Learning how to photograph moving cars (or any moving object) can be tricky and poses a few unique problems. First, the object is moving and it is hard to lock focus. Secondly, it’s moving and causes a blur as it moves through the frame! As with most cases, the best way to deal with these seemingly terrible problem is to embrace them and learn to work around it.
There are three ways to photograph a moving car:
- Freeze the car and everything else in the frame
- "Freeze" the car while blurring everything else in the frame
- Blur just the car without blurring the entire frame
In the following sections, we will show you how to accomplish and conquer these settings.
You will need a camera that allows you to adjust the shutter speed and/or ISO. Aperture does not play a big role in this since any motion blur is controlled by your shutter speed, and depth of field is not as important.
To freeze everything in your frame, you will need a fast shutter speed. The exact shutter speed needed to freeze the car depends on how fast it is moving. In most cases something like 1/250 or 1/500 should be good enough to freeze motion. If it’s a train or racecar whizzing by, you may need to go beyond 1/1000 of a second. By freezing everything in the frame, it gives a very static look and can be boring. Conveying motion with selective blurring can add interest to your photos. The next two tips will cover this.
Freezing Just the Car
To freeze just the car or your object in motion, you will need to select a slow shutter speed, something roughly 1/60 or slower. Wait, what? A slower shutter speed you ask? Yes! The way you accomplish this effect (see photo on the right) is by panning with the moving car or object. While the shutter is open, you simply follow the motion of the object so that, relative to your frame, the object’s position is stationary and everything else is moving. This technique is called panning and takes some practice. Panning is great for showing movement in cars, runners, bikers, and sports.
If you are having trouble getting good results, try setting your camera to continuous autofocus (AI servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon), turn on burst shooting to increase your success rate, and practice!
Blur Just the Car
To blur just the car and keep everything else frozen, you will need a slower shutter speed as in the previous example, but this time instead of panning with the movement of your object, you simply leave the camera completely still. Depending on how slow you set your shutter speed, you may or may not need a tripod. Image stabilization on your camera may be good enough to prevent camera shake on these shots. By using a slower shutter speed and a still camera, only the fastest of objects in your frame will show a motion blur trail. Everything else, like the environment or people, in your scene will remain still. This technique works well for scenes with many people (like a bustling train station), a train whizzing by passengers on the platform, or cars driving by a busy street.
Learning How to Photograph Moving Cars
In addition to the above tips and techniques, you may also want to read Tips for Shooting and Showing Action in Photography and the article called Pre-Focusing: A Pro Trick for Better Action Photos to help you learn how to photograph moving cars successfully.