It seems like we’re all keen photographers these days, detailing every aspect of our lives – and that includes car and motorsport fans, too. But whether it’s to make a splash on Instagram or just as a hobby, to really stand out requires some extra work and imagination. Using photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop there are really no limits to what you can do. We asked an expert in the field, digital creator Tom Wheatley, to give us some insider tips on how to digitally enhance your car photography to create spectacular results.

Tom started out as a car photographer but over time gravitated to creating computer-generated images. In part, he says, it was down to a sense of frustration at the limitations of just shooting photographs. “I like photography,” says Tom. “But I started thinking, why do people want to see reality when they see that every day? I just wanted to make something a bit more dramatic. I wanted to go for this sort of cinematic vibe – an enhanced reality.”

Rear view of Porsche 904 race car by green-doored garages
The starting point for digital artist and photographer Tom Wheatley is a Porsche 904 shot on a rainy day in EnglandPHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Find your Porsche subject image

Firstly, of course, you need a car – or to be more precise, an image of one. And Tom’s choice of main image shows you that it doesn’t have to be a perfect shot in every way. On a rainy day, he spotted a Porsche 904 in an otherwise uninteresting corner of a historic vehicle centre in England. “It was just a random snapshot because I like the 904,” he says. “I just shot off some pictures thinking that one day I might be able to do something with them.”

It didn’t matter to Tom that the car was surrounded by lots of puddles, a wonky lamppost or some rather ugly green doors behind the car. He knew that with a bit of time and effort on his computer, he could make this 904 really move – and look like one of the most exciting car shots you’ll see. For that, says Tom, it’s important to visualise how your final retouched Porsche image is going to look when you’ve finished. “Rather than the background, the most important thing is to get a nice angle,” he explains. “I shot the 904 from low down because that always looks more dramatic. I’d also recommend to try and get the exposure as even as possible.”

He also used a filter for his camera lens called a circular polarising filter which helps cut down on reflection – you can even get these to attach to some smartphones. The idea is to get the car looking as neutral as possible to give you more scope when building up your image. But don’t worry if you can’t take the car shot you want yourself – any digital image of a car will do. Your limit is your imagination.

Apex of a race track on grey, wet day
The background for what will be the final image was photographed at a racetrack in FrancePHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Find a background for your final image

You’ve got your main image decided. Now, it’s time to think about the background. Tom admits that he didn’t have the 904 in mind when he took photographs on the apex of a corner at a small racetrack in southern France. But due to the way he shoots his cars before creating the new image, he knew they had a good chance of working together. “I shoot the same scene from different heights and angles so it’s more likely to work with any subject image,” says Tom. “Using digital cameras means that you can keep on taking shots so you will inevitably find one that works with the other image.”

If at all possible, he says, it’s good to use the same camera for shooting the background and subject image so it has the same focal length. Tom also adds that while he mostly uses a camera, the processing power of modern smartphones means that almost anyone can take good base images to work with.

Screengrab of Photoshop file showing racetrack and blur paths
Vector lines placed by Tom on the image backplate in Photoshop help him create consistent lines of blur to give a feeling of motionPHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Using Adobe Photoshop to edit your car photography

For this example, we are going to use – as Tom and many more do – Adobe Photoshop, the industry standard software when it comes to working with photographic images. It’s within this programme that the magic really happens. Tom says that he started using Photoshop nearly 20 years ago – even before he started taking his first photographs. “There are so many tutorials online about every aspect of using it,” he says. “Even with a small amount of knowledge, you can start making something impactful.

“When it comes to the techniques used to make this image, there’s nothing really that difficult,” Tom explains. “I’d say it was more time consuming than difficult. When it comes to this particular project, it’s basically about getting a photo of a car, cutting it out and then pasting onto a background. And then it’s a case of building some drama and adding effects.”

Building up the image

The first step, as Tom outlines above, is to cut out the image of the car. He does that using the lasso or pen tool in Photoshop. This, he says, is worth taking your time over to get a nice clean cut-out. Once that is done, you can paste it into the background. One of the most important things to remember is to try and create a separate Photoshop layer for each of the series of actions you do – Tom says that he created over 200 to create the final image here.

Once the car has been cut out and placed on the track, the magic really starts to happen – here, shadows and exhaust flames have been added
Once the car has been cut out and placed on the track, the magic really starts to happen – here, shadows and exhaust flames have been addedPHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Once the Porsche 904 is on the background, Tom plays around with positioning until he finds an angle that looks natural. The plan for this one is to have the 904 – which was static when it was photographed – look like it’s cornering on an apex at speed on a wet, overcast and blustery day. “As it’s a wet track, I’ve added a reflection of the car in the pools of water,” says Tom. “It doesn’t have to be perfectly correct – but it certainly adds some realism to it.”

