Scott Brown, Founder of Diagnostic Network, shares simple and effective techniques for taking awesome automotive repair photos that will keep customers coming back.
The smartphone is an amazing device that I consider to be one of my favorite tools. The friction we used to experience with getting these images into the work order has been reduced tremendously due to applications like Shop-Ware. Since we’re using this imagery to communicate our findings to the consumer, it is my belief that we should make a strong effort to provide clear and concise images.
Smartphones available today have the capability of producing images that rival those of professional-grade cameras. One of the primary goals of this guide is to share some basic techniques aftermarket professionals can use when taking photos. Many of these techniques are fairly simple and the results can oftentimes make a big difference in communication, especially when you’re trying to tell a story to a client, a story that could be the determining factor in gaining approval on a service or repair.
An image is acquired by exposing a sensing element (or film) to light emitting from an object it is pointed at. Controlling the amount of light hitting the sensing element is where all the magic happens. In order to begin improving your photo taking skills, I’ll share a few foundational terms that are helpful to know:
- Luminance - this is how the object is able to reflect light
- Illumination - lighting the subject
- Exposure - controlling how much light reaches the sensor or film
- Shutter Speed - the amount of time the sensor is exposed
- Aperture - this is similar to the iris in your eye and is used to control exposure and depth of field
- ISO - sensitivity to light for either the sensor or film (film speed)
- Noise - a bi-product of high sensor sensitivity or higher film speeds
- White Balance - how the camera’s color temperature is matched to that of the subject
- Aspect Ratio - an expression of width by height, 16:9 is an HD aspect ratio which is typically expressed in pixels such as 1920x1080
- D.O.F. - Depth of field is the band of area in focus away from the sensing element
- HDR - High Dynamic Range imaging is usually accomplished by taking multiple images of the same subject over graduated exposures (from underexposed to overexposed) and merging the highest quality elements from each image to form a single image for spectacular image quality
- Focal Length/Zoom - the arrangement of glass elements in a lens used to either magnify or reduce the magnification of a subject
- Macro - the arrangement of glass elements that allow one to focus on items very close to the camera's sensing element
- Focus - arrangement of the glass in the lens to focus the subject on the sensor
When acquiring an image, it is important to take the appropriate steps to ensure that the subject is well-lit (luminance), properly oriented (composition), and sharp (focused). For digital applications, always check the image taken before moving on.
A well-lit subject is desired but not always possible. When your camera, cellphone, or tablet is on an automatics mode, it’s usually going to try and use a combination of settings in order to obtain an acceptable image exposure. The end result is controlling the exposure of the sensing image to portray the subject properly. Controlling the exposure can be done by increasing the time (shutter speed), increasing the aperture (bringing in more light), or increasing the sensitivity (ISO). Each of these impact the final image in various ways:
- Shutter Speed: With a slow shutter you will often end up with a blurry image unless the camera is stabilized. You can help avoid this by resting your arm or hand on a stable part of the vehicle.
- Aperture: The lower the number, the larger the opening, which reduces the depth of field. This is sometimes desirable, especially when you want all the attention on the subject and don’t want the viewer examining the rest of the image.
- ISO: Increasing the sensitivity will usually result in a noisier image, think “hot pixels”.
You’ll always want to keep the above items in mind when you’re acquiring an image. If the lighting is low and you’re not using flash, you’ll want to stabilize the camera somehow. You can usually accomplish a steady shot by bracing yourself or the camera against a stationary object. This is because low light conditions call for a slower shutter speed. That, coupled with a larger aperture, will reduce your chances of acquiring a sharp image.
- Flash: It’s okay to use flash as long as you understand the potential consequences. I prefer to avoid using flash because of the fact that light can bounce or reflect off of objects and produce negative results. See Figure 1.
When capturing photos in the shop, staff members are often taking a photo of the front area of a vehicle with an open bay door as the backdrop. This backdrop brings in a lot of light and presents a challenge. Since the subject is “backlit”, it will often end up being underexposed (like the image shown below in Figure 2). In most cases, the primary cause for this is the fact that the camera is using “Average Weighting” for the exposure. This means the camera is taking an average of the light hitting the entire sensor or film frame.
To avoid situations like this, simply modify the exposure. For the case shown in Figure 2, you'd want to touch the screen of the smartphone or tablet to focus on the subject area you’d like to capture. Usually this will present a draggable slider that will allow you to move the overall exposure up or down to enhance the image as shown in Figure 3.
Looking back at Figure 3, you’ll notice that there is a grid overlaid on the image. This grid can be used to help compose the shot. Placing the area of interest near any of the intersecting lines will usually result in an image that carries a little more appeal. You can usually find the option to turn this on within the camera settings.
Pretty much everything we've covered thus far can be equally applied to shooting video. However, when you shoot video, be sure to narrate so that the viewer has a good idea of what’s being demonstrated.
There are several applications you can buy that will take your photography operations to a whole new level. Plus, as the technology continues to evolve over the years, so will these applications.
I hope you found this article helpful, and happy snapping! Please consider joining the Diagnostic Network to help stay in-tune with the technical challenges occurring everyday within the service industry.
About the Author
Scott is a professional automotive service technician with over 37 years of experience. He is dedicated to continually advancing his technical competencies on current and future automotive systems. Scott is also a technical instructor, with a strong focus on vehicle electronics, vehicle network communications, engine performance, automotive service information systems, and advanced driver assistance systems service.
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