The majesty of the 1989 Toyota Camry.

ISO 50 | f/14 | 1/30 sec | Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm F1.4

Victoria Scott

Shooting automobiles well is deceptively challenging. A car, after all, is nothing but a series of surfaces made entirely of reflections and smoothed-over creases and glass, which are some of the hardest things to shoot well. Luckily, there are simple ways to make your life easier and make your automotive photography feel less disposable-camera and more Road & Track cover shoot. Many of these tricks, it turns out, are just general photography lessons applied in specific ways.

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The first indispensable trick for automotive photography is the humble circular polarizer, whose usefulness goes well beyond just shooting cars. Often found in any landscape photographer's kit, a circular polarizer is a filter that both linearly and circularly polarizes the light passing through it. The mechanics of how this works requires a full breakdown of the polarizer's molecular structure and a decent-to-okay understanding of light-wave physics.

"The first indispensable trick for automotive photography is the humble circular polarizer."

How it works is, therefore, beyond this article's scope. The important part to know is that it is used to reduce unwanted reflections and glare. Landscape photographers use it to make the sky bluer, water clearer and foliage greener, and architecture photographers use it to make plate glass transparent instead of a mess of reflections. Its ability to virtually eliminate reflections also makes it one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for automotive photography.

The final effect of a circular polarizer is similar to that of polarized sunglasses but infinitely more customizable to the photographer's taste, thanks to the fact it can be rotated on the front of the lens. Let's look at a few examples of how it's used to make cars – and the world around them – look fantastic.

Case Study #1: My Daily Driver

No polarizer. ISO 80 | 1/640 sec | F6.3 | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 35mm F1.8 Polarizer on. ISO 80 | 1/250 sec | F6.3 | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 35mm F1.8

This is my brand-new-to-me 1989 Toyota Camry. (In true photographer fashion, the car I use to transport my gear costs about 1/5th as much as the gear itself.) I took the photo on the left without a polarizer; I used a circular polarizer in the shot on the right. You can see how the polarizer virtually eradicated all the glare on the hood and windshield.

This scenario – overcast skies with large, flat glass and metal surfaces – is when a circular polarizer truly shines for automotive photography. Instead of being nearly opaque with reflections, my windshield clearly shows my vehicle's interior. The lessened reflections on the hood allow you to see the paint's extensive – ahem – texturing more clearly. Although the car is still the same weathered machine in both shots, the second shot looks more professional.

The reason for the difference in shutter speed between the two otherwise identical shots is that a polarizer, thanks to the tint of the polarizing material itself, usually causes a loss of about 1-2 stops of light, depending on the brand, strength, and positioning of the polarizer. Here, I lost about 1.5 stops, and I had to adjust my tint slightly for identical coloring between both shots, as my specific polarizer adds a slightly warm tone.

Case Study #2: Adventure Camry

No polarizer. ISO 50 | f/20 | 1/30 sec | Nikon D750 + Sigma 105mm F2.8 Polarizer on. ISO 50 | f/20 | 1/13 sec | Nikon D750 + Sigma 105mm F2.8

For the next example, I went out adventuring on a day with clearer skies and found myself at an interesting cliff formation at sunset. The shot to the left has no circular polarizer, and it seems I don't need one at first. After all, the large, flat rear glass of my Camry is almost entirely transparent without the polarizer, thanks to the direct light falling at a 90-degree angle to the window.

But adding a polarizer can still help immensely here, as seen in the shot to the right. For one, the polarizer helps in the traditional landscape photography way: since I'm facing almost exactly 90 degrees from the sun, the polarizer is at its peak effectiveness for the sky. It adds immense contrast to the distant mountains and clouds.

Beyond its landscape-photography assistance, the polarizer also cuts down on the glare on my Camry's side, making the red paint look more vibrant. The side window glass is also clear, and the tires and black plastic bumpers have less glare and more contrast. The car looks overall more vivid and pops more with the polarizer on, despite the identical editing and settings to the unpolarized shot.

Case Study #3: Diffuse Light, Swooping Lines

No polarizer.

