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Ideas for backgrounds when photographing your car

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A cropped view of the 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T seen below. Photography by author.

Spring has arrived, it’s warm and sunny and hopefully soon there will be leaves in the trees. You’ve likely already dug out your weekend cruiser from its winter slumber and prepared it for the road. Possibly you’ve even driven it a bit.

While it’s still fresh from its latest detailing, it’s the perfect time to take some photographs of it for posterity. They make great screen savers, too. You can also take some photos with your phone. You may not always have your car with you when someone asks about it, but you’ll likely have your phone, and this way you can have car photos at the ready. Take a few extra of the car with your family, and you’ll cover two bases in one photoshoot.

If you are using a camera that offers some manual control and you need a quick refresher in basic camera settings, refer to the blog Take better photos of your car, today that was posted in October of 2014. In this blog, I’ll simply offer up some background examples you may have yet to consider that can add some more interest to your car photos.

Outdoor, ambient light photoshoots force us do the best that we can working with the backgrounds and light that are available to us. Though I find cars in my area to photograph from time to time, by and large, most of my car features are shot away from home. That means suitable backgrounds have to be found once I arrive for the shoot. It’s great when it happens, but the truth is I rarely find a good one right away. Normally it takes some exploration of the owner’s town—sometimes an hour or more of driving around. Happily, persistence often pays off and I find a background that will work well with the size and color of the car I’m there to photograph.

We’ve all likely used green trees and grass backgrounds (car on the pavement or gravel not on the grass) and we likely will for many years to come in situations when that’s the best option that presents itself. There’s nothing wrong with that background except that it’s used frequently. When I do use a grass and tree background, I still try to add more interest by varying the shooting angle, for instance.

Other popular backgrounds over the years have been barns, lakes, brick buildings, office buildings etc., all of which can still work very well. My favorites of the more popular ones are still gravel pits, dilapidated structures or walls and autumn color.

Regardless, I still try to locate other unique backgrounds whenever I can just to add more elements of interest to the photos. However, I also try to ensure the background doesn’t become a distraction and compete with the car for attention.

Late day or early morning when the sun is low are generally the best times to shoot. If the sun is out remember to keep it at your back when shooting, so the car and background are lit by it, unless you purposely want some artsy shots of the shadow side of the car. This means that it’s important to note if your background gets morning or afternoon sun and to plan accordingly.
You can shoot on an overcast day, just before sunrise or just after sunset as well, which will reduce the shadows, but there are other considerations when doing that. I’ll discuss them in more detail when I cover some aspects of lighting and reflections in the next blog.

Other tips for choosing backgrounds and preparing the car can be found in the previously mentioned blog above.

With all that said, here are a few backgrounds I’ve used over the past few years. Some of these styles you may have seen before, but others may be new to you. Take a look at them and then think about your town. Perhaps you have similar structures or stuff close-by, that you may realize brings out the best in your car.

Just remember to ask permission if these locations are on private property. Most times the owners won’t mind at all once you tell them what your intentions are. Usually they quickly become more interested in checking out your car than anything else. There are many more background types that I haven’t discussed here. How many can you think of and list in your responses?

1973 Oldsmobile 4-4-2
Photographing a car in front of train-car is nothing new, but I thought this one in south eastern Ohio worked well with this original paint 1973 4-4-2. Luckily, I saw the train car from the highway as I was nearing the owner’s home.

1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere II
Parking garages can provide multiple opportunities for backgrounds. This one at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair in Columbus offered up this cityscape from the top level to photograph this 1966 Hemi Belvedere II.

1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere II
About 100 feet away from the cityscape background was this row of structures. By photographing the car at an angle to them, the repeating pattern and the diminishing perspective add some interest to the background. Shooting from a low angle will lessen distractions from the parking lot lines.

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
The entry/exit of the parking garage offered another background opportunity for this 1970 440 Six-Pack Challenger R/T.

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Directly across from the entry/exit of that parking structure is a long row of large columns. They are actually about 10 feet apart or more, but by setting the car up angled toward them, a repeating pattern emerges and diminishing perspective again adds drama. The yellow pole and the fire hydrant are far enough away to not be too intrusive, but they can also be easily removed in Photoshop if desired.

1970 Ford Torino GT
Can’t find a good background? Locate a clean stretch of blacktop or gravel. Get up on a stepstool or ladder or in the bed of a pickup and shoot down on the car and the ground serves as the background, as it does for this 1970 Torino GT.

1974 Pontiac GTO
The same technique works well with a path or road, too. Get up high and shoot down, letting the road show in front and behind the car like it is with this original-owner 1974 GTO in western Pennsylvania.

1957 Ford
Even if you are working with a typical green tree and grass background there are still opportunities to be explored. The trees on either side of this supercharged 1957 Ford and their leaves above it frame it suitably.

1954 Dodge Royal Sport Coupe
Framing of the subject can also be done with buildings, garages and overhangs. This 1954 Dodge Royal Sport Coupe is outlined by a vintage building that used to be an automotive repair shop.

1967 Chevrolet Nova SS
The large-block wall is in the parking lot of an office building in Ohio. I spotted it from the road while searching for locations. With the 1967 Nova SS positioned in the sun and the wall mostly shaded, the car pops and the wall adds additional texture.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
I noticed this giant metal tank in the yard of a local business that builds them. I liked the patina of the metal and thought it would look good behind this pristinely restored 1969 Z/28.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS
Not sure what these large round parts are, but they were on the same property as the tank and they looked interesting. This was just a quick snapshot of the ’69 Camaro SS after its feature was shot at another location on the property. I just wanted to see if they would make a good background for a future feature.

1965 Oldsmobile Jetstar I
Don’t overlook historic tourist attractions either. This vintage-looking repair shop is located not far from where this 1965 Jetstar I lives.

1968 Ford LTD
Small regional airports can offer up backgrounds like this time-worn hangar replete with peeling signage. Though the color of the large doors is closer to the car’s body color than I normally like, their texture, emphasized by side-lighting, ensures that the 1968 LTD doesn’t become a “Where’s Waldo?”