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BMW M4 drifitng

What lenses should I use to shoot a car?

Like any photography genre, automotive images require some special consideration when it comes to lens selection. But don’t be overwhelmed – you just need three. Here are the lenses you should use to shoot a car. I’m on a Nikon Z7, but these focal lengths are common for almost any camera set up.

BMW Z4
A typical roller, with the 24-70 lens.

Prime vs zoom lenses

If you’re doing rollers, it’s much easier to work with a zoom lens. You’ll want to be able to zoom in and out, depending on how close you are to the action, and you can’t always direct the cars to move how you need them to.

Prime lenses are good for close up shots on cars, like badges, and also good for blowing out the background so the car pops. But I find that shooting  a car at anything lower than an aperture of 2.8 really makes the back half fall out of focus.

A must have – the 24-70mm

If you’re just starting out in automotive photography, and you could only have one lens, the 24-70 would be it. It’s versatile for every situation and covers the range you’ll work in the most. I currently use the Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, and while they make a faster version that steps down to 2.8, I have not felt the need to make a change. The cars are sharp at 4, and the only time a faster lens would help would be for doing rollers at night.

In anything from light painting, to panning shots, rollers and static, this basic 24-70 has never let me down.

Aston Martin Vantage
The 24-70 is great for light painting.
BMW M8
You’ll appreciate the wider angle of the 24. Sometimes, the cars get pretty close.

A prime lens – the nifty 50

A prime lens has some benefits. They are usually sharper than their zoom counterparts, and can usually step down much lower, making for a faster lens. I use the Nikon NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S, but you could also go with a 35mm or an 85mm. Remember that the longer the focal length, the more you’ll need to back up, and the more the background will be out of focus.

There are times when you might be shooting people with cars, and the softer look from a lens like an 85mm is a nice effect on faces.

Shelby Cobra Wheels
A prime lens is great for capturing details, like wheel close ups.
BMW bike lesson
A prime is great for working with people. Faster lenses that let you blow out backgrounds add more depth to the image.

A big zoom – the 70-200mm

I just picked up the Nikon NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, and I’m loving it. There are 2 situations where you’ll need this lens

  • You’re too far away from the action, like at a racing event.
  • You’re doing a static shot and want to really blow out the background.

You can go with an even longer focal length, but for now, this is the only native lens for the Z camera.

You probably don’t want to use it for rollers (way to close), and while you can use it for macro shots, it’s not often done in automotive photography.

Toyota Supra drifting
No way I could get closer to this angry Supra, but the long lens makes it possible.
Toyota 86
Using a long lens for a static shot gives great depth control.

Lenses you should use to shoot a car – Q&A

“Mike, how can I get the cars to be sharper?”

If the car is out of focus and the camera can’t find the subject, you probably need more light, and to open your aperture wider.

“Do I need to spend a lot of money?”

In general, the more expensive the lens, the “sharper” the image it’ll produce. But As I always say, you can do everything I do with a kit lens and a crop sensor camera. Practice with beginner lenses, and when you step up to more expensive glass, you’ll be prepared to maximize its capabilities.

“Does it need to be made by the camera manufacturer?”

No. Just do your research and make sure you’re buying something that will do the job you need. In general, I stick with Nikon because they are excellent, and will work with the still relatively new Z camera system.

“I can’t get the entire car in focus”

Adjust your aperture, and make sure you have enough light on the car. If you’re shooting a roller, make sure to refocus after each shot, because distance and light always change.

“Are kit lenses bad?”

A kit lens is the lens that usually comes with your camera body, and no, they are not bad. My 24-70 is a “kit” lens, and it’s one of the best you can buy. Beginner lenses are usually not as fast – meaning they can’t step down past something like f/4.6, so you might be limited working with them, but until you feel like they are holding you back, they are not.

Grab a lens and have fun!

BMW M4 drifting
Use a long lens for motorsport events, when you can’t get close enough with your legs.

Commissions may be received for product links on this site, so help out if you can. I only write about products I use and believe in.

I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

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Legal

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post.

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.

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