Mike Dunbar Commercial Photography | Commercial photography every day©

Commercial photography every day©

March 18, 2012  •  2 Comments




Photos sell cars.  Says who?  Autotrader, for one.  They know a bit about selling cars.

In this post I want to discuss how cars are photographed.  Partly because I still occasionally lust after them even though I should know better.  But mainly because I am regularly incredulous at how their presentation in a commercial context so often fails to reach its potential.

I’m not just referring to the stream of bangers passing through the local auction on a dreary Thursday.  My wonder is more often provoked by performing searches across the sites of some of the most “executive” metal available.  In fairness, it has to be said that presentations by the manufacturers usually (though not always) show that the influences of semiotics and visual narrative have been considered.  On some retail sites it’s a different story.  Even with top marques.  Here it is not uncommon to find objects of pure desire, with asking prices well over £30k, rammed up against POW camp fences in the rain, standing on cracked paving with moss and weeds prominently to the fore.  Or half the car covered in frost.  Alternatively, cars marketed on their individuality standing in vast lines of the same.  Sometimes with the white balance set to tungsten, turning everything blue.

Once upon a time people on modest incomes could enter into credit agreements with eye watering repayments to sicken the Jones next door.  Often for something they didn’t even own at the end of that painful process.  The sellers might justifiably have shrugged their shoulders  and observed that they sell anyway so why bother prettying them up. 

Today it’s a different story .  Big names in every retail sector have gone, and are going, out of business.  Once household names, Woolies and MFI have long gone along with dozens joining them  every month.   In car manufacturing, SAAB – a well established and respected brand – has recently gone to that big production line in the sky.

So every sale is a prize.  And yet we still see all electric, expensive metal with the usual appointments sir parked underneath a half shut roller door.  Nice motor, shame about the photo.

If the exterior shots haven’t moved the viewer along, getting inside is often enough to finish the deal.  Bare flash blasting off  the reflective surfaces, instrument panels and leather seats.  A macro view of the seat belt guide.  Do many people buy a car on the aesthetics of the seat belt guide?

As a commercial photographer I’m not usually chuffed beyond restraint when my copyright is disregarded so I’m not going to pillage others people’s images to show here.  (Well that and the thought of the lawyers licking their chops.)  But you know where to find them.  Check them out and now see them clearly.

So I plan to look at how to present your expensive metal better than the dealership next door selling more or less the same car for more or less the same price.  (The same rationale applies to advertising your car for sale privately.)

What is it we’re showing?


Let’s  get down to it.  What is being displayed?  Erm, the motor car?  No,  the image of the car.  Same difference?  No again. 

To understand the difference we need to side track into a little pot boiler known as Semiotics.  (No,  not half of Otics.)  It’s arty stuff and a bit slippery but for want of a better term it’s the study of signs.  Not road signs really, although they might play a part.  Symbolism in imagery.

The father of Semiotics is quite widely acknowledged to be one Ferdinand de Saussure.  (Some of these geezers don’t half go in for some queer names.)  And he defined it thus :  “It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology.  We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. “

The classic illustration of Semiotics is this depiction of a pipe by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.  He captioned it, “This isn’t a pipe.”  Many people look at it and immediately retort, “’Course it’s a pipe.'”    But a pipe is a smelly thing, a physical object with three dimensions to it which for reasons that escape me is subject by its loving owner to a near constant battle to keep it kindled in order that the resultant sparks, tar and smoke may be inserted into the lungs.   Well four dimensions really when you include time but let’s not.  The trick answer is that it is not a pipe.  It’s a picture of a pipe.

Now that we’ve got our heads round that subtle distinction the same principle can be applied to the car we’re selling.  The thing we’re going to show is not a car, it’s an image of a car.  And that’s central to understanding the importance of something called the denoted image and its connoted message.

