Taking Good Pictures


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Little knob handle

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It's no secret, 'Engine Nuts' are lousy photographers! As a group we are not so much interested in the artistic value of the pictures we take, as we are in preserving events or details. Our nostalgic nature compels us to photograph an unforgettable event, a one-of-a-kind engine, a before and after, or some priceless mechanical detail for future reference. All too often however, we take irreplaceable photos only to find the pictures we expected to be so vivid are nowhere to be found in the processing envelope. They just do not do justice to the scene we intended to immortalize. Some pictures can be perfect in detail, focus and color, but they don't hold our interest let alone anyone else's. As a result most of them end up in a shoe box, or in the back of a seldom opened drawer. For some reason, other photos that may be less than perfect technically present the subject in such a way that we never get tired of looking at it. Once we realize what makes the difference, we can start taking enjoyable pictures on purpose.

The Camera

I have overheard people asking others what kind of camera they have. 'It sure takes good pictures'! The fact is, the person behind the camera makes the most difference. A quality camera can expand your options, but an Instamatic can record memories as well. My objective here is not to promote unnecessary equipment sales, but to improve our results with what is available to us. We will assume the user knows how to load and set his camera. If not, a session with the owner's manual is in order. Next you need to know what your options and limitations are. The new 'goof proof' automatic cameras have made photography much easier for the average person, but satisfying results can be achieved with very basic equipment. A 35mm camera is probably the most versatile, and a mind boggling array of equipment is available to challenge any level of expertise.

The Film

The question of which film to use is primarily a matter of individual preference. Some color films highlight blues and greens while others set a warmer tone by highlighting reds and yellows. Any quality brand that has worked in the past with good results is satisfactory. Otherwise consult your photo dealer or experiment. An important consideration for engine photos is film speed. Photos of engines in their original environment are often in dark sheds or gloomy buildings with poor light conditions. Such a setting will benefit from a 'fast' film, which is more sensitive to light. A film speed of ASA 400 is usually a good choice for these low light conditions (the higher the ASA number, the less light required for a perfectly exposed picture). Fast films tend to have a more grainy texture however. Photos taken on a bright summer day at an engine show are another matter. A slower film, eg. ASA 64 or 100, will give good results here.


After the mechanical and technical techniques are mastered, proper composition will result in 'keepers' nearly every time. Film and processing expense can be reduced as a result. Good composition is not hard if you ask yourself, 'Why am I taking this picture? What do I expect to see when I get finished?' Then take a moment to think about the answer. If your answer does not include the north side of a southbound spectator, then make the necessary adjustments before you shoot. If your purpose is one of an artistic nature, then things like shape, setting, background, shadow become very important. As an engine lover I find the photo which appeared in a national photographic magazine (fig. 1), to be lacking in detail and quantity. From an artistic point of view, however, it is beautiful and can be enjoyed by anyone whether they recognize the subject or not. If your purpose is to document some mechanical detail for future reference, then try to eliminate everything else and zero in on the subject. This is a real challenge sometimes because of the lighting and setting engines are normally found in. If you want to show the complete engine in one single shot with as much detail as possible, the 1/4 front view is a good one. Most of the major components will be visible. To really show an engine at its best, take a lesson from the manufacturers. After all, when they publish an ad they want people to see their engine in its very best light. Old manuals or books, such as Power In The Past by C.H. Wendel, are a good source for examples. You will notice the following:

(1) There is a lack of clutter in the background. They are simple scenes and use a backdrop, open field or other uniform distraction-free background. Shadows, cars, or lawn furniture are nowhere to be found. (2) In general, introductory photos will be from 1/4 front and slightly above, but the rest will be a profile 'facing the engine' (looking at the magneto side). This profile is usually most appealing and gives the picture a balanced look while conveying the greatest amount of detail. Some ads go so far as to remove a flywheel so the valve and timing mechanisms are clearly visible (holding the camera in line with the crankshaft so that the nearest flywheel blocks the view of the far one works nearly as well). A long focal length lens, 135mm or more, will further enhance this profile method. (3) They are always in focus. (4) They are properly framed. Oilers are not chopped off, skids are fully visible etc. (5) They often show action. A puff of smoke, flywheels spinning, accessories belted up, all help to show function and purpose. (6) They are taken from the engine's level. Not from overhead or eye level of a six foot tall person.

Little Things Make A Big Difference

Some of the more important steps in taking that special picture are the simplest yet most often ignored. Remembering the following points will help avoid most mistakes.

