Let's get straight to the point here - vehicles were made to move. The most dynamic way to show off a vehicle is when it's doing what it's meant to do, where it's meant to do it. So this is why everyone loves seeing images of cars in motion. It's why car manufacturers use motion shots to sell their products and it's why enthusiasts are often times looking specifically to get shots of their cars racing down the road. Motion is to cars what peanut butter is to jelly. Not a PB&J fan? How about avocado to toast? Still no? Let's move on..
When it comes time to capture vehicles in motion, there are several options available to photographers. The rig shot, the virtual rig shot, the tracking shot, and the rolling shot. There's a lot of information out there about all of these, so I won't bore you with the details on each one. Instead, we're going to focus on the go-to for all up-and-coming automotive photographers- the rolling shot. It's relatively easy, doesn't require extra equipment, can be captured in camera with minimal post work involved, and can be a stunning addition to your portfolio.
What exactly is a rolling shot? A rolling shot is a photograph of a vehicle while it is in motion. The wheels are spinning, the background is streaking by, and the subject vehicle is sharp. That's the goal, anyway. Many folks settle for good motion and have slightly jittery looking cars in their images. (Cue the excuses about it being "pretty good considering it was taken at 1/5th of a second." That's cool. If your goal is "pretty good considering," we're done here. You've already graduated from this free tutorial and you're too lit for this fam. Gang gang.)
How can I capture motion and keep my car sharp? You've got several options here:
Get yourself a lens with image stabilization
Use smooth roads and a smooth riding camera car
Drive slower to reduce bounce and wind vibration
Shoot in enclosed or tight locations (the closer your subject is to objects it's passing by, the more obvious the motion will be - which explains why road signs, weeds along the shoulder, and other close objects are blurry but distant trees, mountains, clouds, etc. are usually fairly sharp)
Shoot faster (it sounds counter productive but, if you just don't have steady hands or a smooth road, you can combine shooting faster with shooting in a tighter location to help get as much motion as possible)
Finally, what are the "best settings" for taking rolling shots? This is probably the most common question in every automotive photography group and forum on the internet. It's asked daily and every answer varies to some degree. So.. Here's the honest to God truth, based on my own personal experience:
Use Shutter Priority mode. Your entire goal is to capture motion and keep your car sharp. The only two things you should be dealing with when trying to catch that shot are whether or not you're catching the desired amount of motion and whether or not your car is staying sharp. Don't let people shame you into thinking you have to use Manual Mode to achieve good motion shots of cars. The only thing Manual Mode will do is require you to constantly adjust your settings so that your exposure stays consistent.. and those settings that you're dealing with are automatically made by the camera when using Shutter Priority mode, so why burden yourself with that task?
Argument: Manual Mode gives you full control because the camera isn't always capable of making the right decision when shooting. News flash.. The camera is smarter than you are. And if you're using the built in light meter to balance out your exposure, you aren't making a different choice on exposure than it would have. In fact, if your camera isn't capable of automatically choosing the correct aperture to expose your image properly, it's likely because you aren't using the correct metering mode. (Switch to Spot Metering so that your camera is using the area where you're focusing to determine your exposure. After all - you're focusing on your subject, so wouldn't you want it to be properly exposed?)
There is no perfect shutter speed setting because it all depends on your lighting, location, road smoothness, lens stabilization and your own ability. A common tip I've seen though is to use half the speed that you're traveling - so if you're driving 60mph and shooting, try for a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. Whatever speed you go with, be sure to take some shots at various shutter speeds so that you definitely get something sharp and usable. Personally, I start around 1/80th and then work my way down to get more motion.
Brace yourself. Wrap that camera strap around your wrist, or keep it around your neck, brace your arms firmly against the window or side of the vehicle you’re riding in, and keep your arms as steady as possible. The last thing you want is to turn your clicky fun box into a smart bomb.
Set your drive mode to continuous. Don’t just snap 1 photo at a time or you’ll risk shooting at the exact right moment to capture great blur and a sharp subject. Hold that shutter button down to capture a burst of several images at a time, increasing your chances of getting “the shot.”
Focal length? A wide angle lens is preferable in two lane situations but, if you've got access to a 3/4/5 lane highway, feel free to play with a telephoto lens. The longer focal length you use, the more noticeable motion you'll catch in the background elements of your image. That said, you're also risking more noticeable motion on the car, so experiment with it.
Avoid highways with ugly shopping centers, power lines and road signs in the background. Shots like that can be tasteful if composed well and timed right but, 9 times out of 10, they aren't. Nobody likes photos of themselves with trees or poles sticking out of their head. The same rule applies for vehicles. If the only place you have access to is full of light poles, power lines, signs, etc., try to frame the vehicle between these. Composition doesn't lose importance just because the vehicle is in motion.
Again, the goal of motion shots for all vehicles is simple: Keep the subject sharp but show us good motion around it. This blog entry is just a collection of my own experiences and suggestions for those looking to try and do the same thing. If you love busy backgrounds or your ego won't let that dial on your camera leave Manual, you do you.. but if you're actually looking to try something different and make your job a little bit easier, consider some of these tips. They've certainly helped me improve and maybe they can do the same for you.