If you are selling a used car online, one great way to make your car stand out from the rest and attract more attention is to up your photo game. You don’t need to be a professional photographer to capture compelling images of the car or truck you are ready to sell—a few simple tips can help your photos grab the attention of possible buyers.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
You’ve seen the standard used-car photo—the boring shot taken outside a dealership, in a driveway or crowded parking lot, midday, from standing eye level, of a sterile-looking car, with a wide-angle smartphone camera lens. This type of photo won’t help your online car ad stand out. Better photographs will.
In general, you’ll want to approach the photo shoot for the car in the same way you’d approach it for any other type of deliberate (non-snapshot) photography. This requires paying attention to photographic details that others might miss.
Speaking of smartphones, you can certainly use a smartphone camera to get good images of your car. Many of these tips will apply to the photographer regardless of what gear is being used.
If your car were a model (it is!), you’d send it to the hair and makeup department before the photo shoot.
Do I need to tell you to clean your car?
Go a step further and give it a good detailing, including waxing and cleaning the interior. You only have one chance to make a good first impression with the images.
Remove anything from the interior that you aren’t going to sell with the car, including things like chargers and phone mounts. Also remove rubber floor mats (if the fabric ones are clean and nice).
There are many used-car photos taken in crowded used-car lots, complete with feather flags, dancing inflatable tube people, Netherlands national flags with “OPEN” written on them, balloons, other cars with neon price tags, and more. None of those things serve to make a used-car photo one worth looking at.
Drive your vehicle to a location that is unique, non-distracting, and suits the vehicle. You don’t need to have the local police close a scenic highway or to travel great distances to exotic locales with the car—just find a place where the background can be relatively free of distractions and any location other than a crowded parking lot. Do not photograph the car in your driveway unless you live in the Goodwood House or the Wayne manor.
3. Time and Light
Light in photography is everything. Again, as for other types of photography, photographing in the approximate hour before sunset or the hour after sunrise can be advantageous for car photos. Photographing during the middle of the day is not always a deal breaker for automotive images, but it can provide some challenges and is generally not as good as the warm light of the “Golden Hour.”
If you have a tripod and some experience with low-light photography, blue hour (before sunrise and after sunset) can also be great for car photography.
While the diffused light under an overcast sky can help hide unwanted shadows and soften the overall scene, try to find a sunny or partly cloudy day for your car photos. Not only will the car look better with some warm sunlight, but it helps with the overall mood of the photograph.
There are two types of shadows to worry about when photographing your car. The first is the shadow of the car itself. It is best to photograph the car on the side facing the sun so that the car is lit nicely, and you aren’t photographing into the sun with a silhouetted car.
The second is shadows cast by nearby structures or objects. Be sure that there are no shadows falling on the car when you are photographing it.
6. Focal Length
For exterior photos, your focal length matters. I’ll talk about smartphones at the end of the article, but for those using point-and-shoot or interchangeable lens cameras, you’ll want to give some thought to your lens selection.
A safe bet is to use a “normal” focal length around that of a 50mm lens (on a full-frame camera). For those shooting crop-sensor APS-C cameras, your focal length will be around 35mm. Micro Four Thirds shooters will be at 25mm. Medium format will be around 80mm. This focal length, at normal subject-to-lens distances, produces a fairly distortion-free image of the car. Wide-angle lenses, including smartphone camera lenses, when used up close to the car, will produce unwanted distortion.
Here are three sets of examples taken from different angles on the car with different focal length lenses (35mm equivalent focal lengths shown). The first is from head-on:
I found that I prefer the rendering afforded by a mild telephoto lens (85mm full-frame equivalent) in my photos—giving a nice middle ground between telephoto compression and the normal focal length view.
When looking at the two sets of above images, remember that smartphones have wide-angle lenses—usually wider than 35mm equivalents of 20mm or less. This is why you often see unattractive distortion in many of today’s smartphone-captured used car photos.
