by Bob McClurg

   When Richard Shute asked me to write an article on the art of “cartography,” or to be more specific, photographing cars for magazine or internet publication I was very flattered. In the course of fifty-three years, I have photographed thousands upon thousands of cars beginning with my first article submitted to HOT ROD Magazine way back in 1967 on the Campos Brothers “Lo Blow” AA/Fuel Altered and ending with a feature I had completed last November 2019 for MUSCLE CAR REVUE Magazine on Charlie Biele’s 1969 Anderson Chevrolet 427 Nova SS just days before the bottom dropped out of the (print) magazine industry.

   Out of those thousands of car features, I have shot cars in some pretty interesting locations. For example, I photographed the Beadle & Schmidt “Blue Max” Mustang II AA/FC on the 50-yard line at Irving, Texas Cowboy Stadium formerly the home of the Dallas Cowboys. I photographed Dennis Fowler’s “Sundance” Chevrolet Monza AA/FC on Warner Brothers “Blazing Saddles” set, Nelson Carter’s “Super Chief” AA/FC using Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town as a backdrop and posed Malcolm Durham’s “Strip Blazer” Camaro AA/FC in front of the capitol building in Washington, D.C. Setting up the necessary permits and/or permission to do these shoots took a lot of time, effort, and in some cases, money but the results were well worth it. However, the vast majority of the car features I’ve shot over the years were taken in “Anywhere USA,” on city streets, in shopping center parking lots and city parks, in front of aesthetically pleasing architecture, or at race tracks. Of course, planning has a lot to do with the final outcome. The more time you have to plan out a car feature, the better the overall “product” although that’s not always the case. Here are a few tips.

1. FINDING A SUITABLE LOCATION: When photographing a brightly colored and/or lavishly chromed and trimmed out street rod, street machine, street truck or race car, picking a neutral background like a monotone backdrop, the ocean, a lake or the wide-open spaces; (in other words, places that will not compete for the attention of the eye of the reader,) is an absolute must and can spell the difference between selling a car magazine story and/or “eating” one!

While finding a suitable background is paramount, you need to pay close attention to what’s IN that background. Telephone poles, street lights, power lines, street signs, billboards and the like can ruin an otherwise ideal location and a perfectly good photoshoot.

Case in point, when I shot my first car feature on the Lo Blow AA/FA, reigning Hot Rod Magazine Editor Jim McFarland rejected it. Having photographed the car at the recently dedicated University of Southern California at Irvine campus, I thought I had done everything in my power to find a clean and uncluttered background. WRONG! McFarland was quick to point out that while the quality, exposure and overall composition of the photography was good, there were these strange looking “sticks” poking up in the background reflecting in the blown Model-T’s candy red and silver metal flake paint job.  What were they? Fifty-two years later they’re called trees, but back in 1967, they were simply freshly planted saplings!

How could I have salvaged that shoot?  I could have used a wide-angle lens and gotten up close on the vehicle shooting low to where the aforementioned objects suddenly disappear or by using a stool or step ladder to shoot down on the subject thereby eliminating the possibility of any negative background clutter. I’ve also found that given enough working room, you can also lose, or “crop out” many of those little annoyances using a zoom lens. Now understand that using a zoom lens (like the 28-300 mm I have on my Nikon D750 for example,) is not an instant cure-all for eliminating trash in the background but it does provide you with more latitude.

2. KEEP A WATCHFUL EYE ON THE FOREGROUND: When photographing a car for any publication you have to keep in mind the better the quality of the product or “work” the better your chances are of selling it and getting it published. Background quality and background clutter duly noted, paved or concrete streets, driveways, parking lots or race track surfaces are all ideal locations to photograph a car albeit with a few provisoes.

. Pay close attention to the condition of the tarmac. Potholes, Cracks in the pavement, Tar lines. Oil Spots, Parking stripes and/or paint faded or marred curbs can all detract from the overall quality of the photo. Back in the day, things like that used to drive both editors and art director’s crazy! I remember an ass-chewing I took from ROD & CUSTOM Magazine Editor Bud Bryan for photographing a black 1940 Ford Tudor Sedan (its paint job was like a mirror,) in a parking lot full of parking stripes! Sure, in this day and age there’s PhotoShop but art directors work on salary too. Time is money and you can burn up both “polishing up” half-assed looking car feature material.


   Way back in the early days of car magazine photography it was a common practice to photograph cars on grassy surfaces. Of course, those were the days when car magazines were printed in black and white, brown and white or green & white, but when color came in it was an entirely different story. I never really gave it a lot of thought until I spoke with various Art Directors from car publications like HOT ROD, CAR CRAFT, DRAG RACING, and SUPER STOCK & DRAG ILLUSTRATED Magazines. Essentially they all said the same thing.

