Gas Engine Magazine

Taking Good Pictures

By Staff

1828 E. 6th Avenue, Mesa, Arizona 85204

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

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!

  • Published on Aug 1, 1989
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