While you can combine a telephoto lens, wide aperture, and distant background to get a shallow-depth-of-field look in your car photos, be careful using this combination when photographing the car from directly ahead or astern, as well as for images taken of the front and rear quarter. If your depth of field is too shallow, those images can, for example, show a tack-sharp license plate and softness near the rear of the car.
For images of the right or left side, you can open your aperture more to get a blurry background effect; just remember that you might lose sharpness in the overall scene as well.
Even if you are photographing in bright sunlight, use of a tripod will help you get sharper photos. The tripod is even more critical when photographing deep into golden hour or into blue hour.
Another benefit of the tripod is that it slows down your capture workflow and forces you to pay closer attention to focus, composition, and other critical elements of the image.
9. Height of Camera
A vast majority of photos of used cars are taken from the eye level of the photographer while they stand next to the car. This all-to-familiar viewpoint is, to be blunt, boring.
A slight change in viewpoint will give your photos a subtly distinctive look in a vast sea of eye-level photos and will catch the eye of the most discriminating buyers.
10. Fill the Frame
Remember, the subject of the photo is the car and not that cool location to which I encouraged you to drive. If taking glamour shots of your ride, by all means, include a bunch of locations in your shots, but for selling your car, you want the viewer to focus on the car.
So, fill the frame, but also give the car a bit of room to breathe around the frame of the image. When a subject gets close to the edge of the frame, it creates visual tension, and tension is not something you want the viewer to feel when looking at your mechanical steed.
That coat of wax you put on your baby is going to reflect whatever surrounds the car. If you drove to a cool location for the shoot, this shouldn’t be an issue, but pay attention to the reflections where you might see other cars, bright and distracting objects, or, worse yet, the photographer. Also pay attention to what shows up in the side-view or rearview mirrors when shooting interior and exterior shots. Selling a used car is no time for reflection selfies!
12. Wheel Direction
Straight wheels are OK for almost any angle you capture the car from, but for a bit more style, turn the front wheels so that they are more visible to the camera when photographing from the front or rear quarter of the vehicle. This also adds a bit of dynamic style to the vehicle.
Nothing makes a car look more alive than blazing headlights, and making your car look alive is a good way to get attention. Turn on your headlights and fog lights. This is one more bit of awesomeness not often seen in used-car photos.
One bit of caution here: If you are shooting in failing daylight, bright headlights will eventually wash out your image, so be sure to wrap up your shooting (or avoid shooting the car from head on) when the light starts to fade.
14. License Plates
Some sellers block or blur their license plates on used car photos. There is nothing wrong with this, but know that potential buyers cannot access a lot of information with a license plate number aside from basic information about the vehicle—likely the same information you are providing for the purpose of selling anyway. Law enforcement can access more information with a plate number, of course. The fact is that your license plate is visible for everyone to see as you drive around town—so, unless you really want to hide it, you don’t need to spend time disguising it in photos.
15. The 360°
When taking your exterior shots, you can give potential owners a 360° perspective of the car.
If the sun is overhead, you may be able to walk around the car and take photos of the front, sides, quarters, and rear, but likely you’ll find that several of those angles produce harsh, unwanted shadows.
The best, and, honestly, the most difficult way to do the 360° profile is to leave the camera stationary and rotate the car in the frame.
Two mini-tips for this process: 1) It is helpful to have a second person maneuvering the car while you take photos or you’ll find yourself getting a lot of steps in on your smartwatch, and 2) if shooting in golden hour, you’ll want to start this series of images early (or late if working in the morning) as the light will stay more consistent. This process is time consuming, and you don’t want to start in daylight and end in darkness (or vice versa).
Interior photos are tricky because there are often things like driver’s seats in the way. I have contorted a tripod to support my camera above the transmission tunnel for a wide-angle view of the driver and passenger area. Also, the traditional driver’s view image can be had by reclining the driver’s seat and photographing from the back seat (if you have a back seat).
Good exterior lighting (golden and blue hour) is best for well-lit interior shots with a warm, glowing dashboard and warm light outside the windows. Since you won’t be working in midday brightness, use a tripod or alternative support to avoid camera movement and blur.
