How To Make Your Car Photos Stand Out For Under $100

Photos: Justin Westbrook

People love to photograph cars. Who can blame them? The trend nowadays seems to either be super even and ugly HDR photos, or overly processed dark images with too much contrast. If you want your car photos to stand out for cheap, it’s time to look into some filters.

We’ve already pined on the effects of the common ND filter or polarizer, which can help your camera “see” through your car’s windshield and windows, and also even out reflections in the paint work. But I’m here to suggest to you another lens filter—no, not a filter as in those things you swipe through on Instagram. I’m talking about the physical piece of glass that inspired those digital knockoffs.

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I’ve been photographing cars for Jalopnik for a long time now. One day I realized that cars have lights. Using my extensive knowledge of random photography YouTube videos, I also realized that you can buy some filters that are specifically effected by strong lights in the image. So I decided to try one out.

Earlier this year, I bought what’s called a “Pro Mist” filter. It’s basically a piece of glass that screws onto the front of your camera lens, and thanks to a special coating and/or texture, any light that passes through the filter becomes exponentially more glowy. It should be pretty obvious in the sample images littered through this article.

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In the photos above and below, note how the white “CALSONIC” lettering is picking up the stage lights and beginning to glow. The reflections in the chrome wheels are also softened, and any strong sources of light, like those on the ceiling of the building, are blown out into soft glowing orbs instead of harsh stars or smears.

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I picked the New York Auto Show to test the filter for the first time, as I knew the stage lights would beam thousands of micro-lights off of the car surfaces and make for a pretty cool effect if everything worked out. I think it did, but you be the judge.

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All of these photos were taken on a Canon 5D Mark II with a Nikon F-mount F2 35mm lens on an adapter. I took all the photos pretty wide open, between F2 and F5.6. The wider your aperture (lower F-number, like F2), the more effect the filter will have.

Even out of direct light, or with no strong sources of light in the image, there’s still a softening effect to images, like this one of a semi-shiny wheel:

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And I think the background of these Range Rover Velar review photos at sunset looks pretty cool kind of blown out thanks to the filter as well:

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I should also tell you that there are multiple intensities of “Pro Mist” filters. I bought a 1/2 filter, which is pretty strong compared to the other options. You can commonly find it at 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, with 1 being strong haze and glow on light sources, and 1/8 being minimal impact.

There are also variations of the coatings, including the Black Pro Mist and the Warm Black Pro Mist, and others. The Black Pro Mist filter is a little more common for filmmakers, as it generally has a more general impact on the image, reducing overall contrast, taking the edge off harsh light sources, and adding what some call a “film” look. It’s not grainy by any means, instead, the Black Pro Mist just seems to reduce some of the harshness of a digital sensor.

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Lucky for us, Tiffen has put together a big video of various Pro Mist filter varieties so you can see exactly what impact it’s having compared to other filters and filter strengths:

One of the biggest benefits of using a Pro Mist or Black Pro Mist filter doesn’t necessarily have to do with cars specifically, but both are well known for evening out skin tones as well. The subtle softness they add to the image helps cut down on skin creases and awkward shadows, making people look softer and a little touched up in a very natural way. I think this also helps with car paint, but that may just be my imagination.

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Anyway, you can find these filters at any substantial camera shop, or online at retailers like Adorama, B&H, or Amazon.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t love using this filter all the time. Sometimes the effect, especially on my pretty-intense 1/2 filter, can get to be a little too much, like in these photos:

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Also, keep in mind how the effect may look on brighter cars, where their paint jobs pick up more light than darker cars. You may not want the entire car to glow too much:

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But again, when the effect works, I’m really into it. When it doesn’t, it’s mostly just because I bought a pretty strong intensity of the filter.

Let me know if you have one of these filters, or what else you do to make your photography stand out from the other nerds on Instagram! I always want to learn more. And of course, show us what you got.

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Final Tips:

  • Lights on. You need light to have the proper effect. Make sure the car’s heads and tails are on, and consider parking in some strong lighting or setting up your own.
  • Let it get darker. The filter loses its effect if there’s too much ambient light, so just keep that in mind.
  • Know when it’s too much. I would argue my 1/2 filter is a little bit too much most of the time, and only good some of the time. This is less than ideal. I would advise some of you who don’t want such a strong look to go for something closer to 1/8, and I wish I had gotten the Black Pro Mist instead.
  • Have fun. :)
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