Car Photography Basics: Using focal length

As Autoblog’s in-house photographer for the past decade, I have had the pleasure of photographing my fair share of cars. Now, stuck at home due to the coronavirus with an unfamiliar amount of time on my hands, I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do: put together a series of articles on the basics of photographing cars.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m offering these tips for the photographer with the most minimal equipment — just a camera and a lens. No additional lighting, reflectors or additional equipment required. I also recognize that there are a variety of methods for photographing cars, and these just happen to be my preferences.

In our first installment, we went over how to properly place and frame a car to ensure a good photograph, and we also covered how important it is to nail the lighting and minimize unwanted reflections. Next up? Using focal length to change the look of your photograph.

The question I’m most often asked as a photographer is “what camera do you use?” The question, although it probably shouldn’t, bothers me for a couple reasons. First, it seems to imply that the reason a photograph is good or not good is due to what camera it was taken with. Would you admire a handcrafted chair and then ask the carpenter what hammer he works with, or marvel at a beautiful painting and then inquire what brush the artist used? Yes, equipment is important, but who is using it is much more so. The second and more valid reason the question bothers me is that if you are going to pick out the most important piece of equipment, it’s not the camera but rather the lens. What lens you choose will greatly affect the look and quality of an image much more so than the camera. The quality of the lens aside (a sharp lens is a game changer), I’ve put together a few images to illustrate how using different focal lengths can alter the look of a photograph.

For these photographs I used Nikon’s 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, which allow for a wide range of focal lengths. First up is a photo taken at 24mm, which is relatively close to the focal length of the camera on an iPhone. As you can see there is plenty of distortion in the photograph, and the car’s front end dominates the photograph. The background is also in full view.

As we back further away, you can see the car becoming less distorted and changing more into its appropriate proportions. The background also becomes more compressed and less in focus. The focal lengths in order are 38mm, 48mm, 70mm, 92mm, 135mm and 200mm.

So which focal length is best to use? It depends on what you’re wanting to achieve with your photo, what type of background you have and how much space you have to work with. If you have an uninteresting background that you don’t want to highlight, using a longer focal length will lessen its impact on the photo. Have a beautiful background that you want to use with the composition? You can use a wider angle to capture both the car and a broader view of the background. Each situation calls for a different strategy, and two very different photos can be achieved taken from the same angle with the car in the exact same spot.

Hopefully these tips will help you out the next time you try photographing a car, and we’ll have more articles in the near future about the basics of car photography. If there’s question you would like answered or a specific topic covered, please leave your comments in the section below.