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How to: Take Better RC Photos with a Cellphone

I am by no means the Ansel Adams of RC photography, but I have taken more than my fair share of photographs for RC magazines and websites. While working for RC magazines I tried to be a sponge around the true professional photographers. And, my wife also happens to be a professional photography. But, even without all of that, I know a good photo from a bad photo. It’s not some unique skill. Your eye knows the difference too. The downside is while you might be able to easily recognize the good from the bad, it’s the what specifically makes a photo good or bad that’s hard to identify. Check out tips below and you’ll instantly be taking better RC photographs using just your cellphone.

While I don’t believe there is any mistaking this rig for a full-size truck, the low angle definitely gives it a realistic stance.

This is probably the number one tip of RC photography. Get down low–as low as you can. The lower the better. You wouldn’t take a photo of your real car from the fifth story of a nearby building. When you get low you obtain a far more realistic perspective. This is always important, but it’s extremely important for scalers. So, bring a blanket to get down on. Take advantage of naturally accusing low spots to get your camera (most likely your phone these days) lower than the subject (your RC car). Also, while some phones have the camera centered, many phones have the camera in one corner. If you can, get the corner with the sense lower to the ground.

This would be a good photo if the people weren’t in the background.

One of the things that really separates professional photographs from amateur snapshots is bad backgrounds. We all focus on the subject of our photos, but you need to pay attention to the background. I can’t tell you how many otherwise decent photos I’ve seen with what looks like a tree or telephone pole growing out of someone’s head. Same goes for RC photographs. Pay attention to what is behind your subject. Avoid trees, telephone poles, someone’s leg, etc. Another thing to remember when it comes to backgrounds is to get outside. Despite seeing it on Facebook all of the time, the washer and dryer do not make for a good background.

I used the depth adjustment on my smart phone. The background blurred out looks great, but notice the missing details on the vehicle.

Shallow depth of field is fancy photography talk for blurred background. When the background is blurred out, distraction is eliminated. This technique makes almost any photo other than landscapes look better. Thanks to modern technology, you don’t need an expensive camera with adjustable f-stop or aperture, you just need a modern smart phone. For most of you this is old news, but using the iPhone as an example, switch to Portrait mode. After you take your photo, click on edit. You should see something like f 4.5 in the upper left corner. Click on this and a depth adjustment dial will appear under the photo. Slide the dial all the way to the right. As the f-stop number gets lower, the background will blur. You’ll quickly notice a photo with a depth (of field) setting of f 1.4 has a much blurrier back than the same photo at f 4.5. Most of you probably already know your phone can do this, so this tip is more of a reminder to use the feature. Word of warning: smart phones are only so smart. The depth feature can sometimes blur details you don’t want blurred out.

Not the worst I’ve seen, but the shadow in the foreground is certainly distracting.

Another common mistake is misusing natural light. Unless you’re going for some crazy effect, the light source (most often the sun) should be behind the photographer and not behind the subject. Also, watch out for long shadows from a low sun. And, watch out for your shadow or the camera’s shadow.

While this is a little in your face, having some negative space in front of the vehicle creates some interest.

Your car doesn’t need to completely fill the frame, but it shouldn’t be a speck either. Without pulling out too far, leave some negative space (area of the image not occupied by the subject). You can always crop as needed later. What you want to avoid is using the digital zoom feature. Get close enough that you don’t have to zoom in. You might have heard about the rule of thirds when it comes to composition. It’s a good guideline, but we’ll typically bend the rules in RC because we want to see the details and we want to show off the subject. The most important aspect of the rule of thirds is it prevents you from putting the subject dead center in the frame. Again, we don’t want to create too much negative space, but we want to have some and the photo will be more visually interesting if that negative space is offset. For example, there’s more negative space in front of the subject than behind it.

While the point of this photo was to show off the DIY tire chains, I took the time to make sure to check all the details.

At a professional photoshoot there are often many more people involved than just the photographer. There is usual an assistant, maybe a separate lighting hand, a stylist, an art director. They are all there to attend to the details. You’re not going to have a staff on hand just to get a photo of your 1/10-scale pride and joy, so you need to take care of the details yourself. You need to look and I mean really look at your composition. Are all the body clips the same and positioned correctly? Get four matching body clips and lay them down flat. And, for the love of God, please trim your body posts. If your car has an exposed antenna tube, remove it. Is the car clean? I now use ProTek TruShield (review here) on bodies and they come out like they’ve been freshly waxed. Are the tires clean? Use Simple Green if they’re not. Or, maybe you have a scaler and don’t want it clean. Other details to check are any decals. Make sure none of the stickers are curling up or have dirt under them. If you’re shooting an on-road car, choose your surface wisely. Make sure it’s smooth and doesn’t have noticeably large aggregate. Lastly, make sure your battery leads are tucked up in the chassis and not hanging below the body.

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