Welcome back to my tutorial series: “Great Subjects”.
As a landscape photographer, shooting planes, trains, automobiles and other modes of transportation is not something I do very often! But I find that tackling new subjects and breaking out of my comfort zone is always beneficial and I think you will too. You’re bound to learn something!
For this theme, you are not limited to just planes, trains and automobiles; use your imagination to discover all kinds of vehicles, as long as they are (or at one time were) capable of taking you from point A to point B. This can be on the road or off of it, in the sky or on the water. They can be still or in motion, near or far. As long as it can carry people, it counts!
Many modes of transportation offer unique challenges when you’re trying to capture images of them. This can be due to their size, their shape, their distance away from you, or the finish they’re painted with, which is often very shiny and can cause unwanted glare and reflections. Depending on the subject and its surroundings, you can use different techniques to get the best possible shots.
Easily the most plentiful vehicle on the planet, cars are everywhere and can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can photograph your own family car or those around you on the street. Many people go to antique car shows and other auto-enthusiast events (including classic car night at the local diner or drive-in) to capture photos of the kinds of unique old cars that aren’t seen so much anymore.
Cars are a versatile subject because they’re large, but not too large, so they can be shot in many ways and from many angles to create different compositions. They’re usually photographed in a way that emphasizes their shape and design, making them look sleek and sporty. This can be done by focusing on a unique feature of the car, such as the curve of the hood over the headlights, and framing it with neat, clean lines that draw the eye through the image.
Some vehicles can’t help but look larger than life, even in real life. Tractor-trailers, busses, RVs, and fire trucks all make excellent subjects in this category. These types of vehicles differ mainly in the way they are viewed – instead of sleek and sporty, large vehicles are usually made to look tough, powerful, and adventurous. One way of doing this is to shoot them from a low angle, which makes them appear powerful, as I did with the photo of a space shuttle below.
If you choose a large vehicle as your subject, the bigger challenge is getting anything but a low angle. Of course, the worms-eye view can work perfectly for these subjects, but if it’s not what you’re going for, the best way to shrink your perspective is by the lens you use.
Instead of photographing the vehicle up close with a wide-angle lens, which exaggerates the size of things nearby, stand further back and use a lens with a longer focal length. The magnification of a telephoto lens compresses the background and controls the perspective – plus, being further away means you have to look up less to see the top of the vehicle, so it doesn’t seem to tower over your head so much.
Trains are one of the most interesting subjects this theme has to offer. No matter where you live, trains are so packed with history, symbolism, and meaning that they can’t help but speak to the viewer in many different ways.
Whether you’re in Europe, Asia, India, or the Americas, the invention of the railroad transformed the whole world and brought civilization into the modern era, for better or for worse. They too can imply power and adventure, but also strength, fear, and the conquering of the natural world – it all depends on the train’s context, it’s surroundings, and how you compose it. There are many elements that go into giving an image meaning – strong lines and high contrast lighting, for example, will emphasize the feeling of power and intensity.
Trolleys and Buggies
If you happen to be in a city that still runs a trolley system, it’s hard to resist photographing them. Places like San Francisco, Toronto, and New Orleans are partially defined by their vintage-style mass transit, just as London is known for its double-decker buses. Just like old cars, these past-era automobiles can give a photo a timeless look.
Likewise, finding a tour guide that rides a horse and buggy, such as the ones found in Central Park and other touristy parts of town can offer great opportunities for classic-looking compositions that look like they could have been made 50 years ago. Of course, if you really want to sell that look you should try to arrange your frame so that nothing modern can be seen in the background, but in some cases the combination of both new and antiquated elements can provide an interesting visual juxtaposition.
Whether we’re photographing bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, or anything else that balances on two wheels, the interesting part of most smaller vehicles is usually their overall shape. Their small profile can get lost when viewing them from a head-on angle, so try changing your perspective to emphasize shapes.
Off the Road
There are lots of vehicles that you won’t find on city streets, but they still make perfectly good subjects for this theme. There are actual off-road vehicles, like ATVs and dune buggies, as well as construction and farm equipment like tractors, CATs, and other drivable industrial equipment. Finally, a trip to the museum can bring you across all kinds of unique subjects, from retired military vehicles to pieces of automobile history.
