Since most of us only sell a vehicle every few years at most, the process of listing your ride can be daunting. There’s a lot to think about: which of the numerous online platforms should you use? How detailed will you make your listing? How about that all-important sale price? Thinking about these factors leaves little mental bandwidth for what’s become one of the most critical elements behind getting top dollar for your car: the photos.
Good photographs can be all the difference between a successful transaction and a listing that gets ignored. While some have the funds to spring for a pro shooter, most sellers take their own photos. We’ve compiled a list of six tips to get the most out of your photography—even if you’re just using your phone’s camera. Whether you’re selling on Facebook or Hagerty Marketplace, here are some useful pointers to get you started.
Consider the weather and time of day
This is the easiest—but perhaps most underutilized—tip. You may have heard the old adage, “shoot with the sun at your back.” Providing that you aren’t under a severe time-crunch to list your car, you should completely avoid shooting in direct sunlight. Intense shadows can accidentally hide a blemish, and bright spots can make a clean interior look like a spotted cow’s hide.
I suggest waiting for some cloud coverage to diffuse the sun. If you have a spell of clear days, you could take the photos during the morning or evening golden hours—when the sun has gone beyond the horizon, but the sky is not yet dark.
Depending on the hue of your car, sunny shots can be useful to convey color. You may want at least one in your photo portfolio, but if you have the time, varying the angle and presence of the sun along with the time of day will paint a broader picture of your ride than a single session under the harsh afternoon rays.
Choose a prime location
Where and how you park your ride is incredibly important. First, make sure your spot is level. Parking on undulating terrain may cause your car’s suspension may unnaturally sag or tilt. Choose a location where there are minimal distractions in the background. If you can drive the car to a photo location, I suggest a park or a parking lot. (These wide-open spaces will be useful for the next tip, too.)
Side note: If you desire a sunny shot in your listing, park your car with the nose or rear facing the sun. The rays will wash along the side of the car and imbue some brilliance into the paint.
Positioning: where to stand and what lens to choose
Most sellers shoot their cars on a camera phone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about using the existing lens to get the best photos. Depending on the generation of iPhone, for example, the built-in camera will have a focal length ranging from 28mm to 33mm. (Lenses with focal lengths of 35mm to 50mm best mirror the human eye.) So that your car doesn’t look bulbous or distorted, it’s best practice to put some distance between you and your ride—say, 10 feet or so with a phone camera, and about 20 with a camera. This is where that parking lot comes in handy.
Similarly, if you’re taking pics of your car with something other than a camera phone, lens selection can drastically influence how the car looks. A longer focal length, say 200mm, will flatten the car and more accurately convey the proportion. Auction companies often use this telephoto-style lens for an establishing three-quarter shot of the exterior.
Also, mind the angle at which you shoot your car. For example, a low shot may be more visually compelling, while a shot from a ladder may better showcase the car’s curves. It’s best to include both in your listing’s portfolio.
While you’re snapping away, take a video. In an age where everything from birthdays to concerts are consumed through the lens of a camera phone, it’s incredible how many auctions don’t include footage. Record a video of your car running, or of you rowing through the gearbox. Heck, even a video of you walking around your car helps. It doesn’t have to have Academy Award-winning cinematography; it’s simply a chance for interested parties to get a more detailed feel for your car.
Editing is your friend, but don’t go overboard
Editing your photos is not trickery. Photoshop, on the other hand, is dishonest. There’s a difference between increasing the exposure and digitally erasing a door dent. In fact, most professional auction photography is edited.
Simply put, editing should make the photograph look like the real thing. You can use free applications such as Snapseed to help your photos. In short, you’ll want to drop the highlights, lift the shadows, and add a touch of contrast. Make sure not to be too heavy-handed or else your vehicle will look like a cartoon.
Select your shots with purpose
Dramatic photos get clicks, and the more eyes on your listing, the better chance you have at getting the number you want. Your lead image should be something arresting that makes your audience curious for more information. These shots are more about capturing emotion than specific details about the car, so consider that sun-splashed photo with a gorgeous backdrop, a low-angle shot to communicate your car’s aggressive nature, or something similarly engaging.
I’ve been photographing automobiles for publication for 40 years, and Cameron’s tips are spot on. His photographs are consistently excellent, simply because he follows these tips. In this digital world, your listing photos are critical, because they are the first and sometimes only time a buyer sees your car before purchase. One other tip, be careful of any sun hitting the lens of the camera or phone (if you are shooting early or late in the day as you should), and use a lens hood or your hand to block it. Also, I always photograph using a circular polarizer, turning it until the light highlights the tops of the fenders while watching the reflections in the glass. If you have one, absolutely use it.
Did anyone take the time to proofread this article? Wow! After about the 4th or 5th error I just couldn’t take it anymore and I stopped reading.
Thanks for pointing that out. They should be fixed now.
Nice article. Here’s a couple of additional tips for sellers from a former pro shooter:
1) Keep in mind that the primary purpose of your photos is to accurately convey the condition of your car.
Too many times I see sellers that think they’re shooting a Road & Track cover. They may have made some nice pics but they do nothing to convey the car’s condition. Absolutely, make a beauty shot or two to help your listing stand out, but please reserve your Jeff Zwart impersonation for friends and family.
2) Resist the urge to become a member of “Regurgitation Nation”…aka dumping your entire memory card into the listing. Quality>Quantity; learn how to cull your images. Do six front 3/4 shots provide 6x the information to potential buyers? This is actually an area where the Auction and Listing sites could help save their customers from themselves.
Digital cameras are amazing devices, but as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Thanks for the useful hints. Your comment on three-quarter shots reminded me of a story from over 20 years ago (before phone cameras). I had invited some friends to the track and asked one guy to take some three-quarter shots of my car. I was busy prepping for the race and not paying close attention. He ended up taking several pics of the side of the car, from the front to the beginning of the rear wheel arch…three-quarters, right?
So snapping a few pics in my dimmly lit, over crowded garage is a no-no? How do I hide the shovel full of gravel and old Mickey D sacks in the int? I’m sure no one will see the gallon of antifreeze or qrts of oil in the trunk if I leave the other stuff in it. OK, I’ll head down to the gas station after dark and take a few pics there. I know what I have, am reluctantly selling, and will certainly get top $$$. No low ballers or dealers, please.
My favorite bad car auction photos are the ones where everything is terrible weather wise and they never bother to clean the vehicle but they say it is immaculate. I want to take good photos and these tips are great for a good picture.
The one posting I will never forget had the first picture showing the car covered in a blue tarp. I bet that one sold on the first day.