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What camera do I use to shoot cars?

Learn about the cameras I've used in the past, and my current set up with a Nikon Z7.

BMW 3 Series 335

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Here it is. The answer to the one question I get asked repeatedly: What camera do I use to make these images?

The answer? It doesn’t matter. Just about any one can do this.

Not satisfied? Ok, keep reading.

I bought a Nikon D5200 (since updated to the D5600) while on a Costco run back in 2012. It was a kit that included an 18-55mm lens, a 70-300mm lens, a camera bag, and a 32GB memory card.

I always do my research, and at the time, the D5200 was about the best basic DSLR camera you could buy. At a cost of under $1,000, I figured that if I didn’t like making pictures I could always just keep it as something good for family albums and such. Its 24MP sensor was almost as good as the one from a full frame D750, and I could always get better lenses once I felt I outgrew it.

This was from one of my first shoots, using the D5200 and a kit 18-55mm lens.

So I suppose tip #1 would be; start small and cheap.

No F1 driver hops into the car on his first day at the track; they start their career in something much slower and less capable, then build up to higher speeds. Same principals apply here. Learn what aperture, exposure and ISO mean. Understand white balance, and see how shooting in RAW vs a compressing JPG feels.

Even with a cheaper camera, you don’t lose much from a full frame pro camera as far as settings go, so don’t feel like you’re missing out on a lot.

I kept this setup for a long time, until I was able to buy what still is the best Nikon DX lenses available, the 16-80mm. Always invest in glass before investing in a new body, which are constantly in flux. A new, sharper lens can rejuvenate your camera body and give it many more useful years of life.

And that’s been my setup for the past 6 years.

To date, every image on this website has been taken with my Nikon D5200, and either the kit 18-55mm, or 16-80mm lens, except the intro image here.

That includes magazine and advertising shoots.

Now, I will tell you that I recently traded in my beloved D5200 for the new Nikon Z7. It’s mirrorless, full frame, and faster. It takes better pictures than my D5200, but it did NOT turn me into a better photographer. We’ll get to the Z7 in a minute.

Going back to the D5200, I received a lot of “hate” on the AMMO video because of my use of such a basic camera. We’ll take this comment:

“For a pro it’s just unacceptable to use a D5200. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that you don’t need fancy gear to take a nice picture and a D5200 is a great camera to improve your skill. From a pro however, I expect a higher quality product. You do want to use something like a full frame camera to get these rich colors and a greater dynamic range. Even more important you want to be using a camera with 2 card slots, just in case one fails you have a backup of your work… Other than that: nice video!”

Dynamic range simply means the amount of color, or data, the camera can capture in one shot. This used to matter more, but the D5200 has a similar EXPEED image processor from a full frame camera of the same vintage. As for the range of color per shot, it has almost no effect on the final image. We are taking multiple exposures and combining them, but even if we were not, you still would not see any visible noise or banding in a RAW image from this camera. It’s simply to good to do that (unless ISO is turned way up, but that is any camera).

Expose your image correctly.

Finally, DX (cropped) vs FX (full frame) – means that in full frame, you see more of an image. But if you are willing to use a prime lens and walk around for the perfect position, than a DX camera is just another version of that. How would you know if an image is full frame or cropped if the photographer has the car positioned properly in frame? You never would.

And, the D5200 produces images sized 6,000 x 4,000 pixels. That’s huge. To give you a sense of scale, an iPhone XS Max has a screen resolution of 2,688 x 1,242. By comparison, a Z7 produces images of over 8,000 pixels (with huge file sizes to boot) – you’d never notice this difference on ANY current TV, tablet, phone, computer monitor, or starship Enterprise view screen.

Edit right

Next, think of what we are editing the image on. My work station is an iMac Pro with a 5K monitor, and even at that resolution, it still only displays 15 megapixels. Anything after that is simply gravy. Those extra 9MP from the camera? They are in the file, but not displayed, because the monitor can’t reproduce the color. Even the Z7 and its 47 megapixels of glory are not of much use. One day monitors will catch up and these images will still look very good, even on a 45MP monitor.

Finally, it’s a good idea to have a backup memory card, but then again, the Z7 has only one XQD slot, and I’ve never had a memory card fail, I’ve just replaced them when the contacts look worn.

The AMMO shoot was with the D5200 and the 16-80mm lens


Moving on to the Nikon Z7, I felt it was time for a general upgrade to full frame. It allows me to have more image to work with in post. As compared to the D5200, the Z7:

  • Is sharper overall
  • Has many more points of focus, so you can focus more accurately.
  • Reproduces color more accurately.
  • Is able to focus faster in general.
  • Is “futureproof”. DSLRs are not going anywhere. But the smaller size and weight of mirrorless cameras, and more compact lenses, make it easier to carry. Options for the camera will expand down the road.
  • Has a better screen and an Electronic View Finder to more accurately preview my image. What I’m seeing is literally what I’m shooting, including exposure length.
BMW M2 shot with the Nikon Z7 and 24-70mm zoom lens

These things make my life easier when shooting, but they don’t make me a better photographer. Please don’t think you’re basic camera is holding you back – it’s your creativity that will enable you to get noticed.

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