Maximize your next automobile portrait

Author: Hal Tretbar

Photographing automobiles can be as challenging as taking a pleasing person portrait or shooting a stunning landscape. Location of the shoot is very important but overall it’s still about lighting, composition and technique.

Why are you taking the photo? Is it just to save a memory of the rare Ferrari at a car show? It might be showing your buddy on the race track. Is it because you just waxed your ‘baby’?  Or will you need a series of images to illustrate a story. The result should speak for itself.

We have been in Tucson for a long time and I have been able to find some great locations for car photography. I like an area that doesn’t have distracting elements such as buildings in the background. Usually the light is best early or late in the day so keep that in mind.

The most common angle for an auto image is a three quarters front view with either a slightly high aspect or low enough to show some light under the car. But I usually take side and rear views if possible. I also take both slight telephoto and mild wide angles to see which proportion looks the best.

Several years ago I had an assignment to photograph a rare Porsche for a story in Excellence Magazine, the national magazine about Porsches.

© Hal Tretbar

Jill Davis-Curtis from Tucson owned a unusual German adaptation of a 1982 Porsche 930 Turbo called a Porsche Evex. The magazine did an extended story about the Evex with five of my images. Here are three that were shot over a weekend with perfect overcast light. They show the importance of location. I used a Nikon D80 for all.

A.     I was looking for locations when I spotted this yellow and purple wall on a furniture store. The store gave me permission to photograph and moved several parked cars. The Art Editor had asked for an ‘artsy’ image so I lay on the ground and shot with a wide angle of 27 mm for distortion. I lined up the purple line to meet the bottom of the windshield and kept the yellow bricks perpendicular on the left edge.

I used manual focus at f 16 to ensure depth of field. ISO was 640 with color balance set on ‘cloudy weather’ to warm up the overcast. The editors like it so much that they gave it a two page spread to introduce the seven page article.

© Hal Tretbar

B.   The next morning was still overcast. We used a strip of limited access highway for a driving session. Jill drove with the lights on at about 20 mph. I shot from the back of a Honda van with the rear door up. The camera settings were ISO 200, f. 18 and shutter priority of 1/30th second to blur the background. The lens was set on vibration reduction at 85 mm to keep the car sharp.

© Hal Tretbar

C.  I had arranged for a location shoot at the Franklin Automobile Museum, one of Tucson’s unknown jewels. Here is the contrast of two air cooled cars- a 1931 Franklin model 153 Coupe and a 1982 Porsche Evex. I used a ladder to set the composition. The Franklin was lined up so you can see the spare tire and the trunk line meets the intersection of Jill and the roof. I had a Nikon SB 600 flash on the camera to light the wheels and Jill’s color coordinated outfit.

Here are the stories from behind the scenes of some of my favorite Porsche portraits.

© Hal Tretbar

My wife, Dorothy and I had recently picked up our first Porsche at the Zuffenhausen factory in 1959. We wanted a nice setting for a formal portrait of our Guards Red 356 A. We found the perfect spot by driving on this little path below a typical Bavarian Castle. I angled the car so we looking down slightly with a front view. It was shot with a Rolleiflex on 120 Agfacolor negative film and converted to black and white.

© Hal Tretbar

I wanted a moonlit image of my 1987 911 Carrera Targa. The best view was from the Babad-Do’ag turnout part way up the Mt. Lemmon Highway with the full moon shining over the Rincon Mountains. Nikon D80 with a 55-200 Nikkor at 55mm (85 mm full frame equivalent) on a tripod. 3 seconds at f. 6.3 with ISO 640 and flash fill. I used Photoshop to even out the light on the foreground. Note the back lighting from the moonlight.

© Hal Tretbar

I wanted to show that my 2008 Cayenne S with Martini Racing Stripes was not just a highway vehicle. Dorothy and I were in Gardner Canyon with great late afternoon stormy clouds. I put the Cayenne on top of a small hill to show the ‘s curve’ trail leading into the tantalizing distance. I made sure the roof was not above the skyline. Nikon D600 with 28-85 lens at 38mm. ISO 400 and 1/640th second at f 13.

I recently worked with pro automobile photographer Mike Maez. Mike takes many of the images you see in the catalogs put out by Gooding and Co. Auctions. He photographs as many as 30 cars before the 3 or 4 national auctions a year. He was in town to photograph a white Porsche 356 Pre A Speedster that has been restored by local expert Chuck Croteau. It will be auctioned at Scottsdale in January 2016. It is expected to bring between $300,000 and $400,000.

© Hal Tretbar

We were looking for a place where we could shoot the Speedster with a background of stormy clouds over the Catalina Mountains. We finally found it after driving around the Alvernon and River Road area for awhile. The location is a closely guarded photographers secret. Nikon D600 with 24-85 lens at 36mm. ISO 250, 1/800th second at f 14 using the spot meter on the bright car.

So the next time you want to shoot an automobile portrait put some thought into it. You will enjoy the result a whole lot more.

Hal Tretbar, volunteer for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.