Of all the things we do to put out a car magazine, photography is perhaps the most critical. When it all gets boiled down, we buy car magazines for the pictures--the words are only there to describe what we're looking at. The visual aspect of the magazines is what makes us pick it up, and the photography is what catches our initial interest in a story. And the quality of that photography is one of the things that often separates magazines from one another.
While writing words to go with the photos is more art than science, feature photography has an almost mechanical aspect. Like building an engine, certain steps and procedures need to be adhered to while taking pictures for publication. And like professional engine builders, some photographers are better than others. There are also specialized tools for the job--you wouldn't assemble an engine using only a ball peen hammer and an adjustable wrench, and good photography requires the right equipment. But you also wouldn't go out and buy a Sunnen engine boring machine if you were going to rebuild your own engine. You don't need thousands of dollars worth of camera gear to get great shots of your car.
Without sounding too snobby or getting into too much detail (or cash outlay!), there are a few basic requirements for good photography. One of the main things that separates professional looking photography from snapshots is the equipment. In a nutshell, cameras can be broken down into three groups: Point and Shoot, Amateur, and Professional series equipment. Point and shoots are the cameras your mom and dad used at birthday parties when you were a kid. The lens is permanently affixed to the camera body, you can't set anything like f-stop or shutter speed, and the flash comes on automatically. To use them, you simply point the camera at your subject and push the button.
Next in line is the "amateur" grade of equipment, typically consisting of 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera bodies with removable lenses and manual control ability for depth of field (f-stop), shutter speed, and a host of other options. Prices for an SLR outfit start around a couple hundred dollars, but can increase sharply depending on how many extra bells and whistles you want (for instance, a camera that shoots five pictures per second will be considerably more than one that shoots one frame per second). Most staffers on car magazines shoot with this grade of photo equipment--we just have a lot of the bells and whistles. Some of us shoot new, cutting edge technology, some guys are still using stuff that wasn't quite cutting edge 20 years ago, but still gets the job done.
The next grade in photo equipment is the professional level. This is where the big bucks get spent on gear; 35mm SLR bodies start in the four digit range, and lenses can easily cost what you spent to have your car painted. This is also the domain of medium and large format cameras (like the ones family portraits are taken with). They make great images that can be blown up very large without getting "grainy," which is ideal for cover shots, but not many of us "pros" have a lot of this gear. Given the choice, we generally spend the bucks on car parts and make do with our less expensive 35mm gear.
Quick Shooting Guidelines
There are only two things to remember here: the camera has to be held steady, and to make sure the car is in focus from front to back, the camera needs to be set at an aperture (f-stop) of f-8 or higher. The higher, numerically, the f-stop (f-8, f-16, etc.), the more depth of field (sharpness from front to back on an object) you have. A higher (numerically) f-stop means a slower shutter speed, which necessitates a tripod to hold the camera steady. Think of it like rear gear ratios: The higher the gears, numerically, (say 4.56), the slower the final speed (top end mph slows down). The higher the f-stop (f-19), the slower the shutter speed (1/30th of a second). And incidentally, the "ClickClick" you hear when you push your camera's "trigger" is the shutter opening and closing (shutter speed), exposing the film to what you see through the viewer and putting the picture on the film.
Finally, don't think you can hand-hold a camera at a slow shutter speed (1/45th of a second or slower) and get crisp photos--a tripod is a must. Even if you don't breath and are rock-steady, your heart beats around 60 times per minute, and a heart beat will vibrate your hands just enough to make the photo a little "soft" on the edges and blur sharp details. Think what the caffeine shakes from a can of cola will do!
Most magazines prefer color slides on 100 speed film. This gives us the best image quality, and we can reproduce right off the film, rather than relying on the quality of your local One Hour Photo Emporium's print.
The photos in the sidebars below physically show the relationship between camera placement and car, as well as several common mistakes many people make while taking a picture of their car. These tips will make the difference between snapshots and publishable photography. Take lots of pictures, and know that you are going to make lots of mistakes. Like everything else, the only way to get good at photography is to practice.