The denoted image is the thing you observe, hold up to the window, squint at and turn over to see what’s on the back.  Much like a car itself, the denoted image can be deconstructed to its component parts.  In photography these are known as elements.  Whereas in cars they are known as bits.

The connoted message is the perception in our minds created not by the individual elements of the denoted image but by the combination and arrangement (composition) of the elements to form the whole of the completed image.   Now we’re getting down to it.

Take this image, which is quite typical of private car classifieds.  What are its elements?  A rather dirty car, some lockups, a back lane, some unruly trees, overgrown verges and weeds, hard light.  Leaving aside the clutter and almost random composition, what message does it advertise?  Is it la dolce vita, shaken not stirred, success, the thing you always aspired to?  Will acquiring this (depicted) object convince you that you have arrived?

 Or is it well dodgy?  Would you be happy to visit this location on your own, at night?  Or would you feel that someone might unwelcomely introduce himself at any moment?

True to art there is actually no right answer because someone somewhere will argue with perfect validity that the image is a more honest and realistic depiction of a car than one with semi naked models draped over it.  However, in a marketing context it is vanishingly uncommon to find these elements combined to form, say, the backbone of a marketing campaign for a brand new model.

Well it’s obvious,  you might think.  Perhaps so but if the message is so obviously negative why is it still sent out every day?  What could we change in the presentation of the same car to increase the number of people who will want to at least view it.

Let’s look at this image of the same car.  What are the elements now?  Essentially the car, the road and a park out of focus in the background using a technique called shallow depth of field.  (That’s for another day.)  What’s different?  It’s been washed.  It’s been de-cluttered.  It’s been shot from a more flattering angle.  There appears to be an exclusive show plate on it.  The light is much softer, more diffused, less harsh.  This image will hold positive attention for longer because the viewer can focus on it more easily.  The discerning viewer will notice also that the aspect ratio of the image has been changed to give a strong cinematic presentation that more closely follows the lines of the body. 

Overall it presents the car more effectively than our first attempt.  There is still considerable room for improvement though.  One visor is down, some condensation is present on the bonnet.  The road tax disc interrupts the lines.  Perhaps most importantly, although it’s a decent enough shot of the car it’s quite isolated  from any context.  There is a missed opportunity to make a statement not just about the car but about the world of the car - the world to which the prospective purchaser either belongs or aspires to.

I had hopes for this location.  It had the real estate element that I was looking for.  The light was appealing about an hour before sunset.    I couldn't move the car to improve the composition because the narrow street meant I'd be blocking the whole road.  Unfortunately the red car in the background, the street lamp and the kerb on the left simply rendered it a representational image.  I could hear echoes of my tutor.  "It is what it is, it is what it is!"

Although this location is mostly free from verticals and other clutter, it's also free from the target context.  And the grid lines reveal it to be an empty car park.  Not the required Martini crowd.

There is some research, and trial and error, in finding good locations initially.  Having found them they become reusable assets.


We need to dip out for a moment, into the arcane world of portraiture, to understand what’s going on.  Portraiture is often thought to be about people.  The picture over the mantle of the squire in his plus fours, gazed at by adoring spaniels, a pair of Purdeys broken over one arm, the country pile behind.  However, this was never intended to be merely a depiction of the subject’s appearance.   It’s a statement of the subject’s status.  The denoted elements of the image combine to support the connoted message of status and implied wealth.  Portraiture is a form of promotion or self-promotion and is therefore inherently a genre of commercial photography

In his totemic work The Photograph, highly respected authority on the interpretation of photography, the late Graham Clarke, memorably observed,  “The portrait photograph is, then, the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological and psychological.”  It can be seen that this analysis applies equally to the photograph of the car.

According to Freud, again in the context of portraiture, there are compelling grounds for linking elements of narcissism to megalomania, defined as  “A psychopathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. An obsession with grandiose or extravagant things or actions.”  It is precisely these fantasies that we are seeking to connect to in portraying the car as more than the sum of its parts.

