How to Make Your Questionable Car Look Its Best in a For Sale Listing

There comes a day for most car owners when it’s time to put a vehicle on the market and send it off to its next caretaker. Whether you’re making space for something new, freeing up some cash, or being coerced into selling it against your will, every car ad deserves an excellent set of descriptive and detailed photos. Fight those tears and pick up a camera, we’re going to help you attract as many interested buyers as possible with a great presentation.

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Take the top left shot as an example of shooting with your back to the sun. Too many ugly details being shown in sharp relief. The rest are okay, not great, but illustrate what the car is about, no need for artsy stuff here!

Buyers of higher-priced used cars in particular (like, anything over $10,000) are going to want to see a big barrage of photos before making the trip to check your car out, but even a little junker can look a lot more appealing when it’s staged correctly. A great photoset can also entice buyers from farther away to feel good about making a trek to see your vehicle. And if you’re thinking about listing your car for sale with no pictures, don’t bother. It’s 2021—even the weakest smartphone cameras can get damn decent images. With that, on to our presentation tips.

Drive somewhere open and pretty.

Through these photos, you will be subtly communicating facts about the car and you, the owner. Driving somewhere pretty with a good vista will tell any prospective buyer a few important things: the car runs and drives, the car can take you where you want to go, as well as flatter the car visually. If you live somewhere that’s flat, then pick a nice open field.  

Don’t shoot at golden hour, try to shoot in the mid-afternoon. Nice shadows, and cleaner light, while still showing detail and bodywork. You don’t really want glamor shots per se, just clean, clear, functional photography.

Pose the car.

It’s as simple as finding a turnout, or a road that isn’t busy. Park the car up where you can get a clean background. Make sure you aren’t in the way of traffic, and position yourself somewhere you can move quickly if the cops don’t like where you are. An empty lot of some sort is best to use, so you can move the car around freely, and follow the light for your angle.  

My process is to start simple. Get one half of the car in the light. Never, and I mean never shoot with the sun directly behind you. It looks ugly. I always aim to have the sun between my five and three o’clock or seven and nine o’clock, facing the front quarter of the car, depending on the direction that the car is facing. 

Now shoot it! With the camera, not a gun.

Once you pose the car, use the tightest optical zoom you have on your camera. This will flatter the car, and will represent it with the correct proportion. Even your modern iPhones have a 2x optical zoom that works okay for that. Do not, I repeat, do not use the digital zoom on your camera. It will look terrible. The difference between digital and optical zoom is this: optical zoom is a physical, real zoom from the glass in your lens bending light to magnify the picture and offer a different perspective. Digital zoom is basically like cropping an image, there’s no physical work happening.

Since I’m a camera nerd, I have much glass to choose from, and my preferred weapon is the Canon 135mm f/2.8L.

Ideally, borrow a DSLR with a telephoto (tight) lens, with at least 100mm of zoom. Use any mode, it doesn’t matter too much, though I like to underexpose (darken) my image by just a touch. Cameras aim for a neutral grey, so you have to take a few shots and adjust to make sure the car looks good. 

Get establishing and detail shots of the side you start with. I always start with the simple front quarter, side shot, front shot, and the wheels. Flip the car 180 degrees and repeat with the rear quarter, other side, rear shot and wheels. Make sure to keep the sun mostly to your side, and where it lights most of the car up. Buyers want to see detail and honesty. Don’t hide any imperfections or dents on the body, it’s best to highlight these areas so a buyer isn’t thrown off. That sort of stuff breaks the fragile trust between buyer and seller. 

A decent gallery of all the stuff you need in a sale ad. Note that there’s a mix of Subaru and Honda photos.

Don’t forget the interior, engine bay, and underbody.

Interior shots are taken best with a wide lens, and smartphones excel at them. Just make sure you have some light coming into the cabin so it doesn’t look dark and barren, and snap away. Make sure to get the dash, the gauges with the mileage, all of the seats, the door panels, the floor mats, the center stack, and any other noticeable interior features in your car. 

The same rules apply to the engine bay. Take a wide shot of the whole bay, then get in deep to some detail, with the same wide lens. Take detail shots of various areas in the engine bay, stuff like the valve cover(s), front of the engine, and potential problem areas. You can leave the engine bay in its normal state of dirtiness, an excessively clean engine bay on an older car is suspicious.

Take that same wide lens, get a bright floodlight, and jack your car up if necessary. Light the bottom of the car up, and snap away. I like to get a shot of the bottom of the engine, of each corner of the suspension, a detail shot of the transmission, and the rear diff if applicable. These underbody shots will absolutely sell the car so make sure to get everything you can.

Good luck!

Take your photos and put them in your listing! I guarantee it will help you, at the very least, weed out the less interested buyers. Good photos can get you more cash on auction sites, and lead to a fairer negotiation on stuff like Craigslist or Facebook. Happy selling!

Chris Rosales is a writer at Car Bibles, a new sister site to The Drive focusing on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Come see the freshly redesigned Car Bibles right now! Or check us out on Twitter, IG, and Facebook.

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