17. Shot List
Here is a good shot list that covers all the bases for a used car advertisement:
Exterior Beauty Shots:
Side (show both if there is wear or damage on both sides)
Front quarter showing hood (again, show both sides if needed)
Rear quarter showing trunk (again, show both sides if needed)
Close-up of wheels (show the wear on all four unless the rims are minty)
Tire treads to show wear
Front seat to show wear
Audio/navigation system/climate controls
Gear selector (especially if it is a manual transmission)
Instrument cluster with odometer showing
Special features/details (moonroof, full set of keys, winter floor mats, etc.)
Detail of cosmetic flaws/damage (place a key or pen/pencil in the frame to provide scale if needed/helpful)… see the next section
While it might be tempting to use a clone stamp or healing brush to retouch your pride-and-joy’s blemishes, the consensus among used car experts is that this will cost you money in the end.
You want the potential buyer to see your car in its true (cleaned and waxed) appearance so that they can see, for themselves, the chips, dings, dents, and scratches that careless other drivers and road debris have left on your mount. This honesty in reproduction will allow you to keep your price firm and will prevent the buyer from trying to negotiate a lower price based on the true non-airbrushed appearance of the car.
19. Smartphone Tips
While a point-and-shoot, mirrorless, or DSLR camera will give you superior image quality and more options for capturing your vehicle, you may use a modern smartphone to get successful images. Follow the tips above but know that most smartphones have wide-angle lenses that will distort your car in unwanted ways (just look at many online used car listings today).
To counter the distortion caused by using a smartphone’s wide-angle lens at a close distance to the car, I recommend you stand farther away from the car and then crop the image after capture to keep the car from looking unnaturally distorted.
20. Too Good to Be True
If you have soaked up these tips and produced eye-wateringly good images that make it appear as if you hired a professional car photographer to capture images of your ride, there is a chance that some buyers will think that you grabbed stock images or are showing a car that is too good to be true. There is no need to “dumb down” your images; just add to the listing that you shop at B&H and read this blog!
Do you have questions about the above tips? Or do you have your own tips to share? Let us know in the Comments section, below, and thanks for reading!
Focal Length Gallery: Head-on
Focal Length Gallery: Front Quarter Angle
Focal Length Gallery: Side Angle
Such a great article, on how to differentiate between a "car shoot" and "Car For Sale Pics". Honesty is the best policy while taking pictures for selling purposes. Thank you for going in such great details.
Thank you for the kind words on the article!
Since writing the article, my E39 spent some time at a body shop and now it looks more like the Photoshopped version of itself! :)
Thanks for reading!
Wonderful article. It's very useful. I think it's one of the most informative Websites. I really appreciate your post. Thanks,
I appreciate the kind words and I thank you for reading!
Best (no pun intended),
I do believe all the ideas you have introduced for your post
Thank you for believing all the ideas I have introduced in my post!
I often take car pixs because of my work and totally agree with your points. There are couple more tips I hope you can share in a future article.
Majority of car interior including the trunk is black. I tried camera flash (bounce or direct) but they are too shiny or harsh. I tried an 18" LED ringlight, it works OK except it is big and hard to match the ambience color temperature.
Some vehicles have high contrast color such as white body with black wheel rims or cladding. I tried HDR but the background in the pix becomes "surreal".
You are a real pro! Thank you.
Thanks for agreeing with my tips and adding yours!
How did you overcome the trunk photo challenges?
Good point about the HDR vehicles! I hadn’t thought of that. I can easily see black rims getting photographically clipped and ending up all black!
Thanks again for the kind words and thanks for reading!
Great article! I've wanted to take good pictures of cars, but struggled with exactly how to do it. Your article is so helpful with its explanations of both why and how to take good photographs of cars. Thanks again!
Thank you for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the article!
If you give some car photos a try, let me know if you have any questions and how it comes out!
I think that I will write a similar piece once nice weather arrives on general car photograph that includes capturing motion and other things that you wouldn't necessarily do for a used car ad.
Thanks for reading!