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Mishimoto Lifestyle: Automotive Photography with Your Phone

When I was asked to write an article on “how to take photos of your car with your phone,” I cringed, a lot.  I’ve spent the better part of my life taking photographs with cameras that were just that, cameras.  They serve one purpose, to create images, and they are good at it.  Through college my fellow photography students scoffed at the idea that a camera within a phone could come anywhere close to the professional-grade cameras we used to create “art.”  Those days weren’t that long ago, but it’s time to face the facts: cell phone cameras are creeping up on the quality of professional cameras more and more every day.

What cell phone cameras lack in image quality, they make up in their versatility, portability, and ease of use. While these traits are great for taking quick and easy photos, it takes a bit more than point and shoot to take a great photo with a cell phone, or any camera for that matter.  Where cell phone cameras present the biggest challenges is in their lack of control.  Most cell phone camera systems don’t allow the user to control shutter speed, aperture (what little aperture there is to control), and ISO, or are very limited in their application of those controls.  Before diving into overcoming those limitations, we must first understand what each of those controls mean.

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A slower shutter speed, in combination with panning techniques, gives racing photos a sense of speed through motion blur.
Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one of the most basic controls of any still camera.  In traditional film cameras, an opaque curtain, or shutter, covered the film and blocked light from creating an image.  Depending on how much light was available and the intent of the photograph, one could control the duration that this shutter exposed the film.  This duration is known as shutter speed and is measured in fractions of a second.  A shutter speed of 1/100 would expose the film for one one-hundredth of a second, where a shutter speed of 1/30 would expose the film for one thirtieth of a second, or about three times as long as 1/100.  The slower the shutter speed, the more chance for objects to become blurred from motion of the subject or camera.

Here you can see the camera's mirror flipping up. What you can't see is the shutter behind it quickly opening and closing.
Here you can see the camera’s mirror flipping up to reveal the sensor. What you can’t see is the shutter behind it quickly opening and closing.

In modern digital cameras, this shutter still exists, but the shutter speed is really controlled by turning on and off the imaging sensor.  Because the lens and sensor on a cell phone camera are so small, there isn’t much light available to the sensor, even in the best conditions.  This lack of light means that cell phone cameras often use a pretty slow shutter speed, which is why taking clear photos of your cat is nearly impossible. Luckily, cars stay a little more still than cats, but a steady hand is a necessity for cell phone photography.

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The aperture of a camera lens is made up of overlapping blades that control the size of the lens opening.
Aperture

To put it simply, aperture is the size of the camera’s lens opening.  The aperture of a lens is expressed as an f-stop notation, F/1.8 for example.  Aperture can be a confusing control for some as a lower f-stop number indicates a larger lens opening and more light entering the camera.  This backwards thinking is accredited to how f-stops are calculated.  An aperture’s f-number is calculated by dividing the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the aperture.  This is important to note because one cannot equate an F/1.8 cell phone camera lens with the same f-stop DSLR camera lens.  For example, my Samsung S7 camera has a focal length of a whopping 4.2mm; at aperture F/1.7 the lens opening is a gigantic 2.4mm.  In contrast, my Nikon DSLR currently has a 50mm lens fitted to it.  That lens at F/1.9 has an opening of 26mm; just a little bit bigger.

What’s just as important to point out is aperture directly identifies the size of the lens opening, but also dictates the depth of field of the image.  Depth of field refers to the depth within the image that is in focus and as f-stop increases depth of field also increases.  For example, if you were to focus on an object that was one foot away from you with an aperture of F/1.8, only that object would be in focus.  If you were to focus on that same object, at the same distance, with an aperture of F/11, that object would be in focus still, but several feet behind the object would also be in focus.  This ability to control depth of focus allows the photographer to direct the viewer’s eye to the subject or create an immersive scene.

Here you can see the difference between a noisy image and one shot with sufficient lighting, at low ISO.
Here you can see the difference between a noisy image and one shot with sufficient lighting, at low ISO.
ISO

The ISO control of a camera is a complex system of equations and data points that boils down to one simple idea: The ISO setting indicates how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light.  The higher the ISO the more sensitive to light the sensor will be, but there are tradeoffs to that sensitivity.  Digital cameras increase ISO by essentially amplifying the electrical signals generated by the camera’s sensor.  At a certain point, there’s just not enough data coming from the sensor to make an image and that amplification starts to generate a nasty byproduct known as noise.

