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Tips for good vehicle pictures

Here are some tips for taking some good pictures of your vehicle for use in your artwork. If your pictures don't follow all these tips don't worry, I'll do the best I can with what you have.

Pick a good place to park the vehicle

Where not to park your vehicle for the picture

  1. Don't park your vehicle in the grass. The grass can cause a green reflection on the paint.
  2. Don't park your vehicle near trees, buildings, light poles, or anything else that will be reflected on the paint.
  3. Don't park your vehicle near lines on the pavement. The lines can to be seen as a reflection on the paint.

Don't park your vehicle in the grass.

Tire in grass

The green from the grass can be reflected on the paint surface. Plus it takes effort and time to remove the green grass blades that are in front of the tires. Grass is a bad thing in this situation.

Don't park your vehicle near trees, buildings, light poles, or anything else that will be reflected on the paint.

Corvette with excessive shadows

In the picture above there are many reflections from the nearby trees that appear on the paint surface.

Car in open parking lot

The picture shown above was taken in a large parking lot with no trees or poles nearby. As a result no extraneous reflections appear on the paint surface. The sun was setting and the rear of the car faced the sunset. The camera was about 18 inches above the ground and I was fairly close to the car with no zoom.

Notice how the front of the car looks somewhat larger than the rear, especially the size of the tires (in reality the front tires are 17" and the rear tires 18" on that car). You get that effect by having the camera close to the car. If you wanted a picture from that angle, and you didn't want the "larger in the front" effect, you can increase the distance from the car and use zoom.

White line reflecting in paint

Don't park your vehicle near lines on the pavement. The lines tend to be seen as a reflection on the paint, as shown above.

If a picture does have unwanted reflections I will try to remove them, if I have the time and the reflection lends itself to removal.

Where to park your vehicle for the picture

Go to a large parking lot or any other area where you can find a spot that is far enough away from trees, poles, lights, etc. so that you don't have any extraneous reflections on the vehicle's paint. Remember to be careful of objects below the vehicle (like white lines in a parking lot) that can appear as a reflection on the paint.

Think about the picture angle (important)

The angle of the camera with respect to the car can be important, more so for some artwork designs than others. You want to take pictures of your car from angles that will look good in your intended artwork design. On some designs you have more freedom to position your car at a different angle than others. Just be aware of camera angle and how your car will look once it is placed in the artwork design.

Bob's method of taking vehicle pictures

If you have a tripod or monopod use it. The results will almost always be better than trying to hold the camera steady by hand. If you don't have a tripod or monopod then take something you can rest the camera on while you take your shots, perhaps something like a chair back.

If possible use a 3 megapixel or better digital camera. The higher the resolution in each picture the better. If you don't have a good digital camera see if a friend will lend you theirs. If the only camera you can get your hands on is less than 3 megapixels then send me a sample picture and I will let you know if I think we can work with it. I talk more about how large a picture is needed later.

I like to take vehicle pictures late in the day when the sun is getting near the horizon, perhaps 30-45 minutes before sunset. The illumination on the vehicle is free of harsh glares that you can get when taking pictures in full sunlight. As an alternative you can take pictures on a cloudy day late in the afternoon when the sun's rays are diffused by the clouds.

Park the vehicle with its nose facing the sunset and walk around the vehicle taking many pictures at different angles and heights. Take some with the camera near the ground, some with the camera about waist height, and some from as high as you can manage. Take some with no zoom and the camera close enough to the vehicle to fill the screen. Take others with varying amounts of zoom so that you are further away from the vehicle when the vehicle fills the screen. As the sun sets keep walking around the vehicle taking pictures. This process allows you to capture subtle lighting effects as the sun goes down.

Turn the vehicle around so that the rear faces the sunset. Repeat the process of walking around the vehicle taking picture after picture at different heights and positions around the vehicle.

Turn the vehicle so that the left side faces the sunset and repeat the procedure. Do the same thing for the right side.

If you have time and light try other angles of the car with respect to the sunset. It's hard to know ahead of time which combination of light and angle will produce a great picture - so take as many pictures as possible. I usually end up with hundreds of pictures from a session like this.

Now go home and look at the pictures on your computer. Choose some that will look great on your apparel, collage or signage.

How large a picture (how much resolution) do I need?

I recommend using at least a 3 megapixel digital camera. Low resolution pictures are not a good starting point for a quality print. It is possible to get a nice looking print with pictures of modest resolution, but a lot depends on how large a print you are planning on making. You want to have a minimum of 150 dots per inch (dpi) of resolution on the print (300 dpi is a good target). Nations Photo Lab (my recommended printer) warns if you have less than 180 dpi. So if you have a car image that is 1000 pixels wide (about the minimum I would want to consider), and the car takes up around 60% of the image width, then the car itself is around 600 pixels wide. At 300 dpi that means the car could be up to 2 inches wide on the print. And at 150 dpi the car could be up to 4 inches wide on the print. A general rule of thumb is that if the width of the picture is more than 2000 pixels that's good. If the width is around 1000 pixels we are in a grey area where it might work or it might not, depending on how large a print you want. If it is less than 800 don't even bother sending it to me.

How to determine the size of a picture file

This assumes you are using a Windows computer. If you have a Mac, you are on your own - I don't speak Mac.

Open Windows Explorer (not Internet Explorer), navigate to the image file you are interested in, right-click on the file and select Properties. On the Properties window that appears click the Details tab. You may have to scroll down, but you should see information about the height and width of the image in pixels. Click Cancel to close the Properties window. There are other ways to get the image size, but this method should work on just about any Windows computer.

How to determine how large (i.e. how much resolution) is needed for a given picture

Let's assume that you want a poster like this.

And that you have a picture like this that is 1280 pixels wide.

Let's see how wide a print (in inches) we can make using this picture.

The car looks like it occupies around 90% of the width of the picture, so that makes the car about 1280 times 0.90 = 1152 pixels wide.

The minimum dots-per-inch (dpi) we want to use is 150, so 1152 divided by 150 equals about 7.7 inches. And, if we used the desired 300 dpi the car could be no more than around 1152 divided by 300 = 3.8 inches. The car in the resulting print should not be larger than 7.7 inches wide, and less is better.

But you say, I had my heart set on a 11 x 17 inch poster. If the poster is 17 inches wide, and the car takes up around 90% of the poster's width, then the car will be around 90% of 17 inches = 15.3 inches wide. But we already calculated that the maximum width of the car should not be more than 7.7 inches. Thus, this picture is not suitable to be used in that design for a 11 x 17 inch poster.

OK, what would happen if we did use that picture in the 11 x 17 inch poster? The car would be spread out over about 90% of 17 inches = 15.3 inches. Thus, the car would print at 1152 pixels (dots) divided by 15.3 inches = 75 dpi, which is about half the recommended minimum of 150 dpi. At 75 dpi there is a pretty good chance that when you took a close look at your poster you would see pixelation effects in the car's image, such as the jagged edges shown in the picture below.