By Matt Jacques

When it’s time to trade in your ride, good photographs can make all the difference between a quick sale and a long waiting game filled with frustrating low-ball offers.

The digital photography revolution has been an absolute game-changer, and unless you’ve somehow resisted the temptation of cheap megapixels, chances are you’ve got a decent digital point-and-shoot or DSLR to work with.

The good news is that great photographs are not the stuff of smoke and mirrors; rather, high-impact photographs are within easy reach of anyone willing to take some time to understand the language of light and shadows.

I hate to spoil anyone’s digital gear lust, but a successful photograph has very, very little to do with how much you spent on the camera or lens, and everything to do with the all-important gear between your ears and a little willingness to move your feet.

To illustrate just how easy it is to take bad photos with a good camera, I’ve started off with a couple of simple shots of my family’s trusty 2003 Mazda Protegé5 hatchback (and, yes, it’s for sale).

Let’s take a look at a couple of images that are likely all too familiar for anyone looking at used car listings (see the “Before” photos at the top). You know enough to wash your car and clean it out before clicking the shutter, but quick on-the-spot photos like these aren’t doing your car any favours. The lighting is harsh, the angles don’t show the car well, and the surroundings just don’t do justice to this nimble little road warrior.

At least the car is sharp and in-focus, which is more than can be said of many shots in used car listings. But even with the high-horsepower combination of my full-frame Nikon D700 DSLR and professional grade lens (Nikon 20-35mm, f2.8), these shots are fit for the scrap yard.

I see three main challenges to overcome here: location, lighting and perspective. All of these issues can be resolved with the camera you have right now, whether it’s a DSLR, cell phone or anything in between.

Your car has faithfully taken you to work and back every day, to the cottage every summer or across the country on that unforgettable road trip, so a photo of your car in the garage or driveway just doesn’t cut it. Whether it’s the exterior or interior you’re shooting, a good photo of your car will involve a location that’s flattering for the vehicle and presents no visual competition in the foreground.

This means you don’t want an Aventador upstaging your Aveo or a Zagato next to your Zephyr in the parking lot. It’s great to have an interesting location, but let the interesting bits speak quietly in the background so your car can take centre stage.

“But there’s nothing interesting around me,” I hear you saying. You don’t need to live next to Niagara Falls or a national park to find a good backdrop for your car. With my exterior “After” images, I challenged myself to find a variety of interesting locations within a 10-minute drive of my home in Halifax.

This being the Maritimes, there’s no shortage of early morning fog, so my first stop was along a coastal pathway system (see “After” 1 and 2 [slides 3 and 4]). The rocks, trees, and interpretation centre in the background give the image a sense of place, but it’s the car that remains the focus.

Just two blocks down the road, an abandoned industrial facility provided an opportunity to experiment with an edgier look. There are lots of little details and potentially distracting elements with a location like this (see “After” 3 and 4 [slides 5 and 6]) but the high contrast between the rusty, dull background and our shiny, red rocket only serves to heighten the car’s best attributes.

If you go for a shot like this, keep your eyes open for nails and glass that could put a damper on your day, and of course respect any signage on the property.

Without breaking my 10-minute rule, I kept wandering down to the waterfront. These two photos (see “After” 5 and 6 [slides 7 and 8]) are a little less wild, but still show the car to be a city-conquering hero. Again, I’ve made sure there are no other cars or objects in the foreground, and the background is playing a supporting role.

If your camera has some degree of manual control, shooting in aperture priority mode with the aperture wide open (at the lowest available f-stop value, i.e. f2.8) will ensure the background is nicely blurred out. This effect is heightened the further away the background objects are from the point of focus (i.e. your car).

Wherever you are taking your photos, and whatever time of day it is, chances are your car has one side that is receiving more sunlight than the other. To create high-impact images, work with the light and position yourself and your car so that the parts of the car you want to show off are the brightest. This isn’t just because the warmer sunlight makes the car look good, but because your camera’s light meter will be thrown off if you’re shooting toward the shadows. 

My first “Before” image is a perfect example of this (see “Before” 1 [slide 2]). I’ve aimed the camera at the shadowy front of the car, which told my light meter that a brighter exposure was required to bring out detail in the shadow. The unfortunate side effect is that the rest of the car and the sky are completely blown out. Even a $3,000 DSLR can be foiled by shadows. In my “After” images, there are still parts of the car in shadow, but the majority of the car is in direct sunlight and the camera responds accordingly. 

Interior shots are particularly challenging when it comes to lighting. Even if you’ve found a great location and the sun is doing wonders to the exterior of your car, there are bound to be plenty of shadows in the cabin. Naturally, your camera will either pop up the built-in flash, or you’ll realize yourself that flash is needed in this situation.

In my interior images (see “Interior” 1, 2 and 3 [slides 9, 10 and 11]) I have kept it simple and used my built-in flash, too. A big tip here is that with any on-camera flash, the light will tend to cause harsh reflections off of your windshield, dash and mirrors if the camera is pointed straight-on. Instead, position yourself so you’ll be aiming at something closer to a 45-degree angle, and those stray light beams will go bouncing off in another direction rather than blinding your camera.

For me, this is the big one. You ponied up the dough for a nice camera, and your friends are suitably impressed with your 10x or 30x zoom lens. Don’t worry, I’m impressed, too. A zoom lens can be an absolute life-saver in critical moments, but we first need to think about perspective.

A long telephoto lens (or “zooming all the way in”) isn’t just for bringing the action close to you, and a wide-angle lens (or “zooming all the way out”) isn’t just to fit everything in the picture. Let’s compare a couple of the shots (see “After” 4 and 5 [slides 6 and 7]). Both images have the car in about the same location in the photo, and the car takes up about as much space in each photo. But something’s very different, right?

The “After” 4 image was shot with a wide-angle lens, but that wide-angle is doing a whole lot more than just “fitting it all in.” And “After” 5 shows I didn’t need to use a wide-angle to fit it in anyhow.

A dramatically different perspective can be created through your choice of lenses. Short focal length lenses (in this case, 20mm) capture light beams coming from a wide-angle away from the camera’s focal plane, and can tend to produce a distorted, exaggerated view where straight lines on the car are not straight in the image. Longer lenses (in this case, 200mm) gather light from a very narrow beam and usually have minimal distortion of straight lines.

Experiment a little and see what a different focal length gives you. To shoot your car at a 200mm or 300mm setting you’ll need to walk away from it. Go ahead, your feet really are your best, and cheapest, zoom.

Keeping a couple of these simple tips in mind can really make a difference when it comes to creating an image that you’ll want to show off to friends, or getting a potential buyer’s attention. In sales terms, that critical first impression will often translate into a higher final sale price for your vehicle — all for just taking a little extra time to put your wheels in the right light.

Matt Jacques is a professional photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been photographing the cars and characters of East Coast short track racing since 2009, when a chance opportunity emerged to combine his technical expertise in photography with a life-long passion for all things fast and four-wheeled.