When a picture's worth a thousand bucks

By Phil Hanson

It pays to get the right picture - it might be worth thousands of dollars, not just a thousand words.

This shot shouldn't work because the day is dull, the background and foreground are cluttered and black cars often don't photograph well, but they combine to suit the brooding `bad boy' Subaru WRX very well. Photo / Phil Hanson
This shot shouldn't work because the day is dull, the background and foreground are cluttered and black cars often don't photograph well, but they combine to suit the brooding `bad boy' Subaru WRX very well. Photo / Phil Hanson

In today's online world, good pictures go a long way to selling cars and it's not stretching the point to say that great photos can help fetch a premium price. They make a listing stand out and suggest the car really was pre-loved.

So it's worth spending time getting it right.

Same thing with all the opportunities to boast about your four-wheeled treasure on social media. Nobody's going to be impressed if it's out of focus and dull.

Here's the picture: it's not hard to take great car photos. You don't even need fancy gear; any camera will do, even a phone with a decent camera function. It's how the equipment's used that counts.

What you need to know:

Keep it clean

A speck here and there won't matter, but give the car a good cleaning before the photo session.

Mud and muck only looks good on a hard-core 4WD. Clean the interior properly; nobody wants to see discarded food wrappers on the floor.

Let there be light
Dull skies are depressing. Bright sun creates harsh, ugly shadows. Forget rain, but snow can be good as it reflects light back onto the car. Bright overcast sky - for example, when the sun has vanished behind clouds - is best because there's plenty of light but no troublesome shadows.

Light is at its best first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon when it's warm and enticing. Forget the midday sun.

Background check

Many car photos fail because of the background. Driveways are good for parking a car, but not so good as a location for photographing them. It's the same taking pictures at places where poles, trees and other stuff sticks out from a car's roof. Go somewhere like a nice park that has clean backgrounds.

If the car's a light colour, a dark background of forest or greenery can work quite well.

Check all angles

Some cars look best viewed from a high angle, some from a low viewpoint, some in profile, others from a three-quarters front angle. A few even look best from a slightly rear view. The old Volvo 1800ES is such a car, if you happen to be selling one.

Spend time looking at the car through the camera from all angles. Take several different views. Ask others which one they think is the best.

Get in close

If you're trying to sell the car, people aren't interested in a pretty background. Fill the camera's frame with the car; that's what you're selling. If you're taking social media photos, the background may add to the photo; for example a 4x4 deep in a muddy track, a performance car at a racetrack or on a winding road. An "atmospheric" shot may also help sell a car, but make sure you've also got its basic "mugshots" in the mix.

Take sharp pictures ...

Autofocus and the huge built-in depth of field of compact digitals mean it's hard not to get the car all in focus. But check carefully to make sure. A car body that's partly fuzzy
may look arty, but it's not what a potential buyer wants to see.

On the other hand, using a wide lens aperture to throw the background out of focus can look good.

Unsteady hands and slow shutter speeds can also make a blurry photo. Fortunately, with image stabilisation on even cheap digital cameras, it's a fault that's easy to avoid.

But it's best not to rely on image stabilisation when working with slow shutter speeds; use a tripod or rest the camera on something solid and trip the shutter using the time delay mode, today's version of the old cable release.

... or take blurry photos

Despite the above tip, there is a place for blurry photos and that's using a slow shutter speed when shooting a moving car, to create a ''speed'' effect. Getting a great moving shot is a bit hit-or-miss, but take enough and one's bound to turn
out.

You don't need the car going flat out; only 15km/h or so will work with a camera shutter speed of around 1/30th or 1/60th of a second. The trick is to pan the camera with the
car. This not only blurs the background, but gives the wheels a ''speedy'' look.

Detail sells

Potential buyers like to see lots of photos of the car, not just pretty pictures but details of any, um ... imperfections, along with the state of the upholstery, the boot, engine bay,
condition of the tyres and so on.

Some of these can be difficult to take well, but persist. It may be necessary to use flash for some or, better yet, use a tripod and set the camera for maximum depth of field -photo talk for meaning everything's going to be in focus.

Shadows, your worst enemy

Want to screw up a car shot? Photograph it from the side that's in shadow, or with its nose in the shade. Shadows will hide details and make the car look like a blob.

It's such an obvious error, yet you see hundreds - thousands - of photos of cars for sale ruined by shadows. This is why a bright but overcast sky makes such good lighting.

Zoom in, zoom out

The great thing about a zoom lens is that it lets you take pictures from wide angle to telephoto, sometimes extreme telephoto. Zoom in and out and see where the car looks its best. It might look arty at an extreme wide angle but that's not what buyers want
to see. And at extreme telephoto, it will probably look all squished up due to the lens's foreshortening effect.

But somewhere, between the extremes, the car will probably look like a million dollars. Or at least worth the asking price.

Change the settings
If the camera has manual over-ride, take several shots at different exposures; say up to one stop either side of the exposure the in-camera meter recommends. It's called
bracketing and some cameras have a setting that does it automatically.
One of these shots may be better because, say, it shows some details more clearly, or the colour of the car is improved.

- NZ Herald

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