To maximise the impact of the presentation we could introduce some elements to make a statement about the status of the car.  What might those elements be?  That’s not too difficult a question to answer.  When ambitious, thrusting alpha types suddenly start earning, or otherwise acquiring, a great deal of money how do they advertise that change in their financial status?  Is there not a well-trodden path from the dealership to the door of the upmarket estate agent?  A big pile of bricks is the “must have” billboard.  (As an aside, in portraiture another obligatory advertisement of status is a companion of startling proportions and allure, as noted by John Berger in his text book work Ways of Seeing.  But I digress too far.)

So we’re going to borrow from the conventions of portraiture by introducing other chosen elements to show off our car in a setting calculated to induce a positive response.

What if you don’t have a big pile of bricks to arrange as a backdrop to the image of your charabanc?  Who said they had to be your bricks?  You don’t require permission to take a picture of a legitimate something you legally own in a public place as far as I understand.  The web site Photographer's Rights is a better guide to this.   You can use your imagination and other resources to find a suitable location in which to photograph the car.  Private land and buildings are a different story, too complex for this article.  If in doubt, ask.


We’re going in



Photographing the interior of a car isn’t a picnic, usually involving much squirming around and a great deal of cursing.  There’s not a lot of room to work and some features are fixed and liable to get in the way.  The large manufacturers spend a fortune creating exact mock ups of an interior without a roof, pillars or doors, and with no steering wheel,  to allow the best possible lighting and angles.  Assuming that their budget is not available to you, you can get around this to come extent by shooting the largest images you can and being ready to crop out distractions.

Given that the manufacturers invest another shed load of money and months or years of their time to create these objects of wet dreams it makes sense to use them as feature of the presentation of the car.  This is not an easy shot to get.  The studios produce these with large format cameras or tilt and shift lenses to extend the depth of field (the segment of the image between the film plane and infinity which is deemed to be acceptably sharp.)  This is highly unlikely to be within your budget unless you have easy access to this type of equipment.

There are two other methods you can use to produce this shot without breaking the bank though.  One of the regular complaints about compact digital cameras is that they nearly always fail to produce pleasing portrait shots.  This is because their tiny sensors and small focal length lenses produce a very large depth of field causing a sharp background to distract from the image of the subject.  Here this can work in your favour.  You may be able to keep both the steering wheel and instrument detail sharp with a little digicam.  Alternatively you can produce a composite image.  To do so you need a tripod to keep the component images identical in five planes of axis (up/down, left/right, forwards/backwards,  pitch,  yaw.)  Using manual focus take a shot with the steering wheel sharp.  Then, without moving the camera by a jot, refocus so that the instruments are sharp.  Usually you’d take a whole series of these shots to be sure.  Having captured the component images you use then an image manipulation tool such as Photoshop, Paintshop Pro or one of the many others available, to align the images in layers before creating a mask to allow the sharp parts of the underlying layer to show through.

In this image the steering wheel is sharp but the instruments aren’t.

Whereas here the position is reversed.

Is that cheating?  I don’t believe it is.  The human vision system is much more capable and flexible than anything a camera can produce.  When you look forward in your car you will see the wheel and instruments, both sharp.  So the view we’re producing with the composite technique is an image  representational of reality.  We’re just using digital technology to overcome the limitations of the camera’s optical system.  By the way this was always done in the film era too, using techniques such as dodging  and burning, and a pair of scissors.

The finished composite shot again.


For this interior shot we’ve taken care to get the car out of direct sunlight but with enough ambient light to give us an even spread without using flash.  Again, we’ve decluttered the environment and this lets the viewer focus entirely on the features we want to show.  It’s calmer, less busy. You’re happy to rest your gaze on it for longer.  Borrowing again, this time from the estate agents,  it might represent a space which you would like to personalise.  Maybe you would like to see it?  And the boys will love all the blue blacks and understated purposefulness.