If you’ve ever seen a digital photo of something at night and thought it looked like somebody poured sand on it, what you’re really seeing is thousands of tiny errors in the image data created by the camera trying to amplify a lack of signal from the sensor.  Noise is particularly obtrusive in cell phone photographs; due to the small apertures and sensors mentioned earlier, the camera needs to operate at a pretty high ISO to form an image.  Like aperture f-numbers, the ISO setting of a cell phone camera cannot be directly related to a DSLR ISO setting.  A photograph taken at ISO 100 on a DSLR with a larger sensor will produce significantly less noise than a photograph taken at ISO 100 on a cell phone.

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Be in Control – Learning to See

If you just look at the capabilities of your cell phone and focus only on its downfalls, you’ll probably be sucked into thinking you need to buy a DSLR to get great automotive photos.  But before you rush onto Amazon and drop $500 or more on equipment you think you need, consider this: photography has been around for hundreds of years, and the tiny camera shoved into your phone is far more advanced than the cameras that some of the most famous photographers of all time lugged around. Ansel Adams captured the American West using a camera the size of a large printer, using glass plates that took minutes to expose, which he then had to get back to his studio without shattering before printing an image; your cell phone camera will do just fine.

Most beginning photographers think that they need to buy a trillion-megapixel camera body and $5,000 lens to start taking photos.  While camera features are important, what’s more important are your features; your hands, your feet, your eyes. The most important step in learning to take great photographs is not buying equipment, it’s learning to see.  I don’t mean seeing as in looking at something and taking a photo of it. I mean learning to see as the camera sees and visualize how something could be shown, instead of what it looks like.

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Perspective

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve critiqued photos of cars in wide landscapes, only to ask what the photographer’s idea was and hear “Well, I liked the headlights.”  If you like the headlights of a car, find a way to communicate whatever aspect of the headlights you like.  If they have great lines that pull you in, how can you make the viewer see those lines in a new way? Overcoming the disadvantages of cell phone cameras requires learning to see in new ways and emphasizing the basics.  Since light control is limited on most cell phone cameras, perspective, composition, and environment become paramount.

Changing your perspective is probably the fastest and easiest way to transform a boring image into an interesting photograph.  Get lower or higher than your subject.  Move closer and single out one part of it or farther away to emphasize its shape.  Standing in one place, taking photos from eye level, is a pretty surefire way to create an image that’s just as interesting as that photo of a house plant you scrolled past on Facebook. It’s easy to fall into shooting this way. It’s how we see every day and usually how we see when we first discover something interesting, but it’s how everybody else sees too.  You’ll eventually come to find, after changing your perspective a few times, that piece of the car you found interesting at eye level is even more interesting from another perspective.

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Composition

The parts of the photograph that aren’t filled with your subject are just as important as the subject itself. It’s a common mistake among new photographers to find their subject, place it in the middle of the frame, take the photo, and expect their audience to focus only on that subject. Sometimes this works out just fine, but unfortunately, what you see in a photograph will probably not be what others see. There are a few basic composition tricks to fix that.

If you’re interested in photography, you’ve probably heard of the “rule of thirds.” This compositional technique is used to emphasize the subject while creating movement and interest in an image.  Simply put, the rule of thirds states that you should divide your image into nine sections with two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines.  The photo should then be composed so that the important elements fall on or near these lines or the intersections of the lines.  For example in the photo above of one of our fabricators welding part of our office stairwell, the bright light from the welder is right next to the intersection of two thirds and creates a nice tension with the dark area to the right.

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The human eye tends to follow lines through an image. Use them to direct your viewer and create movement.
Line

The use of line is another important element in creating an interesting photograph.  If you haven’t heard of using line in photography, you’ve at least appreciated its use at some point, especially if you love cars.  The lines of a vehicle’s body are what set it apart from other cars or trucks and they’re the first feature most people notice.  The same is true of photographs.  Line can be used to guide the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the image or create flow within the scene. Repeating lines in an image gives it rhythm and creates a sense of speed or tranquility.  In the image of our Mustang above, the highlighted lines on the hood and roof guide your eye along the car and convey movement, even with the car sitting still.  Don’t just rely on the lines of your subject, work with all the lines available to you. Using a curve in the road to lead your viewers eye to the subject or mimicking a line in the body of the vehicle with a line in its environment adds interest and complexity to the image.

