Cars are made to be driven first and foremost. But at a very close second, they are made to be photographed. From the exotic to the mundane, the striking lines of cars represent the visual identity of humans in a particular era better than any other object. And even though a car’s sound is an essential part of it, I would still pick a still photograph over a video to capture its essence.
From a practical perspective, there is also something about a car’s size that feels just right. It is big enough to reveal new ways to capture its essence as you walk around it, and the views change dramatically when you compare standing on your toes with kneeling at ground level. The possibilities are endless. And the fact that you can do this just by walking around it makes it perfect.
Architectural photography, for instance, can be just as rewarding, comparing the number of views and angles you can see, depending on your viewpoint. But navigating a building is not so ‘user-friendly’ though, simply due to the size. Buildings are also often fenced or inaccessible, limiting how you can capture them with a simple kit.
For me, cars sit right in the Goldilocks zone; big enough and loaded with defining features and yet small enough to manoeuvre around without restrictions.
Another reason why I like to photograph cars is that they represent the full scale of human creativity; the design choices the creators made always allow you to tell an interesting visual story. Details give away the amount of attention that has been spent on designing it and putting it together. This applies in the full range of the spectrum, from cheaper cars to multi-million Super-cars.
But, in all honesty, the exotic does make the heart tick a little faster. Most of the photos in this article come from visiting a car exhibition in the NRW (Nordrhein-Westfalen) Forum cultural centre in Düsseldorf.
I found out later there is also a great permanent classic car destination called Classic Remise in the city, which I must visit on my next trip. We stumbled upon this exhibition as the original intent of the trip was to visit the local Christmas markets. There were so many beautiful pieces on display, I was happy to linger a little longer before heading to get some glühwein.
Reflections are also an interesting tool to use when shooting cars. Using the mirrors, the windows or even the bonnet or rims, there is always something you can play with.
Because cars get photographed so much, the challenge is to find that angle that gives an image a little twist. Below are two shots of cars with a similar front, the lesser-known Facel Vega and a classic Mercedes I saw on the streets of Riga. Both cars have dominating fronts with headlights that ask to be put in full display. That does mean getting down on your knees to do it justice.
When you look at cars on the roads these days, the ‘colour’ you see the most is grey. Light grey, dark grey, steel grey, lava grey and on and on. Not exactly exciting. I didn’t do any statistically significant research in this area. Still, I believe that the cars of yesteryear were more colourful, another reason that makes shooting classic cars so rewarding as you have colour contrast to play with.
The lens I used most on the photos in this post is the Leica 75mm Summicron-SL. I bought it with my SL as I really like the 75mm focal length. I got rid of it after six months or so as I longed for the manual focus experience. When looking at these photos again, I must say I do miss it. It resolves an incredible amount of detail and yet brings a soft glow that does not take away any sharpness. Quite remarkable. As I am in the process of overthinking my ownership of my Leica 50mm Noctilux f/1, I might give the SL lens another try.
Cars are a joy to shoot and use, of course. For my daily rides, I now drive a full-electric car, the uninspiring but capable Hyundai Kona. Emotionless is the word I would use to describe my attitude towards it. It’s not a bad car at all, the design is decent, the spec is pretty good, and it doesn’t make any noises it shouldn’t make (not just because it’s electric).
But every time I get in my BWM Z4, the experience is incomparable. The noise the in-line six-cylinder makes when I press the start button brings a smile to my face every single time. A car like this speaks to me. I can say I have a relationship with it, in a similar way I do with my cameras. I like engaging with it, putting it to action and receive the feedback from doing so.
I know we have to move away from petrol engines for the majority of our transport needs. I support that wholeheartedly, hence my main car being an electric one. But I do hope we continue to build beautiful petrol cars that evoke passion for years to come.