How to Photograph Your Used Car for Sale

How to photograph a used car (1)

Cellular phones may have been created to transmit words via voice and text messages, but today’s camera-equipped smart devices are also capable of capturing some pretty impressive photographs.

Next to cats, dogs and those adorable otters at the zoo, we figure cars are among the most-photographed things on the Internet. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and while a dozen cellphone photos of a used car may not be Pulitzer Prize material, they can be essential to helping you sell your vehicle. Here are a few tips for making your car or truck look good in an online ad with nothing but the device you carry every day.

For the record, all the photos you see here were taken with the camera in my LG G3 smartphone. I cropped them to fit’s guidelines for size and aspect ratio, but I have not altered them in any other way. The vehicles include a 2016 Mazda CX-9 and a Lexus RX, used for illustrative purposes.

And so on today, World Photo Day, we present out trips for taking good photos of your ride with a cell phone.


Shoppers want to see details in the car's styling, which can be hidden in shadows caused by shooting toward the sun

Shoppers want to see details in the car’s styling, which can be hidden in shadows caused by shooting toward the sun

Unless you actually have access to a studio large enough to accommodate a vehicle, you’ll probably photograph your car outdoors. Even the best smartphone cameras have a hard time dealing with the sharp contrast between sunlight and shadow, so the uniform light of a bright but overcast day is ideal.

If it’s sunny out, park the car in the shade of a tree, or in the shadow cast by a building. If you have no choice but to shoot in full sunlight, make sure the sun is behind you so that it hits the side of the car you’re photographing.

Shooting in winter can be challenging if the background is snowy, because the camera will compensate for the brightness of the snow and darken the rest of the image. Some smartphone cameras allow the user to adjust exposure, and in this situation, increasing it will help. The white background will be washed out, but hey, if you were trying to taking a picture of the snow, there wouldn’t be a car in the way.

Perspective is everything

You may think your vehicle looks best from one particular angle, but you have to give shoppers more than that. At the very least, shoot the car to show its profile, front and rear three-quarter, and straight-on front and rear views.

Don’t stand too close to the car. Backing up 20 or 30 paces and shooting from there will allow you to better capture the car’s overall shape and proportions. Zoom in a bit, but be judicious: most smartphone cameras use digital zoom, and overusing it can result in grainy, pixelated photos.

Use a bit of zoom, and crop photos to avoid the far-away look

Use a bit of zoom, and crop photos to avoid the far-away look

If you can’t zoom in enough so that the car fills the frame, that’s fine; many smartphone cameras have a built-in crop function you can use to make the photo more car and less background.

Finally, make sure your photos are in focus. The camera only needs a second or two to figure out what it’s looking at and where it needs to focus, so wait a beat before clicking the shutter button. If you don’t have a steady hand, bring something tall to lean your elbows on while you shoot.

Focus on details

Just as you may have fallen for your car’s Brilliant Burnished Brown Metallic paint when you bought it new, some used-car shopper might be pining for the same shade. Here’s where you can use direct sun to your advantage: Get up close to the car and snap a photo of the sun lighting up the paint on the hood; it’s a good surface to use as it usually has contours that reveal the more interesting details of a nifty paint shade.

Details like the CX-9's wood trim are photo-worthy

Details like the CX-9’s wood trim are photo-worthy

Likewise, if your car has a set of rare factory wheels, snap a close-up for the benefit of buyers seeking something unique. Do the same for anything else — inside or out – that makes the car you’re selling stand out.

Get inside

Again, direct sun is almost always a disadvantage for interior photos taken with a smartphone camera, thanks to the high contrast caused by shadows. If you’re shooting on a sunny day, find a shady spot under a tree or next to a building, so the interior is lit more evenly. Use your smartphone’s flash to help light up darker spots; these typically aren’t very powerful, but they can help.

This is how you want your interior photos to look

This is how you want your interior photos to look

Interior details to focus on include gauges, odometer (to prove how many km are on the car), radio and air conditioning controls and, in vehicles that have them, the infotainment touchscreen. Then climb into the back seat to get a good shot of the entire dashboard, so people can see how it’s laid out.

If you feel your car is particularly clean inside, prove it: take photos of the upholstery on every seat, and if you’ve gone to great lengths to remove salt stains from the carpets, provide photographic evidence of that, too.

Avoid shooting in direct sun to eliminate high contrast that can hide details

Avoid shooting in direct sun to eliminate high contrast that can hide details

Under the hood, hold the camera out in front of you and over the engine compartment for a top-down image. Again, if it’s clean under here, show it with close-up detail images.

In the trunk, don’t just pop the lid and snap a quickie of the cargo area. Pull up the carpet and remove the spare tire to show what kind of shape the metal underneath is in. A smart buyer will want to know water hasn’t been leaking in and pooling down there, where it can promote rust.

Keep it clean

Run the vehicle through a car wash before your photo shoot, and give the interior at least a cursory wipedown and vacuuming. And please, take all the garbage out of the car before you take interior photos. People browsing for a new car couldn’t care less which brand of takeout coffee you prefer.

Used car shoppers don't care what you drank on your drive to work this morning

Used car shoppers don’t care what you drank on your drive to work this morning

Damage report

Speaking of cosmetic and structural imperfections, it’s a rare used car whose body is free of dents and scratches, and minor rust is common even on well-maintained older cars. A good ad will mention any blemishes or damage in the written description, but the best ones will provide photos of any notable dings and rust spots in the body work, so potential buyers can avoid surprises.

More exposure

There are a lot of used vehicles for sale out there, and finding a buyer is even more difficult if you’re trying to sell a very common model. A well-written, detailed description helps give shoppers the information they need to make an informed purchase, but quality photos will generate more interest in your ad and can lead to a quicker sale.

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Chris Chase

Chris Chase

As a child, Chris spent much of his time playing with toy cars in his parents’ basement; when his mother would tell him to go play outside, he made car sounds while riding his bicycle or dug roads for his toys in the flower garden. Now he gets to indulge his obsession playing with real cars that make their own cool noises, and gets paid for it.