A dealer’s guide to car photography

Posted by Meg Bernazzani on February 28, 2019

There is no underestimating the value of high-quality car photography. Customers can tell a lot about your dealership from your advertising images, which are often the first impression a customer gets of a car.

New models benefit from polished manufacturer stock shots, while used vehicles do not enjoy the same luxury and require a bit more effort. Get it right though, and you immediately showcase the car’s best qualities in plenty of detail, immeasurably boosting your chance of a sale.

However, photography is easy to get wrong–and a lot of businesses do exactly that. A lack of know-how or the scramble to get images online frequently leads to poor-quality shots that leave the viewer unclear about what they’re looking at and questioning the dealership’s professionalism. If you want to sell more cars, then you can’t cut corners with photography. If you have the budget for a professional snapper then go for it–but handling your pictures in-house is perfectly doable whether you’re a veteran photographer or a newbie with a smartphone.

Prepare the car for photos

It sounds painfully obvious, but we still see filthy cars advertised for sale, so as simple as it sounds, make sure every vehicle has been thoroughly cleaned before it is photographed. Pictures of dirty cars will turn off buyers from the get-go, so make sure each car shines:

  • Clean the windows inside and out
  • Vacuum the floors and any fabric surfaces (extra points for leaving vacuum tracks!)
  • Wipe down the dashboard and center console
  • Clean the headlights, and make sure the light covers aren’t cloudy

Instruct staff to keep an eye out for any obvious dents or blemishes while they’re cleaning the vehicle. A cracked window, dented bodywork, or a missing piece of interior trim will likely be obvious in the images. Such minor issues can often be repaired quickly on site, so it makes sense to do so before you get snapping. Even if customers don’t spot them in the pictures, they’re almost certain to notice when they inspect the car in person.

Consider where and when you shoot

Showroom-ready means picture-ready, and the car is ready for its close-ups when it’s gleaming and free from imperfections. However, where and when you take the photos is just as important as the condition of the vehicle. Again, it sounds obvious, but don’t take pictures in the dark. Customers need to see the car in as much detail as possible, so a well-lit setting is paramount. Similarly, very bright mid-day sun makes it difficult to take photos without strong reflections, so early mornings and late afternoons are good times.

A clear, uncluttered background is always best. You want to keep your customers’ eyes on the car–not on something behind it. Also, be wary of where the photographer stands and the possibility of others walking into the shot, because you don’t want shadows cast across the car or a person reflected in the paintwork.

The final check before the shutter opens is the vehicle’s interior. Is there a phone sitting on the dashboard? A water bottle in a cupholder? A paper mat on the car floor? The priority is to display the car cleanly and in as much detail as possible, so anything that wouldn’t normally be inside and could draw a buyer’s eye is to be avoided.

Take plenty of pictures and keep them consistent

There will be a limit to the number of images you can associate with one advertisement, but find out what it is and make full use of it. Customers should be able to get a good feel for the car from the photos, so a wide variety of exterior shots, interiors, trunk, engine bay, and close-ups showing off key details and highlights will go over well with buyers. Images should always be sharp and in focus—anything less looks sloppy, as do photos with the edge of the car or a certain feature cropped or missing, so make sure the entire subject of the image is within the frame.

It’s also a good idea to keep the camera and the vehicle the same distance from each other for exterior shots. This ensures the images are consistent, so they will appear neat and uniform in the advertisement. There’s also no harm in using the same location for all of your photos—once you’ve found an easily accessible, clean and clear spot, why change it? More to the point, uniform photos of multiple vehicles look tidy and professional, so there’s no reason not to stick with a good thing.

Finally, uniform and consistent does not mean stamping your logo on every photo. Avoid adding watermarks to your photos as they can be distracting to shoppers. In some cases, a watermark might even hide a key feature of the car. Plus, using the same watermark with your contact info on your photos all over the web makes it hard for you to know which marketing channel your leads are coming from. So, it’s best to avoid watermarking altogether.

The right photos will go a long way

You don’t have to hire a professional photographer to have high-quality photos—you just have to take care, stage your vehicles well, and be mindful of what customers want to see.