you don't have a good one then get one. It is very important to hold a camera very still. Cheap, light, flimsy tripods simply do not do this so should be avoided at all costs. Don't buy cheap tripods, it will cost you more in the long run.
Small tripods are light and quick to use. They are usually ideal for very low level work but simply can't be used reliably at very high levels especially on windy days.  

Large tripods are indispensible for many types of car photography but they can certainly be cumbersome for general use. A large tripod can also cope better with strong winds which can affect sharpness.

Shooting from ground level is very common so a sturdy solution is often needed. This is a simple plate with a tripod head fitted. The adjustable feet on each corner allow the plate to be leveled and kept sturdy.  

Some tripods can also serve as rigs or car mounts.

A high quality tripod head with a quick release plate is essential if you want to be able to detach and reattach the  camera quickly. Ball heads are very quick to use and potentially very rigid but they might take some getting used to if you've never used one. Three way heads are also excellent, but slower to use. If you have several tripods, for example in varying heights/weights/ground level, then try to use the same tripod heads on all of them as it's much easier to switch from one to the other.


Various forms of lighting will be discussed later so the approach that you wish to take will ultimately dictate the lighting needed. You may simply choose to use available light with no additional lighting at all however this may severely limit your work to a narrow lighting style or 'look'.
A simple reflector can be very useful and potentially faster to use than strobes however they are really only useful on sunny days and in light winds.  

Battery powered strobes are the mainstay of the automotive photographer but they can be slow to setup and adjust. They offer the greatest amount of flexibility and allow the photographer to create their own light and even overpower sunlight if needed.

As most automotive photography is on location, and away from mains power, battery powered strobes tend to be the preferred artificial lighting source. Continuous lighting can also be used to light paint a car at night and they can be either battery or mains powered.


Shooting RAW offers the photographer far greater flexibility than shooting jpegs although jpegs require far less post processing, if any, so may be a better choice if the work is time critical. The RAW converter you use will have an impact on how quickly and easily you process RAW files. There are certainly many RAW converters on the market and often the differences are minor however there certainly are differences between them so it's a good idea to try various options and see which one works best for you. Phase One Capture One is an excellent option and offers many of the functions that where previously only available in image manipulation software such as Photoshop. Image manipulation software such as Photoshop will always be needed where extensive manipulation is needed, such as compositing or cloning images.

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