There are almost as many seafaring vehicles as there are vehicles on land, and the water can introduce a whole new element to your photos. The first is the reflection of the sunlight off the surface, which not only creates glare, but also helps to light the things that float on it. The glare can be reduced by using a polarizing filter on the end of your lens and turning it until the unwanted shine is minimized (you can see this through the viewfinder or live view screen).
As the sunlight bounces off the surface of the water, it also reflects upwards and lights the underside of the boat, ship, canoe, catamaran, or any other such vessel you happen to be shooting. This is not a problem to be fixed, only something to be noted when you’re calculating your best composition and exposure.
The second thing to think about when shooting out to sea is the distance between you and your subject. If it’s out on the water and you’re stuck on land, there might be a far stretch from it to you, so you might want to use a long focal length lens in order to see it closer. Another option would be to use that distance and incorporate the space around the subject into your composition using a shorter, wider lens.
Whether you want to photograph an airplane, a helicopter, a hot air balloon, or a space shuttle launch, you can’t shoot something in the sky without first considering the sky itself. Especially during mid-day, it will, naturally be very bright, and depending on where the sun is relative to your subject, you might end up with an unwanted silhouette. In some cases this can be fixed by increasing your exposure compensation, but if the contrast between the sky and the subject is too great you might risk losing detail in one or the other.
When shooting into the sky, try to shoot just after sunrise or just before sunset when the sky is not so bright, and keep the sun behind you to ensure that your subject is well-lit and to avoid sun flare on your lens.
Also being at such a distance, the same sorts of lenses can be used to photograph objects in the sky as those on the water. Long focal lengths are needed to bring the object closer and fill the frame with it, while a normal focal length will show the space around the aircraft, making it quite small. Very wide angle lenses are rarely useful for such distant objects because they end up looking too small to see.
Composing the Background
Nothing can ruin a good shot as quickly as a bad background. No matter what your subject is, if there is a cluttered background full of unrelated distractions, it immediately pulls attention away from your focal point. I always say, if something in the photo isn’t helping it, it’s hurting it, and the best thing to do is get rid of it if at all possible. There are a few ways to do this:
- Take it out! If you can physically move it, do so.
- Change your point of view. Sometimes just a single step to one side can hide the offending object behind your subject or another element, out of sight and out of mind.
- Blur it out. If there is too much clutter in the background that can’t be removed, consider using a shallow depth of field. To do this, use aperture-priority mode and select a small f-number such as f/2.8 to blur the background and foreground of your image while keeping the focal point sharp. Remember that doing so directs the viewer’s attention very strongly to whatever is in focus, so make sure that your focal point is the most important part of the image.
Removing distractions is the first step to composing a good background, but it’s not the only thing you can do. Once you’ve mastered the art of simplification, you can start purposefully tying the background into the picture. This can be done in all sorts of ways depending on your subject and its surroundings. You can leave a secondary element in the distance – particularly one that adds meaning or context to the subject. This could be a road, a building, a sunset, or anything else that enhances the impact of the main subject.
When it comes to photographing moving vehicles, my favourite technique is to find my background first and then wait for the main subject to come along. Sometimes this can mean a long wait, but if you find out ahead of time the route that is being taken during an event, or the route of a regularly occurring horse and carriage tourist ride, for example, you can plan your background in advance.
One day while travelling in Utah, I came across a bunch of classic cars fueling up in a small town. I simply struck up a conversation about their trip and asked them where they were heading next. I drove along their planned route and stopped when I had a fantastic background and waited, fingers crossed, that they would come. I ended up getting a whole series of photographs like this one:
Another way to remove the background is to crop in close on a detail and fill the frame with it rather than including the whole vehicle from roof to tire in the frame.
Unless you’re attending a car show or some other special, professionally-lit event or location, you’re probably going to be using natural sunlight to light your subjects. However, many vehicles have a curvy shape and a glossy surface that likes to shine in the sunlight. While this does make for a nice, glistening effect in real life, to a camera those reflections are likely to turn pure white and lose all detail, and possibly even throw off the camera’s light meter and cause improper exposures.
The most important aspect of photography is always light, and understanding how to find and identify a well-lit subject makes all the difference between a good photo and a great one.