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Framing

Lines can also be used to build another compositional technique known as framing.  Framing in a photograph does the same thing that a frame around a painting does, draws attention to the subject. Using a part of the environment to box in your subject creates a border that bounces the viewers eye back to the subject.  Framing is one technique that can be tricky to use cleanly and it’s easy for beginning photographers to over-use.  It’s important that your framing fits with the image and doesn’t distract from it.  In the image above, the fence works as a frame without overwhelming the photo.  The fence in the background ties the frame into the rest of the scene and the openings in the fence allow your eye to move around outside of the frame.  It also helps that the fence is out of focus and the rest of the lines in the photo move the viewers eyes through the scene. Framing doesn’t have to be a circle encompassing your subject. It can be a combination of lighting and objects within the scene that bring your viewer’s eye back to the subject.

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Environment

If I had to point out one aspect of many photographs that causes me to lose interest, I would say an obvious lack of consideration for the subject’s environment is at the top of the list. A busy, poorly composed environment can distract from even the most beautiful car.  Photos of cars at shows are notorious for this. It doesn’t matter how awesome the car is or how shallow your depth of field is. If there’s a guy eating a ridiculous ice cream cone in the background, he’s going to draw your viewer’s attention.  The photograph’s environment should complement the subject in some way or at the very least not distract from it.  In the photo of a Subaru STI above, the columns create a repetition that pulls your eye to the car and the colors of the graffiti reflect the colors of the car.  It’s important to look at your subject and try to imagine it in an environment that feels correct for the car.  If it’s a classy, understated car, an urban environment with muted tones or a crisp, modern backdrop may suit the subject well.  Sporty and playful cars like the STI feel more at home in edgier landscapes.

This image of our Mustang GT was shot on my Samsung Galaxy S7.
This image of our Mustang GT was shot on my Samsung Galaxy S7.

Of course, you can’t always control your subject’s environment, as is the case at car shows and meets.  In this situation, it’s important to remember the fundamentals of composition and most importantly, change your perspective. One way to work around a distracting environment is to eliminate it all together.  While close-up photos don’t work for every car, they allow you to fill the frame with your subject and make sure your viewers see the parts of the car that you find interesting.   If all else fails, it never hurts to talk to the owner of the car and see if you can set a formal shoot in the environment of your choosing.

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Post Processing – Some Cautionary Advice

Post-production editing (IE Adobe Photoshop) can be your best friend.  But, post-processing can also be your downfall. Photoshop is great for adjusting exposure, reducing noise and adding finishing touches that just aren’t possible on-set.  There’s a lot more that Photoshop can do to add interest to an image, but it’s important to remember: post-processing rarely has the ability to take a poorly composed, uninteresting photograph and make it great.  As my college professors would always say, “S**t in, s**t out.”

You should never rely on Photoshop to make up for poor planning or lack of technique.  If you instead focus on the fundamentals mentioned earlier, creating great images without the need for post-processing, you’ll be able to make nearly perfect images when you decide to edit.  The best post-processing is the kind that still feels like the original image.  Your edits shouldn’t make your audience think you’re really good at Photoshop.  If they do, you’ve taken away from the subject and made the image more about Photoshop than the car.

If you decide it’s time to take the dive into post-processing, I would suggest starting with the basics.  Learn how to balance exposures, reduce noise without degrading detail, and general spot-removal and cleanup.  With those techniques mastered, you can move on to layering and masking to make composite images with multiple exposures.  A great way to start learning is through online videos and training courses, or check out a local community college to see if they offer classes.

Be leery of so-called “experts” who may be teaching incorrect techniques that will only build bad habits.  Find a photographer who’s style you like and try to recreate it with your own images, but don’t show them off quite yet.  Once you’ve got their techniques down, find a way to make it your own.  Tweak and modify the rules until the image matches what you have in your head.  Once you’re at this level, you will have developed your own taste for combining the basics with more advanced skills to make your own mark on the photography world.

Stop Listening to Me

If all of this seems daunting, forget it.  Forget everything I said and just pick up your camera (or in this case your phone) and start taking photos.  It will take time, but eventually you’ll find your eye and the more you shoot and get feedback from others, the more you’ll refine your style.  With time, everything I said in this article will find its way into your images, and more.  Remember that rules are made to be broken, but only after you’ve mastered them.  Remember that only you see what’s in your imagination, until you put it on paper (or screen). And remember that the most important piece of being a photographer is not what you shoot with, it’s how you see.

Thanks for reading,

-Steve

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