When I am a passenger in a car I am always studying and observing – like how the rain flies up from another car’s wheels when you are driving on a motorway
Tom WheatleyDigital creator and photographer 

He makes the reflection by simply flipping the original car image in Photoshop before pulling it around and making it transparent, ‘masking out’ bits because in real life you won’t get a full reflection. Tom explains that a lot of the art of effective retouching and Photoshop work comes from actively observing what happens in real life in order to recreate them in his images. “When I am a passenger in a car I am always studying and observing,” he adds. “Like how the rain flies up from another car’s wheels when you are on a motorway or Autobahn, for example. I also get inspiration from other photographers and even movies. The film Rush [the 2013 movie about the rivalry between F1 legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt] was a big inspiration for this particular image. I wanted the same gritty, rainy vibe.”

Photoshopped Porsche 904 in wet weather on racetrack
Tom gradually and methodically builds up the new image, darkening the skies and adding spray around the tyresPHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Don’t be afraid to use artistic licence

You’ll notice that, in contrast to the original car image, the 904 has its rear lights on. Tom says never be afraid to use some artistic licence. But even though the lights were created in Photoshop, they do still need to have a sense of realism about them to be believable. “I’ve made them relatively feint, because I can’t imagine that they would be that bright on a car of that era,” he explains. “I also didn’t want them too bright as your eyes would immediately go to them – and lights are usually quite boring compared to the rest of the car really!”

Meanwhile, in his quest to add plenty of drama, Tom has darkened both the background image – particularly the ominous-looking sky – and the car too. Next, he needs to get that very static 904 moving. To do that, he uses a Photoshop tool called Path Blur, where you can add vector paths to the screen to follow when creating the blur – in both the car and the background – to give the impression of something moving quickly. Once the vector lines are created, Photoshop calculates roughly how the blur should look along these lines.

Photoshopped Porsche 904 in bad weather on racetrack
Tom has built up a bank of go-to templates and tools that he uses when he needs to add the likes of clouds, rain and glare, for examplePHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Blurring wheels and adding fire

For the wheels, you use similar techniques used on the background – creating blur, for example. Tom uses something called Spin Blur, a tool which allows you to rotate and blur the image around one or more points. While the final image is progressing well, Tom feels that it needs even more drama. He does that by adding a set of flames to the exhaust which he’s downloaded from the Adobe Stock image collection, matching their intensity with the rest of the car as well as adding some realistic glow around them and on the tarmac. Here, Tom again stresses the need to always be observant in life – to watch how fire reflects, for example.

Tom now adds some hazy effects across the image, much of it a case of trial and error and always wary not to overwhelm the main subject of the image itself – the Porsche 904. He then starts adding water spray using a collection of Photoshop brushes he created, alongside some downloaded ones. Tom recommends researching tools like brushes, overlays and images that you can find on the internet that can be used in Photoshop and help save a lot of time creating them yourself – like the smoky effects used in this image.

Add raindrops and grain

The raindrops on the body of Tom’s original shot of the 904 provided inspiration for the overall mood of the final image. Adding raindrops to make it look natural is something of a challenge but once again it’s a case of thinking logically. “Often, when you see people adding rain to pictures, it’s just falling straight from the sky or slightly diagonally,” says Tom. “But I wanted to get some motion here, so I’ve given some perspective to the rain coming across the camera. You’ll need to add layers with bigger raindrops towards the camera and some smaller ones towards the car.” 

Photoshopped Porsche 904 in bad weather on racetrack
And that’s a wrap: Tom started with a static car shot against garage doors and ends up as something highly dramatic and memorablePHOTO: Tom Wheatley

Tom says that you don’t necessarily need to be looking for photographic perfection, instead rather looking for something that looks pleasing and realistic. “I think adding a bit of grain to an image really adds mood to a picture,” he says.

And with that, we’re done. Starting with a very unflattering picture of a Porsche 904 parked up on a dull, grey day Tom has created a dynamic, exciting and dramatic image of that car in full flow on a stormy day on the racetrack. What’s more, says Tom, anyone can do it.

Man stands in tunnel with colourful Porsche 917 LH racecar
Tom Wheatley with the legendary Porsche 917 LH racecar

How to photograph a Porsche

Learn how here
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