. Cars don’t run on the grass.

. If you ever want to silhouette a car from its background in an art layout, it’s next to impossible to do it with all those prickly little things sticking up in front of the tires.

. And back in the days of film, too much green can overwhelm the overall color quality or hue of the picture. That’s especially true when it comes to photographing yellow, orange or red cars on green grass.

4. ANGLES: When photographing a car you need to photograph the right side, the left side, and front and backside in high angle, eye level, and low angle perspectives. It’s also advisable to a shoot a ¾ front high normal and low, and a ¾ rear high, normal, and low to capture the vehicle in its entirety. Using a telephoto or zoom lens also allows you to compress the car and bring the image right up in your face.

   Here’s a funny story. Way back in the early 1970’s I was slated to photograph a big name funny car for HIGH-PERFORMANCE CARS Magazine. But when the guy showed up for the shoot there was a small yet noticeable primer spot on the left front corner of the car and another one on the right rear corner of the car. With a story deadline looming and the car owner leaving to go on tour the following day, I had no choice but to photograph the right front corner and the left rear corner of the car using my 65mm Hasselblad wide-angle lens photographically losing, or cropping out the offending areas. The end result was a great photo feature and nobody was the wiser.

5. WHAT IS THE RIGHT TIME OF DAY TO SHOOT A CAR? Good question. Back in the old days you could get away with photographing a car just about any time of the day using flash fill. However, a good rule of thumb is to photograph a car with the sun at your back. In the 1980’s a young guy named Randy Lorentzen came along and changed car photography as we know it. A studio trained photographic technician, Lorentzen preferred shooting his subjects in the early morning or early evening hours (when the light is “soft,”) using reflectors and sometimes minimal flash to dramatically light the subject while producing a pleasing background effect.

   Photographing a car in a studio is another method and gives you complete control of the situation thereby eliminating any offending elements. However, renting a photo studio and the lighting technician that usually goes along with it is VERY EXPENSIVE; usually far more expensive than you’ll ever dream of getting paid for by a car magazine.

6. ASA & ISO:  Back in the day cartographers generally used 50 ASA Kodak Kodachrome, 64 ASA Kodak Ektachrome-X, or 100 ASA Fuji chrome to photograph a car. All three of these color transparency films had great color saturation and latitude. What’s ASA? It stands for “American Standards Association,” and it is/was used to rate the speed or sensitivity of the film.

“ISO” is the digital equivalent for ASA and stands for “International Standards Organization.” The beauty of digital, of course, is that there’s no need for film yet the digital camera still features a film speed type rating system or ISO.  One of the benefits, if not THE main benefit of ISO is that you can still shoot a car using traditional film speed settings, but for available light and high-speed action photography, you can “jack up” the ISO rating to 8000 and above and capture the moment; ah the beauty of modern electronics!

7. USING MODELS: Having your girlfriend pose in front of your car is one thing but using a professional model is another. The word “professional” as in “model” means that you’ve got to PAY the girl for her time and lovely, shall we say, “countenance,” and by all means make sure that you get a signed modeling release! Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s swimsuit-calendar girl issues used to be all the rage with the car magazines, but these days, (thanks to a prevailing change in public attitude, and a negative precedent established by the Charles Rathbun-Linda Sobek murder case,) you won’t see that many car features featuring scantily clad young ladies.

8. LEGALITIES: When photographing any car, you need to keep in mind the legal aspects. Is the owner of the property in question aware of what’s going on and/or do you have their permission? If you’re shooting a car in front of someone’s home, or a public place like a park you may be required to get a permit or release which could be time-consuming and quite expensive. Unfortunately, this is the downside to car photography. It seems like the minute you mention the word “magazine” the old greed factor arises, and people get dollar signs in their eyes. Sadly, I have no cure for this. It’s been an ongoing problem which I have had to face throughout my entire car shooting career.

9. SPECIALTY LOCATIONS: Less is better. Earlier in the text, I had mentioned having shot cars in specialty locations? Back in the day (60’s & 70’s,) many in the car magazine business tried to “out trick” each other by using unique or exotic background locations to pose cars in. But by the mid 1980’s, that became kind of passé when readers started complaining that they wanted to see more of the car and less of the background. Just show off that hot rod to the best of your ability. If a reader wants to see Mt. Rushmore, Niagara Falls, or the Painted Desert, have them make that their next vacation destination and be done with it!