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Automotive Photography 5: Locations


John Jovic

The backdrop or setting in any automotive image is integral to it's success or failure. Finding suitable locations is an important part of car photography, and possibly also the hardest part.

Choosing a location should ideally start at the concept stage when deciding how to shoot the car. If a particular look, feel or style of image is planned then that may dictate the location required. Alternatively a car may be immoveable so the location will have been dictated for you, like it or not.

The colour of the car itself will always be a factor in location selection too.
Shooting indoors can be an advantage because it might allow you to light the car any way you want, but can also pose all kinds of problems. In this case the overhead skylights in the roof of the building where often reflecting in the car so it was difficult to position the car to hide these reflections. White or light coloured car panels don't reflect as much of their surrounds as any dark colours would. Such a location would be a poor choice for a black or dark coloured car because the reflections in the panels would have been overly distracting and because strobes are less effective on dark colours.  

Cars are mirrors, especially black cars. The clean reflection of the horizon in the side of the car is due to the lack of trees, power poles and buildings anywhere near the car. Such locations are ideal for dark coloured cars. The shape of the car will also determine how much it reflects it surroundings.

Black cars are like mirrors and reflect everything around them, including the photographer. Any dark colour will be far more reflective than a light colour. Black cars are easier to photograph in open locations where there is relatively little that can be reflected in the panels. Light colours are less likely to reflect their surrounds in their panels so are more forgiving than any dark colours. Light colours are generally easier to photograph in otherwise difficult or cluttered locations simply because they are less likely to reflect their surroundings.

The colour of the car may also determine which lighting techniques may or may not be used and this may have a flow on effect to location selection. Dark colours do not respond well to strobes but they do respond well to light painting techniques, and soft ambient light like sunrise/sunset, so these factors need to be considered when choosing the location. Light colours are much easier to light with strobes or other lighting techniques, such as light painting, so allow greater flexibility in location selection.
1/ This car was shot at sunset with a clear sky and no additional lighting. The perfect clear sky sunset was the ideal way to light this car in this open location.  

2/ This is the same location as the previous image however a different lighting technique, painting with light, was used to create a different look. A location can often be used several ways.

3/ Same location again, different time of day and lighting (strobes).  

4/ Same location, different lighting technique (strobes at sunset).

The 4 images above simply illustrate that you can often use the same location in a variety of ways to achieve a different style or look by shooting at different times of the day, using different lighting techniques and angles.

Some locations may work well for one single image or angle only, and this might be all you want, but other times a location which allows you to move around and compose the image in various ways may be far preferable.

Location Do's and Don'ts

The table below lists some tips for finding and using locations.
  • Look for road surfaces that the car would be expected to be driven upon, ie concrete/bitumen for road, race, drag and drift cars. Gravel is acceptable for road cars but dirt roads and grass should be avoided. If the vehicle is an off-road vehicle such as a 4 wheel drive then any surface would potentially be suitable, even creek/river beds, rocks etc.
  • Consider the time of day the shoot will take place and how the sun will help or hinder the shoot. Some locations work only in the morning, others only in the afternoon. Overcast sky's eliminate all shadows so may allow the use of certain locations which may not have been possible on a sunny day.
  • Consider the time of year and the and how the sun will help or hinder the shoot. Some locations may only be suitable during certain periods of the year when the sun rises or sets in the appropriate part of the sky. Know where the sun rises and sets at the extremes of summer and winter so that you can accurately judge where the sun will be at any time of the year.
  • Some locations are too busy to be used except during short windows of opportunity such as Christmas holidays or breaks.
  • Make sure that road access to the actual location is reasonable and that the vehicle being photographed can actually get there, ie avoid steep drive ways (which very low cars may not be able to pass) or dusty dirt roads which the owner may not be willing to drive on.
  • If shooting on private property then make arrangements with the party responsible for the property for permission to shoot.
  • Be opportunistic and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves because you might not have another chance. If you happen along a great location and keep it up your sleeve waiting for the right car to come along then it is more than likely that the location will change or be lost before you get a chance to use it. Some locations may remain unchanged and available year after year but the vast majority of locations come and go very quickly.
  • Always ask the owner of the vehicle if they have any special access to interesting locations. This often leads to the most interesting or otherwise inaccessible locations.
  • Make the most of a location by using it at different times of the day or using different lighting techniques to achieve a different look.
  • Respect the property owners and their neighbors.
  • Don't shoot cars on grass,
  • Again, don't shoot cars on grass,
  • Don't enter property illegally.
  • Don't do burnouts or leave unsightly tyre marks.
  • Don't leave any rubbish behind.
  • Don't identify local businesses unless it is part of the concept of the shoot.
  • Don't do anything to give the property owners reason to avoid any future automotive photo shoots because this spoils it for everyone.
  • Don't advertise locations to one and all. Keep good locations close to your chest to protect them from being abused and over used.
  • Avoid shopping centre's, car parks and similar private property unless you have permission to be there.

How to find locations

The next step is to try to find the location which is always easier said than done. There is no substitute for simply being on the lookout for locations all the time, on your way to work, driving around to a friends house or to a movie. Always look out for interesting places and keep notes about them for future reference. It's also a good idea to take lots of pictures of potential locations and keep these with your notes. Keep in mind that cars are mirrors and will reflect everything around them so a location with lots of trees, power poles, signs etc will potentially cause unwanted reflections in the cars panels. Sometimes a clean reflection of the horizon is needed in the panels of the car, such as when photographing black or dark cars. Some of the 'cleanest' locations are along the sea (where the horizon along the sea can be reflected in the cars panels) or open areas, such as in the country or desert where there are no objects along the horizon to create unwanted reflections.

When location scouting it's often a good idea to actively go to places or areas that you may not be familiar with or that you might even think to be a poor candidate for potential locations. Some times these unfamiliar places can lead to the most interesting and even abundant locations. Most urban areas are constantly changing so new locations are constantly becoming available. At the same time old ones are lost so it's important to always be on the look out and have new places to shoot.

It's always a good idea to allow some time to scout for locations before the shoot itself. Locations change quickly so it's always best to double check a location before a shoot and allow enough time to find a new one if needed.
Shooting at night has it's difficulties but also has several advantages. 1/ much less traffic if any (this car is stopped in the middle of a road). 2/ the weather, sky, and direction of the sun are irrelevant so there is greater freedom to light the car, although street lights can be a problem. 3/ it allows a different look compared to shooting in daylight.   

This location was effectively changed simply by using coloured gels. This lighting effect was achieved in camera by using coloured gels on the lights used to paint the car with light. The purpose was to change the colour of the background or ambient light which came from commonly used Metal Halide (white/green) and Sodium Vapour (orange) street lighting.

Some people like to use Google Maps with Street View to get an idea of what an area looks like before actually going there but this is only useful as a guide.

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