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Composition for Car Photography Enthusiasts

By: jwilde

If you're just beginning your car photography journey, you might not know about some of the basic composition techniques. Let's fix that.

car photography composition
Photo by j.wilder. Sony a6000.

Introduction to Composition

Composition can be kind of boring when arranging a bowl of fruit on a table (no offense to fruit loving photographers).

But we love cars.

That visual passion compels us to make photos that capture what we see and feel, from our own unique perspective.

Let's look at some basic composition techniques that can help make your photos be more interesting and stand out among the crowd of point-and-shoot snappers.

What is Composition

The word composition means "put together." It is how you arrange notable elements (a tree, a house, mountains, etc) within a frame. Composition can apply to any work of art that is arranged or put together using conscious thought.

Artists think about what they want to paint. Then they arrange what they see in their mind and apply it to a canvas.

Similarly, when you compose a photograph of a car, you're painting a picture.

We need to slow down, and apply the full force of our skill, knowledge, and experience when making a photograph.

So suffer with me and let's slow down by breaking down the basic steps of composing a photograph of a static car.

1. You decide on an orientation (landscape, or portrait).
2. You look for composition opportunities around the location.
3. You choose what elements to include (tree, cloud, road, another car, etc.).
4. You also choose what elements to exclude (utility pole, dumpster, etc.).
5. You then decide where in the frame to position the main subject.
6. And, finally, you take the shot.

That's a lot of brain work, and I'm leaving out the technical camera stuff.

The point of this exercise is to slow down and think about the process of making art with your camera.

Now, let's look at a few composition techniques that you can use when making a photograph.

Composition Techniques

The most important part of car photography is composing the shot.

As long as you have a camera, you can take great photos.

Since there are many composition techniques, I have included only the ones that I think are the easiest to understand, apply, and see immediate results (cuz we like immediate!).

  • Orientation
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Lead Room
  • Leading Lines
  • Foreground Interest
  • Framing

There are many more techniques such as Symmetry, Patterns, Negative Space, and more. I'm sure you will want to look in to these also.

For now, let's start with Orientation.

Orientation

Landscape, square, or portrait are fine, but decide which orientation is best for your shot.

car photography composition orientation

In this case, I wanted to emphasize the vertical velocity stacks on this engine. And for fun, aligned them with a fluffy cloud.

Use portrait when you want to emphasize verticality. Use landscape when you want to emphasize the width of a scene.

I have seen "social media" advice saying to use portrait orientation in order to take up more vertical space in the news feed. That's fine. But please don't take all shots in portrait orientation just for that reason. Just post great car photos, landscape, square, or portrait.

Rule of Thirds

car photography composition rule of thirds
Photo by j.wilder. Sony a6000.

The rule of thirds essentially divides your camera screen into a grid of horizontal and vertical thirds. If you simply envision a tic-tac-toe grid on your photo you can easily understand the concept.

When applied, it can make an image more interesting (or natural) to the eye. It can be applied to photography as well as other types of art.

One way to use the rule of thirds is to place the object you are photographing at one of the intersecting gridlines.

Another way to use the rule of thirds for a landscape photo is to place the horizion along the top or the bottom horizontal gridline.

Note that most all cameras (and smart phones) have a feature that allows the rule of thirds grid to be placed on the screen.

That's about all there is to it.

Because the rule of thirds is so easy to understand and apply, it's a great tool to begin exploring composition.

Lead Room

car photography composition lead room
Note that the Chevy is not centered, but positioned a little to the right of the frame. This allows for more space (Lead Room) in front of the car. Photo by j.wilder. Nikon D5000.

Lead Room (aka Rule of Space) is another powerful technique that can help you decide where to position the subject in the photograph.

When you position the car in the frame, leave more room in the front of the car than the back. In other words, leave room for the car to move forward in the viewer's imagination.

Lead Room applies to objects that move, such as cars, boats, airplanes, bicycles, etc. It also applies to people and the direction they are looking (left, right, up or down).

Leading Lines

car photography composition leading lines
The highway stripes lead the eyes right to the Mustang. Photo by j.wilder. Sony a6000.

Leading Lines are typically a naturally occuring path that serves to attract a viewers eye and cause the viewer's eyes to follow the path towards the subject of the photo.

Leading Lines don't have to be straight lines, they can curve or spiral, or meander.

Leading Lines can be items such as sidewalks, roads, painted stripes, or anything that the eye can continuously track.

Leading Lines is where the real fun starts to happen.

Foreground Interest

car photography composition foreground interest
Photo credit General Motors Company, LLC. Cadillac Design Studio at the GM Technical Center, Warren, Michigan.

This photograph was skillfully composed and is one of my favorite studies. Not only is there an object in the foreground (chair on left), there is an object in the middle-ground (man in chair), and an object in the background (man holding color sample).

Here is proof that composition works - look at the photo and pay attention to where your eyes move betwween the three items of interest. This photo is brilliant.

The man in the chair is the main subject. He is looking at the car color sample. This makes the viewer's eyes move back-and-forth. The foreground object (chair) takes up a huge amount of the photo space, yet it is almost invisible.

The foreground (chair on left), middle-ground (man in chair), and background (man holding color sample) conveys a sense of depth.

Include an object in the foreground to give your photograph a sense of depth.

Framing

car photography composition frame
Model T framed by oak trees. Photo by j.wilder. Sony a6000.

Framing is a technique where you "frame" the subject of your photo within some element in the foreground. The frame could be very obvious or very subtle.

I would say in this case the frame is fairly subtle.

Framing adds an extra element of interest to a composition.

Summary

The most important part of car photography is composing the shot.

As long as you have a camera, you can take great photos.

We looked at the composition techniques that are the easiest to understand, apply, and see immediate results.

  • Orientation
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Lead Room
  • Leading Lines
  • Foreground Interest
  • Framing

There are many more techniques such as Symmetry, Patterns, Negative Space, and more. You will want to look in to these also.

But more important, begin conciously using these techniques and you will enjoy car photography even more than you might have expected.

Not only will you enjoy photography more, you will enjoy life more.

You will be more observant and engaged in your surroundings, no matter where you are.

Great photography exists because of great composition.

Next Steps

Part of the process of learning how to photograph cars is studying the work of others.

When studying the work of others, focus on composition. Composition is the art and heart of photography.

Check out Car Photography Composition Studies for reasoning on why it's good to study the composition of photographers you like.

Finally

If you are new to car photography you might want to check out this article that focuses on Car Photography Tips for beginners. It's a great place to start.

Keep shooting.

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