Just a Tip: Vehicle Photography With Your Phone

Just a Tip: Vehicle Photography With Your Phone

“The best camera is the one you have” might be the most annoying thing you see on every mobile photography sub-Reddit or forum, but it’s not entirely wrong. What prompted this post was a brief perusal of Craigslist for motorcycles. To sum that experience up — if I wanted a free beer, I’d send you to your local classifieds site and ask you to find 5 horrendous vehicle photos in 5 minutes. They’re usually bad for a lot of reasons, and if you’re lucky, the seller will apologize for their photo quality. The fact is, Mobile cameras are getting better and better, and a lot of the time I’m still impressed what my 3 year-old LG G4 can pull off, but I definitely understand that it has its limits. In this post, I’m going to go over some tips on how to improve the shots you take of vehicles (specifically motorcycles).

7. Frame It Properly

This one is kind of subjective, but there are some general rules to follow.

I like photographing motorcycles more than cars because they’re smaller and you get a lot more freedom between portrait and landscape regardless of scenery. The way I see it, there are two ways to frame something — keeping your subject bordered, or keeping it in the rule of thirds.

  1. Aspect Ratio

    I’d comfortably tie framing onto the cropping rule. We can’t guarantee a good shot, especially when action is involved, and there’s nothing wrong with a little tweaking after you’ve taken your shot. My camera natively shoots 3×2. My phone shoots 16×9. Personally, I like working with the 3×2, so I set my default aspect ratio to that. I do this not just because it’s a frame shape that I like, but also for several reasons you’ll see in the “cropping” part of these tips.

  2. Mind Your Borders

    Sometimes you get lucky and your subject can conveniently fill your frame. Usually, it’s hard to fit that to your rule of thirds, so try to leave a bit of a border around that.

  3. Rule of Thirds

    This is the classic, golden rule of taking a picture of something. Divide your frame into 3×3 pieces and lump your subject somewhere near the center, corners, or edges of the inner rectangle. Make those bold bits sit somewhere in the center of the shot.

6. Crop It

There are two reasons to crop your photos. One has to do with flattering your phone, the other has to do with flattering your subject.

Most phone’s focal lengths tend to be the equivalent of 28mm. Anything less than 35mm is typically called “wide angle”. To be honest, I’m not a fan. When I shoot bikes and cars with Full Frame, I’m usually between 40-85mm (28-35mm APS-C) if I’m shooting stationary vehicles.

Unfortunately with a lot of phones (**cough** Android), cameras don’t do so great with sharpness at the edges, so using the wide angle at 16:9 does not flatter your phone. Stuff gets soft at the corners and makes your phone look weeaaaak.

Like mentioned elsewhere in this post, you can easily get away from this by simply cropping in to a common aspect ratio used by DSLR’s, like 3×2. You’re still looking at a 28mm shot though. Crop it in to about 60% to get somewhere in the ballpark of 40-50mm. It will leave you with enough resolution to use on Instagram, Facebook, or (more than enough for) Craigslist.

5. Lighting

The one thing mobile phones objectively suck at is dealing with low light. My LG G4 was praised when it was new for how it handled RAW files, but it handles noise like your apartment’s grumpy downstairs neighbour. Outside of some excellent noise reduction software, sensor noise at high ISO is something that’s going to be a reality for a long time. If it’s anywhere near sunset, fuck going handheld.

You’ve got a couple of options here. Add sufficient lighting, or set that shit on a tripod. This one, for example, was set on a tripod for 10 seconds in a dark parking garage at 100 ISO, solely because lighting wasn’t ideal. It worked alright.

4. Manual Mode

I made the switch back to Android and picked up my LG G4 three years ago. I can’t afford much else at this point, but it’s still pretty excellent for what I need it for, aside from the terrible battery life (the price you pay for that beautiful 538PPI screen).

One of the biggest selling points was the manual feature of the camera with RAW. Luckily, almost every phone comes with that feature. Tweak your shots for speed or stills, depending on what you’re after. Master this, and it’s a huge leg up when you’re shooting with a DSLR.

This post breaks down the “exposure triangle” extremely well: https://petapixel.com/2017/03/25/exposure-triangle-making-sense-aperture-shutter-speed-iso/

What’s the exposure triangle? In a nutshell, it’s a relationship between your phone’s sensor’s light sensitivity and the time it’s exposed to light. You probably can’t change your aperture, so that’s something to ignore for now.

3. Get Low, Shawty

Again, this one is subjective. Personally, I think a flattering angle for a lot of vehicles is right down low. It’s a view you don’t see often, and it makes your car/bike look big, important, and triumphant as fuck. It’s also pretty easy — just shoot from down low.

2. Post Process Colour

I use Adobe Lightroom Mobile pretty frequently, but the default photo editor on my phone does just as good of a job of handling slight adjustments to your shots. My phone is pretty lacklustre from raw mode (imported from manual capture). Consider each “+” or “-” out of “+++++” or “—–” for how much I might suggest you do something.

Typically, I shoot slightly underexposed, because no phone excels at handling brights. If you can, focus on something bright and fix the rest later.

Contrast: +
Highlights: —
Shadows: ++
Whites: ++
Blacks: —

The idea here is to get something HDR-ish to compensate for the lack of your phone’s dynamic range without going overboard. You preserve enough of the details to keep a little depth on your photo while keeping it look fairly natural. The photo below was taken during the sunset on a cloudy day, so ISO is fairly up there, at 400. The phrase “pretty good from far, pretty far from good” applies. Shrunken down enough, you might be able to convince someone your DSLR took it with your nifty fifty.


1. Wipe Off Your F**king Lens

Of all the things that drive me the craziest, this is it. People take godawful photos all the time and apologize for the blurry ass picture their ‘old’ iPhone 6 took. Little do they know, that little space-age rectangle they’ve been fondling the entire day has been soaking up greasy finger juice… Finger juice fucking loves glass. Usually wiping any lens with your shirt is bad form, but thanks to the extra-hard scratch-resistant materials on both sides of your phone, odds are that a ton of wipes aren’t going to affect quality much.

Here’s the first photo I found on our local classifieds site. Notice the blue cast to the whole thing, lack of contrast, and bloomy glows around the bright bits. This is 100% from a smudgy lens. I’d like to regard this person highly as a human being, but when a lens is that smudgy it’s hard.