ISO 100 | f/9 | 1/160 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikkor F1.8 35mm

Here is a shot of a friend's Toyota Yaris. The overcast sky and the mid-aughts bubble-car styling combine here to make every surface of the Toyota extremely shiny (even though I definitely didn't wash it to take this photo). While it might look clean, that reflectivity greatly clutters the car's lines and washes out the contrast between the windows and the silver paint. Magazine-style automotive photography usually minimizes reflections to help emphasize the design and paint of the car and make the sheet-metal creases stand out.

Polarizer on.

ISO 100 | f/9 | 1/60 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 35mm F1.8

Polarizer on, rotated 180 degrees. The side is now clean of reflections.
ISO 100 | f/9 | 1/60 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 35mm F1.8

On the left is the same shot as above but with a circular polarizer. Here, the front glass is clear, and the styling creases on the hood and front fender have more contrast. Because of how diffuse the light is in this shot, the side of the car is also still cluttered with reflections of clouds.

This is where the fun and individual preference component of using a polarizer in automotive photography comes into play. When shooting landscape photography with a circular polarizer, it frequently only works best in one rotational position and is the most effective at a 90-degree angle to the sun.

"When shooting landscape photography with a circular polarizer, it frequently only works best in one rotational position, and it is only most effective at a 90 degree angle to the sun."

With a car in diffuse light – especially one as bubbly as this Yaris – the polarizer is effective through its complete rotation. The reflection-reduction effect changes as you rotate the filter. I left the polarizer on for the right shot of the Yaris, but I rotated it 180 degrees from the previous photo. This changes the reflections it blocks out; now, the side of the hatchback is devoid of reflections, but the front glass has them again. You can play with the rotation you prefer; for me, I tend to do it on a case-by-case basis for the vehicle.

With this Yaris, I would go with the shot to the right if I had to choose. It shows the crease in the sheet metal running from the taillights through the door handle more cleanly, and the side is also the surface with the most glass showing to the viewer. Eliminating reflections from as much glass as possible is usually the best bet.

Polarizer on (two-shot composite).

ISO 100 | f/9 | 1/60 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 35mm F1.8

However, I don't have to choose between the two. To get the most polished, auto-advertisement-ready look, blend both images in Photoshop. In this shot, I stacked the photos taken at 0 and 180 degrees of polarizer rotation and used a layer mask to show the reduced-reflection layers of both images. I chose the shot where the reflections in the sunflower leaves were minimized to be my base layer to get the maximum effect of the polarizer throughout the image.

"Eliminating reflections from as much glass as possible is usually the best bet."

This takes the most work (and a tripod), but it is a lifesaver when working with challenging cars (such as ones with very dramatic glass or glossy black paint), and in diffuse lighting conditions, it gives studio-like results.

Clunker to Cover Story

Polarizer off. ISO 100 | f/11 | 1/160 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikon E-Series 50mm F1.8 Polarizer on. ISO 100 | f/11 | 1/50 sec | Nikon D750 + Nikon E-Series 50mm F1.8

A circular polarizer isn't the be-all, end-all trick to taking interesting car photos, but it is a crucial part of an automotive photography toolkit. Even in situations where its impact is relatively minimal – such as this shot of my Camry on a reservoir beach – it still helps with some of the bright rocky ground's reflections on the lower portion of the door sills. Of course, it also makes the background water and sky significantly more dramatic, which is a welcome bonus in this case.

In this shot, I purposely spun the polarizer until the windshield faded from reflected to clear for a more dramatic effect.

ISO 800 | f/4.5 | 1/200 sec | Nikon D750 + Sigma F1.4 50mm

It's no dramatization to say that I leave my polarizer on for about 90% of my shots, and the specific effect I aim for changes based on the lighting, car, and desired style. Usually, I try to focus on getting the largest portion of glass possible clear of reflections and then tweak the specific look from there.

For example, in the shot of the Acura NSX above, I adjusted the polarizer until the windshield was clear and then intentionally spun the polarizer about 20 degrees further. This added just a bit of reflection back to the windshield (seen on the passenger side). This adds drama, and since the fog kept the reflections clean, I could achieve the look without cluttering the car's lines.

Of course, the best way to develop a style with your polarizer is to practice, and I hope I've shown you don't need an NSX to do so. Any old Camry will do.

Happy shooting!