It’s almost car show season here in the Midwest and shooting them can be quite fun, yet they pose some unique challenges. Many of the techniques and principles used in photographing architecture can be applied to shooting vehicles.

Put your camera down

It can be overwhelming when you first walk onto the grounds of a car show, with so many cars, so many shiny objects and so many people. Walk around first and get the lay of the land. Are there groups of certain models, are there some really rare cars, are there any other special events going on such as live bands, booths with items for sale, food vendors?

Scope out the vehicles that catch your eye and remember where they are to come back to when you’re ready to shoot. It can also help to do a bit of research on the particular show you plan on attending, do they specialize in anything, what will the location be like and important details like the dates and hours of the show.

The big picture

Depending on the location, how many cars and spacing, getting the big picture can be difficult. Using a wide-angle lens (I shoot with my Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Lens) helps quite a bit in capturing the full front end, grills, interesting taillights, fins and larger details of some of the cars. Using a wider angle is also a good way to get groups of cars together. Going even wider with a fisheye can be fun as well.

When shooting wide be aware of the surroundings, watch for people in your shot, patience is definitely a virtue if you don’t want anyone in your shot. Pay attention to the background too, tents, lawn chairs and coolers can take away from that amazing car you’re shooting.

carCars have many details

This is a fun one. So many details on the cars, in the cars, in the chrome surfaces and in mirrors. The possibilities are endless. Taking detail shots helps tremendously in eliminating people and other distractions around the cars.

Specific things to look for: Door locks, radio dials, speedometers, dashboards, hood ornaments, headlights, taillights, gear shift knobs, tail fins and emblems are all good places to start. Using a macro and/or telephoto zoom is a great way to capture the details.

Angles and perspectives

When you find a car you want to capture take a wander around the entire car if that’s possible. Look for interesting angles and curves, think about other perspectives that will change the look of what you’re shooting. Get low. So many car shows I’ve been to where I see photographers laying on the ground because it’s a great way to get that really cool wide-angle shot. Get close, as close as you can without touching the car anyway. Getting close is another way to help eliminate distracting background elements.


If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em is the best way to handle reflections at a car show because they are everywhere. Chrome, mirrors and the car bodies themselves are huge reflective surfaces. You can work to minimize reflections for some shots just by moving yourself around, higher, lower, further up to the front of the car, or toward the back. Watch how the reflection changes as you change your position, see what works and what doesn’t.

You can also embrace the big shiny objects and have some fun with them. Use side mirrors to shoot down the side of a car or the interior, use chrome bumpers and hubcaps to reflect a nearby car or even a person if you want. Is it a great cloud day? Shoot the clouds reflected in the hood/trunk of the cars. Be aware of your own reflection while you’re shooting as well, if you want it in the shot make it work, if not, move around so you’re not in it. It’s not always easy to do.

Other considerations when photographing cars

Be sure to talk to the car owners, car people love to talk about their cars. They can be very helpful if you want them to open or close the hood, peek inside and even sit in the cars in some cases. Give them your business card or get their information, offer to send them an image or two if they’re interested.

If there are signs that have the year, make and model posted on them, take a shot of that before you shoot each car, that way you’ll be able to identify the image with the right information and keywording for posting later.

Be very aware of your camera gear, bag and yourself when shooting around these vehicles, a second camera hanging from your shoulder can easily bang up against and scratch a car, turning around in between vehicles where there isn’t much room can be tricky if you’ve got a backpack on. Just be sensitive to the hard work that goes into keeping these vehicles clean, restored and show ready.

Use post-processing to help you, taking a color shot and converting it to black and white can make a big difference in eliminating the distracting differences in the colors of cars. Think about focal length when shooting, what do you want in focus and what would be better off blurred in the background. Be intentional about choosing your settings.

Last bit of advice

Go early, stay late and make the most of the changing light as well. Most of all, have fun. Car shows and auto museums pose a unique set of circumstances for photographers but can be used as a great learning experience. It can also be a great way to push ourselves to be more creative in how we shoot and see.

P.S. These tips work for architecture and other subjects as well.