In order to keep those pesky reflections under wraps, it’s best to avoid harsh sunlight which glares off the surface of a shiny vehicle. A polarizing filter can be used to control reflections on glass windows and water, however, light that reflects on metal surfaces isn’t polarized and therefore can’t be controlled using a filter. Instead, try to photograph on cloudy days or during early or late hours when the sun isn’t so bright, resulting in the overall contrast of your image being less extreme. If you have to shoot on a bright day, try to photograph subjects that are in the shade.
Even under the best conditions reflections are still inevitable, so it’s also important to compose your shot so that the reflections that do happen are placed thoughtfully, just like any other compositional element. As you change your point of view on your subject (that is, the angle that you shoot it from), and depending on the angle of the light source (presumably the sun, though not necessarily), the point where the light reflects off the surface of the car will change. By moving your camera and adjusting your perspective side-to-side or up and down, you can shift the shape, the placement, and even the size of the reflections. Exactly how they change will depend on the subject and how it is designed, so every situation will be absolutely unique.
The only way to create the best effect every time is by experimenting with each shot, shooting it from many different angles, and comparing the results.
When you bring your photos into an image editing program, the chief purpose is to enhance the photo’s natural strength. To do that, you must first identify what the strengths are. Does is have strong shapes and forms? Interesting texture? Beautiful colours? Crisp detail? Knowing what the best part of the picture is helps you decide how to edit it for the best effect.
It’s not always best to apply the same settings to every picture. If your image has drab colours, for instance, increasing the saturation won’t create something that isn’t there, and is likely to make the image look over-saturated rather than vibrant. Instead, you might choose to turn down the saturation in order to give the palette a more muted look, or convert the photo to black and white, to downplay the lack of colour and instead draw focus to the shapes and lines in the scene. If colour is a major part of the composition, however, a slight boost in saturation can make the photo really pop. Be careful though – the saturation slider is a powerful tool, and should be used only as needed. It’s too easy to make your photo look cartoonish and inauthentic by overdoing the saturation.
If your composition is rich in texture, increasing contrast or clarity will make the textures stand out even more.
If the light in your scene is too harsh, with dark shadows and bright white highlights, you can lighten the shadows and darken the highlights, or both, in order to even out the exposure.
These are just some basic adjustments you can make to any type of image in any post-processing software. If you don’t have any photo processing software, give the free online tool Pixlr a try. You can find it at pixlr.com. If you’re editing on an iPad, give SnapSeed a try. It’s also free.
Photos of vehicles tend to lend themselves to more aggressive processing than just the basics I mentioned above. There’s just something about the rust on an old car, the industrial nature of a vehicle’s surroundings, or the shiny gloss of a new vehicle, that works well with various post processing techniques, so I encourage you to try something new in the realm of post processing with this theme.
You can go for a grunge look or something that resembles a painting, or a bit of both! Don’t worry about making mistakes, just let yourself be creative and see what kinds of different looks you can make.
When I came across this old jalopy in the desert, I was attracted by the texture of the rusty paint, the shredded tires, and the amazing background. I wanted to process it to emphasize those features, but then I ended up doing a few more things to create the photo below:
Here are the steps I used to make this image:
1. When I visited this location it was the middle of the afternoon in some pretty bright light, so I decided to make three exposures (one for the highlights, one for the mid-tones, and one for the shadows) and combine them into an HDR image to even out the exposure.
2. After I made the HDR image, everything was pretty flat so I wanted to add some colour, contrast and detail to the car to make it pop. I used one of my favourite plugins, Topaz Adjust, to do this. Topaz Adjust has lots of presets you can use to do this kind of thing quickly and easily.
3. I didn’t like the way the sky and some of the trees looked in HDR, so I brought one of the original exposures into photoshop and blended it with the HDR image. This way the sky and the trees look more natural because they are not HDR nor do they have the Topaz Adjust effect applied to them. This is how the image looked after this step:
4. I decided to try something fun and used the Topaz Simplify plugin to make a painterly effect on the image.
If you don’t have any fun filters to play with, you can download a trial version of the Topaz Labs plugins. The trial version gives you full functionality and works for 30 days. I highly recommend Topaz Adjust if you are just looking for one to try out.
So get out there and start photographing modes of transportation. You might surprise yourself with how much fun it is!
For more tutorials in this series, check out “Great Subjects”.
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