Avoid Shadows-Probably the single most disturbing thing about bad engine photos is a loss of detail due to shadows or poor lighting. The resulting ink blot silhouette may even be followed with the caption: 'what is it'? Who knows! Similarly, if there are people in the photo with a shadow across their faces you might just as well save your film because the shaded portion will be black. The reason for this is that most film can only respond to a three f-stop range. Therefore if a lighted surface is exposed perfectly, the shaded portions will be black. To further compound your chances of disappointment, most camera light metering systems average the available light. They are great for scenic panoramas but shaded mechanical parts or black engines will always be underexposed. A well exposed engine may require a fill-in flash (even in bright daylight), an additional light source, a white or foil reflector card to add light, or shoot on a cloudy/bright day when there are no shadows. For black/dark colored subjects, extra light or exposure time may be required to bring out detail.

Keep It Simple-Keep it simple, but pay attention to the background. Many engine photos include people, cars, trees, etc. in the background. These all detract from the engine if the engine is the subject. The answer? Move the subject, use a different angle, get closer so the subject fills the frame if possible, or use a backdrop. A shed wall, open lawn etc. usually can be used to your advantage. If the subject is cousin Albert standing next to the engine, fine. Just be sure to have all the desired parts in the frame while excluding everything else.

Out of Focus-Take your time. Don't shoot until the camera is properly focused. Focusing on an object's mid-point in your scene, such as the oiler or connecting rod, will help insure the whole subject is in focus. Also using the highest possible f-stop for a given light condition will increase the range, or depth of field, in which the image will be sharp.

Fuzzy-Fuzzy photos result from camera movement. Momentarily holding your breath while squeezing the release with one finger to avoid camera movement takes practice, but it can be learned. If possible, rest the camera on something solid or use a tripod. Many people prefer a mono-pod because it is less cumbersome. A simple aid that also works is a 6 foot strap attached to the camera. While the strap is held with the foot, raise the camera to hold the strap taut. Higher shutter speeds will make movement less noticeable. Higher speed will also reduce blurring from movement of a rotating flywheel if that is what you want.

Framing-We all have pictures of people with exhaust pipes growing out of their ears, engines with oilers or skids cut off and legs disappearing into water hoppers. All of these reduce the pleasurability of the final result. Again the answer is to take time to think about the result and what's in the viewfinder, not just the subject itself.

Poor Exposure-If your camera has a light meter, use it. Remember, however, that it averages the light. If you want detail in a dark area such as the shady side of an engine, then the light reading must be taken in that area. The background will then be overexposed but that is the tradeoff for the detail you need. For important shots, professionals often 'bracket' the exposure. In other words, they take several pictures, each at a different light setting to be sure one is right.

Don't Shoot Blanks!-Anyone who uses a 35mm camera has, at one time or another, ended up with a roll full of perfect blanks because the film was not hooked and advancing properly. The answer? After loading your film, turn the rewind knob to take up the slack until some resistance is felt. Now, when the film is advanced, observe the rewind knob. If it doesn't turn, the film is not advancing. Leaving the little knob handle up also serves as a reminder of its movement.

Preparation-Making an engine look its best need not involve a lot of work, but it will certainly improve one's impressions when looking at photos. Route loose wires in an orderly fashion. Remove unnecessary rags, oil cans, etc., from view. For the removal of grease, I have found a product marketed under such names as 'PrepSol' (Dupont), or 'Wax and Grease Remover' (ACME) to be excellent. They are normally used for final cleaning before automotive spray-paint refinishing. They are superior grease removers, will not harm existing paint, and produce a temporary gloss. They are expensive ($6 to $7 per gallon) but need not be used in large quantities and they do a good job.

Processing-Processing affects results and can have a greater influence than either film or equipment on the final result. Don't scrimp here! If your prints come back with a muddy look or off color, take your business somewhere else. 60 minute processing often yields two-bit results. If you want consistently good results I recommend custom labs which cater to the photo stores such as the national Kodak labs. The cost is higher than the one day service from your local drug store but the quality is better. You can also request special attention be given to color balance, exposure, or have it cropped to remove offensive parts and produce the exact scene you want.

A problem with today's automated processing is the print exposure. This equipment averages the light just like the light meter in your camera. Consequently, a perfectly exposed negative of a dark or shaded object will yield an overexposed print. When this happens, take it back to the dealer for a reprint and explain your requirements. Photo labs can't make a good print from a bad negative, but they can adjust the exposure manually to help correct for unusual light distribution.

Variety-Variety can really spice up a photo album. Experiment with different angles, subjects, backgrounds, show action, etc. There is a place for family, engines, tractors, and even friends telling tall tales. The trick is to do justice to each, but not all at the same time or in the same frame.

Finish-In general, glossy photos are best for showing precise detail. Satin finish stands up better for photos that are likely to be handled a lot.

The Bottom Line

Don't be satisfied with poor pictures. The extra time and effort to remember and use the foregoing principles can be measured in seconds, but the results, our visual link with the past, will be measured in years of enjoyment. The results are well worth the effort.

I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of my friend, John Pankratz (originally from Mt. Lake, Minnesota), who infected me with 'engine nut's disease' and got me into this mess!