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How to photograph Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars

Photography can be a pain in the ass. But it's not rocket science.

People ask me what kind of camera I use. It's a Canon SX170 IS point-and-shoot.

But that doesn't matter. Most modern digital cameras can take great photos, or at least decent ones. If you're not getting the results you want, you probably just don't know how to use your camera correctly.

So if you want to take your photos from bad to mediocre in a few easy steps, here's how to photograph Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars.

For the first photo, I set the camera to full automatic mode, and held it by hand. I selected the camera's largest possible resolution (biggest file size), as always, to give me plenty of detail and sufficient leeway for cropping and resizing later. It was an overcast day, so I didn't have to deal with harsh sunlight or shadows. The light wasn't too bright, which was exactly what I wanted for this tutorial.

My Canon decided that the best settings for this photo were a shutter speed of 1/30, an aperture of F3.5, an ISO of 250, and an automatic white balance. Here's what I got.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - full automatic, handheld

If I was just taking a quick snapshot to sell this fire truck on eBay, this photo would be okay. But it's blurry, because of the low shutter speed and the small aperture, the colors aren't great, because of the automatic white balance, and the truck looks strange and distorted. Let's see if I can do better.

The next thing I did was to put the camera on a tripod, and use the self-timer set at ten seconds to take the photo. And immediately there was an improvement, because since I wasn't holding the camera by hand, there was no more motion blur. LESSON ONE: ALWAYS USE A TRIPOD! (well, at least with low shutter speeds, anyway).

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - full automatic on a tripod

But I didn't think the color was particuarly good, and I wanted more control, which meant setting the white balance to "cloudy" (on a sunny day, I would have used "daylight," with an incandescent bulb indoors I would have used "incandescent," and etc.). I can't do this in automatic mode, so I switched the camera to program mode. LESSON TWO: DON'T USE YOUR CAMERA IN AUTOMATIC MODE! (not unless the lighting is perfect and the conditions are ideal, which they usually aren't).

On my Canon, to switch to program mode, I turned the mode dial to "P". Your camera may be different; read the manual. (And if you don't have program mode, get a better camera). To set the white balance, I went into my menu and picked the little cloud symbol for cloudy. Again, check your manual if you can't figure out how to do this on your camera. I also set the colors to "vibrant," which is a matter of taste.

I was also able to set the ISO to its lowest setting, 100, which reduces graininess. Then I took another photo, and the color got a lot better. Maybe a little too yellow, but you can fix that with photo editing software if you really care.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - program mode, cloudy white balance

Things were looking better already. But I didn't like how there wasn't much detail toward the back of the truck. To solve that problem, I needed more depth of field, which I could get with a smaller aperture. So I switched the camera to aperture priority mode by turning the mode dial to "Av" and set the aperture to F8.0 (a larger number equals a smaller aperture).

F8.0 lets in less light than F3.5, so the camera automatically selected a very slow shutter speed of 1/6 second to compensate. But since I was using a tripod to keep the camera still and the self-timer to release the shutter, I could shoot at any shutter speed without blur.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - aperture priority mode, f8.0

And now there was a little more detail toward the back of the truck. Good.

But why did the truck look so distorted? Here's why: the human eye is roughly the equivalent of a 50mm camera lens, or a "normal" lens. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras, when you first turn them on, have the equivalent of a 28mm lens, or a "wide-angle" lens. This has its purposes, but it can cause annoying distortion.

So to get rid of the distortion, all I needed to do was zoom the lens in a little bit. On my camera, when the display reads "12cm" I know that the lens is pretty close to normal.

The problem with zooming in was that it I had to move away from the fire truck in order for the camera to focus (on my Canon, the focusing square turns yellow and shows an exclamation point if it can't focus correctly). So I moved the tripod back, zoomed in a little and took another shot.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - zoomed in a little

And now the fire truck didn't look so goofy. LESSON THREE: ZOOM IN!

But there was way too much empty space around the fire truck. That's easy to fix: I used a program called Adobe Lightroom to crop the photo. If you don't have Lightroom, you can use any photo editing software to crop photos, and if you don't have that, use Microsoft Paint.

Here's the same photo, with all the extra stuff cropped out. Not bad at all.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - cropped

I don't really like to crop photos, though, so I decided to set the tripod back a little more and zoom in a lot. This tends to flatten the image and blur out the background, which can be a good or bad thing. You can decide. Just don't ever zoom in so far that your camera switches to digital zoom. Use optical zoom only! Read your manual for details on this.

(And of course, if you're using a DSLR with a 50mm lens, you don't have to zoom in. This tutorial is for point-and-shoot cameras.)

Here's the fire truck with the tripod pretty far back and the camera zoomed in quite a bit. No cropping.

how to photograph matchbox and hot wheels cars - zoomed in a lot

Finally, since these photos were all 4608 pixels wide (remember, I always shoot at the camera's highest possible resolution), I used Lightroom to resize them to 728px for this website. For eBay you'll want to resize to 1600px. You can resize with any photo editing program.

So to recap, in a few easy steps, by using a tripod and the camera's self-timer, getting out of automatic mode and controlling my settings, and zooming in to get rid of the wide-angle perspective, I went from a pretty bad photo to a reasonably decent one. This entire process took me maybe ten minutes.

One more thing: yes, I know this fire truck isn't a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car. Oops.

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