How to Take Better Photos for Your Used-Car Listing

You don't need fancy photo equipment to get great results.

yellow car with headlights upManuel Carrillo III | Capital One

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First impressions often matter, especially when selling a car, so it helps to put in a little effort when photographing your wares. Nice photos may draw in more eyes and show prospective buyers you're serious. These guidelines are meant to help even the least artistic owner capture a car in its best light. All you need is a digital camera or smartphone.

Where to Take Car Photos

Situate your car in front of a clean background. A blank wall works well—preferably one that doesn't match the color of your car—as does an outdoor setting that's free of trees and bushes. It makes sense to avoid posing your vehicle around anything distracting or items that might look like they're sticking out of the car, such as lampposts and telephone poles.

The ground matters, as well. To avoid the potential for strange reflections in the paint, it's best to avoid parking on grass or pavement with painted lines.

Shoot When the Light Is Best

Early morning and late afternoon are generally good times to take photographs. Midday photoshoots with the sun overhead could result in unwanted shadows and reflections. Some cloud cover isn't terrible; it can soften the light and even things out.

Using natural light can work to your advantage, as can ensuring the entire vehicle is out of the shade. Photos will work best with the sun over your shoulder (and not directly behind you)—that way you avoid capturing your own shadow.

Setting up Your Camera for a Car Photo Shoot

Rule number one: No flash photography, please. If you've chosen a good time of day, you won't need a flash. Point-and-shoot or auto modes are fine, and you likely won't need any special equipment; a modern digital camera or smartphone should do the job.

If your camera has multiple lenses or an optical zoom function, you can experiment with standing farther away and zooming in. This will create a shallower depth of field, keeping the car in focus in the foreground and giving a slight blur to the background. (The digital zoom common on older smartphones doesn't create the same effect, since it's really just cropping an unzoomed shot. Newer smartphones can often accomplish this with built-in portrait modes.) Camera effects usually aren't very helpful, especially since your primary goal is to provide information for buyers, not necessarily create art. (Although if that's the end result, congratulations!)

If you're trying to highlight certain details as opposed to capturing the whole car, the target needs to be in focus. To do this on a smartphone, simply aim the camera at the subject then tap on the part of the screen where the lens should be focused.

clean interior of yellow convertibleManuel Carrillo III | Capital One

What to Photograph

You've cleaned the car inside and out, found a nice quiet spot where you can take your time shooting, and have your camera ready. Now it's time to go through the shot list.

The exterior should be photographed from all angles. You'll likely want straight-on shots of the front, rear, and both sides, plus some three-quarter views—capturing one side of the car and either the front or rear end in one photo. Consider the height of the camera, too. It's often effective to kneel to get level shots of the car. It’s also helpful to snap a good under-hood photo.

When shooting the interior, parking in the shade can help you avoid shadows and contrast problems. It’s best to open one door at a time, getting pictures of all seats and door panels as well as the trunk or cargo area. You can shoot the front seats from the back and vice versa. A close-up photo of the odometer should be included.

Photos that show the condition of the vehicle are crucial to the buyer, as are shots of the undercarriage, wheels, and tires. A good way to show the tread remaining on each tire is by holding a quarter in the tread with Washington's head pointed down. Any damage—dents, dings, scratches, and rust—should be included with a size reference. Being up-front about damage could help indicate to buyers that you aren't hiding anything.

Finally, it helps to gather photos of included accessories, such as a cargo cover, roof rack, or floor mats, as well as shots of any extra wheels and tires.

Pro Tips

If you're concerned about showing your license plate, the plate should be removed from the car before shooting. It's easier and cleaner than digitally blurring that area with a photography app and looks more professional than using your thumb to block characters in photos.

And while framing is important, precious sunlight shouldn't be wasted worrying about the car's placement in the shot. With digital photography, you can crop out unwanted space later if necessary.

Lastly, remember that it doesn't cost more to take more photos, so shoot as many as you want.

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David Gluckman
David Gluckman has over a decade of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital automotive publications. He can parallel park a school bus, has a spreadsheet listing every vehicle he’s ever tested, and once drove a Lincoln Town Car 63 mph in reverse. When David’s not searching for the perfect used car, you can find him sampling the latest gimmicky foodstuffs that America has to offer.