I’m a car guy. There. I admitted it. I spend too much of my limited discretionary time and too much money on cars. But hey, at least I don’t need an AA program – yet.
If there’s a car show near me, and I can steal away at least 90 minutes, I’ll stop by with camera in hand hoping for a shot of something I haven’t seen or photographed before. But as excited as I get about the prospect of shooting a car show, it’s always, always, always harder when I get there than I expect it to be.
If you’ve been to a typical car show, you know the romantic notion of shooting the cars is often less attractive than actually doing it. That’s because most car shows come with the same challenges. And it all starts with the three biggest problems – background, background, background. Yes I know, that’s only one problem three times but it’s as big a problem as any three you could come up with. Backgrounds are everything in a good car picture and because the cars are crammed together, you usually don’t have a good background. Along with cramped quarters comes the next problem, reflections. Reflections on the paint, the chrome and everywhere else. They are everywhere. Next up – specularity – the shiny chrome causes blown out highlights. And lastly, there are the miscellaneous problems like direct sunlight, crowds, etc.
After looking at this list you may be tempted to say forget it – who needs it? But hold on. There are some things you can do. Here are some ideas.
1. If you’re religious, pray for overcast skies. If you’re not religious, ask someone who is to pray for you. Or be lucky. I was lucky last weekend when I shot the Gig Harbor classic car show. We had a high marine layer that stopped the direct sun from crating contrasty subjects that would be nearly impossible to photograph without HDR or supplemental light.
If you don’t end up with overcast skies, go as early as you can and/or as late as you can to keep the sun low in the sky. Direct sunlight causes all kinds of problems, but mostly high contrast and it’s not easy to work around.
2. Bring a polarizer. Your polarizer will help reduce reflections. Since polarizers work best at 90 degree angles, they won’t always help, but when you can use them – use them. They make a real difference.
3. Bring an ultra wide or even a fisheye lens and a short to medium telephoto lens. I worked this weekend with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra-Wide Angle Lens (rectilinear) to cover the wide side and the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens on the longer side. Both were mounted to Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
Use the wide angle lens for engine shots and interiors and the longer glass for close ups and sectional portraits of the car.
4. While we’re on the subject of lenses – bring the fastest glass you can. There will be problems with reflections that polarizers can’t solve but that fast glass can fix. See my earlier post on fast glass for an in-depth explanation. Shooting with a shallow depth of field can also help you draw attention to a car’s finer details.
5. When you find a car you want to photograph, walk all the way around it before you start shooting. Look for interesting or unique angles. Since the car show environment is so tough, think in terms of bits and pieces of the car. Don’t forget to shoot the engine. Shooting straight down on the engine with the wide lens is usually the safe bet. Also grab a shot of the car interior with your wide lens. Then start using your longer lens to isolate the car’s most interesting parts. Look for things like logos, tail fins, shifters, etc. Shoot anything that you find interesting.
6. Shoot more than one angle and shoot from various distances to give yourself a chance to tell the car’s story. When you look at the Flickr set I’ve created of images I made at this car show, you’ll note that several images are of the same car, but from different positions and from different distances. This gives you lots of looks to choose from.
7. Bring a tripod if you are shooting on an overcast day. You may need some slow shutter speeds to pull off a sharp image.
8. Wear black clothing so that your reflection is reduced when you’re photographing the car from close up.
9. Be mindful of your angles. Sometime shooting from the ground up is the best approach.
10. Don’t touch the cars without permission. Don’t sit in a car without permission. If the car owners aren’t receptive to you move on. There are lots of cars to shoot at a car show. I try to send one image from every car show to each car owner I photograph. Their contact info is usually available on the show roster or from the show organizers. Often they’ll approach me with a card and ask for a copy. This often yields sales for me since the first image is free and all others cost money.
11. It’s okay to crop. Cropping is your friend. With so many reflections and background distractions and people in the way, don’t be afraid to crop so that you can get the image you want. Unless you’re a photojournalist shooting photojournalism, there’s no sin in cropping no matter what the folks down at the local camera club tell you. Crop your brains out to get the right shot.
12. Be aware of your surroundings. Keep your gear safe and watch out for the crowd. Don’t block aisles with your tripod. Don’t hog any specific car. Shoot one shot and move on so others can look at the car and come back to it for another shot a little later.
Shooting car shows can be challenging but fun. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should point you in the right direction. Summer is car show season. Look around your area for a car show to shoot. Get some practice. Focus on details practice, practice, practice. Now I have to take a break to polish a couple of my cars. When I am not driving them, racing them or showing them I am polishing them!
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