Photographing Vehicles Using Your Digital SLR - dummies

Photographing Vehicles Using Your Digital SLR

By Doug Sahlin

Some vehicles are just transportation but others are works of art worthy of preservation with your digital SLR camera. If you’re into cars or motorcycles or if your boat is your baby, you can show the best features of your pride and joy in pictures you take yourself. You may even want to take photos of other people’s tricked-out cars or well-built boats.

Camera settings for photographing vehicles

You use Aperture Priority mode, Single Shot for both drive and focus modes, and a single auto-focus point when shooting any type of vehicle, but wheeled and hulled vehicles require different settings as far as aperture and focal length go:

  • Cars and motorcycles: You want a shallow depth of field to highlight the vehicle itself, so choose a large aperture — f/4.0 or larger if you’re photographing a car from the side and f/8.0 if you’re photographing a long vehicle from front to back. A 50 mm focal length gives you a realistic depiction of the vehicle with no distortion.


  • Boats: You want as large a depth of field as you can manage to capture all the details of a boat, so choose an f/stop between f/11.0 and f/22.0. A focal length range between 24mm and 70mm lets you capture several boats or zoom in on a particular one.

Most cameras have a depth of field preview button that lets you preview the depth of field at any aperture. Consult your camera manual to see whether your camera has this option and make use of it if you have it.

Use the image stabilization feature if the ISO you choose drops the shutter speed below 1/50 of a second, but keep in mind that image stabilization won’t help if your boat is rocking due to wave action.

Taking pictures of boats, cars, and other vehicles

If you’re serious about photographing vehicles, study the pictures in the magazines devoted to them and the ads that sell them. Those photos were chosen because they make the vehicle look good, which is your intention as well.

As you do with any photograph, look for elements to draw your viewers into the picture. You can use anchor and mooring lines as strong diagonals or the sleek lines of a car or motorcycle itself.

Placing the horizon line correctly is especially important when you’re photographing boats. If you’re photographing a tall ship, you want the horizon in the lower third of the photo to emphasize the height of the ship (and you probably want to rotate your camera for a Portrait view); if your photo is as much about the reflections in the water, set the horizon in the upper third.

Still water is almost essential for a great boat photo. The still water gives you reflections of the boats and clouds and makes the image compelling. If the boats are bobbing a bit, use the actual horizon as a guide for keeping the camera level so that the picture doesn’t come out looking skewed.


You don’t have to take a picture of the entire vehicle. You can zoom in to highlight a specific part.


If you’re photographing a long car from a 3/4 view using an aperture of f/8.0 or smaller, focus in the middle of the car to make the entire car appear to be in focus.