This style of interior shot is not untypical of those regularly seen both in retail and private sales advertisements.  You spent almost all of your car ownership time inside it, not outside admiring the lines.  So what special effort has been made to show this important space in its best light?  Well the door has been opened.  And, erm, that’s about it.  Bare flash bounces off the reflective surfaces.  The steering wheel appears to be a different colour from the rest of the interior.  A duster has been carelessly left visible.  Bits of garage clutter can be seen furthest from the camera.

This shot is even poorer in terms of advertising the car.  The interior lighting might be passable but the clutter visible outside the car makes it look like a garage sale.  Possibly fine if you're holding a garage sale but out objective here is to advertise a car.

Details and abstracts


It may not form part of the specification shots but we can start to get a little more creative with mono and duo tones to create stylish marketing shots, perhaps to form part of a brochure or for positioning around the showroom as enlargements.

Features of the interior detail can also be used to create abstracts alluding to the quality of the materials in use.  You’ll see this type of shot regularly used by the quality manufacturers.



Leaving aside the car and a bucket and sponge, the  essential elements of the successful commercial car shot include :

  • The desired context, possibly created by the inclusion of some aspirational real estate;

  • Preferably directional, diffused light;

  • A composition which so encourages the (targeted) viewer to focus upon the detail of the car whilst absorbing the familiar or aspirational connotation of the context;

  • Locations which resonate with the target market of the car.  A  little BMW placed half way up a muddy Ben Nevis might not work.  But it might be ideal for a Range Rover or an X5;

  • Details which make statements about the car;

  • The use of a show plate, even if only for security purposes;

  • Technical excellence is not essential but the shots must be free from basic errors such as camera shake;

  • Get rid of distracting visual clutter;

  • Keep other cars out of the shot.  You want the attention to focus exclusively on yours.


In the course of this post I captured several hundred images.  I don't purport to offer advice on photographic technique.  That's a matter for the photographer, and anyway it has been covered extensively by many and done particularly well by Sean McHugh.  My opinion is offered only in a critical and contextual sense.  Your views may differ.  I'd like to hear them.

In that vein someone will may ask why I left certain elements in the headline shot.  The double yellow lines, for example.  Given that I had several hundred shots to choose from - and their crops, and Photoshop  - I didn't need to.  The answer is that after review and deliberation I decided that they contributed a road real element to the shot.  So I left them in.

Someone else will take the view that the high gloss reflections in the body are distracting.  I think that's a matter of taste - and therefore irrelevant in this context - because they also have the positive effect of showing the standard of finish.



Mike Dunbar Commercial Photography
Thanks Ryan, I hope to expand this a little in future to fill one or two gaps I detect.

Best wishes

I thoroughly enjoyed this post Mike; As usual I certainly learned a few things! I was hoping you’d start a blog and glad you did. Having spent the last month scouring the internet for my new set of wheels I could relate to your frustration. I remember thinking that I had an advantage over other buyers because some sellers had taken really poor photos of the car making it look crap. I know exactly how good those cars “could” (and usually do) look and was able to detract from the photography, dismissing it all together. If I were selling my car, I’d probably have a read at this post again first. I firmly believe that with the right presentation, the asking price can go up. That said, I think the “back seat” interior shot is perfect. The interior of that car is fantastic at any angle!

Looking forward to the next post.

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© All the material within this site is Copyright Mike Dunbar 2000-2012 unless otherwise acknowledged.  That means that unless stated to the contrary I wrote it, photographed it or otherwise dreamed it up and it was hard work.  I am happy to consider reproduction in whole or part with acknowledgement.  You can ask me about this.  If  you reproduce my work without permission or pass it off as your own I will be entitled to feel aggrieved and I will seek recompense and surcharges for unauthorised used in line with the recommendation of the British Institute of Professional Photography.  Best ask first.  If you are tempted to copy and sumbit this, whether verbatim or paraphrased, as part of your degree course you would be well advised not to bother.  They're not universities by accident...

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