How To Shoot Cars: Show Shots

Early bird catches the show

It was always hard for my neighbors to understand why I was under my car wrenching away every weekend. They asked me questions like “Did it happen on the freeway? Or on a surface street?” In their mind, I was fixing something that was broken. They just could not fathom anyone wanting to spend their free time under their car JUST to tinker around. They probably also assumed that I was ‘fixing’ my car because I couldn’t afford to take it to a mechanic. My neighbors would never understand the mind of a car culture fanatic. It would absolutely blow their minds if I told them that I was going to a car show. I can imagine them asking “But why? There are plenty of cars all around the streets! Why would you pay to see a bunch parked in a parking lot?”

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There are car shows every weekend all around the world. Heck, there are ‘Cars and Coffee’ type shows popping up all over the world. I wanted to touch on the basics of shooting a car show for the beginner Speedhunters.

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Come early as possible and shoot the roll in. This sounds like a no-brainer, but most shows are on the weekends. I’m very much a night owl, so waking up early is probably the hardest thing for me to do when shooting a car show.

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It’s a great time to photograph cars with the owners; shots of them working on the cars and caring for them are always great to mix up your set of photos.

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This is also the perfect opportunity to get cars in a different setting than the show floor. Also it’s important to note that many cars tend to leave early, so it’s best to get what you like right away and not wait till later.

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Another advantage to coming early is you can actually get action shots of the cars driving in. Even if a car is a trailer queen it’s still awesome if it moves under its own power.

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There’s always the cardinal rule at any car show: you can look, but you can’t touch.

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You may just very well ruin someone’s day by touching their pride and joy and maybe scratching it or breaking something rare. This poor guy probably was mad from someone scratching his ’32 Ford with their jeans zipper.

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It’s very important to build rapport with owners and builders; the show floor may not be the ideal place to shoot a car, so this is also the perfect opportunity to set-up a car feature for later.

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Remember that the owners don’t always WANT their car to be shot. It might seem strange because they’re at a car show but sometimes they can be very protective, so it’s always best to respect this and establish if an owner is present. Sometimes they can hang around in the background and dig the scene. Just be wary of getting caught up in a long conversation!

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It’s also nice to talk to builders and owners because they may show you some details that you overlooked. They can open doors and hatches to reveal everything the car has to offer.

So much bokeh

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When shooting super crowded shows it helps to have a telephoto lens with a wider aperture. I suggest starting off with an 85mm f/1.8 or equivalent. 135mm or 200mm may be too long in cramped spaces, but it’s very possible to use those focal lengths at outdoor shows.

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Blocking out the crowds is not always easy and sometimes you have to resort to shooting parts of the car. Be creative with your framing.

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Don’t just concentrate on the outside of cars. Builders spend as much time if not more on the interiors.

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It can be tricky to light the interior and some owners may not leave a window down or a door open, but take advantage of sideways afternoon light for interior shots. Just be careful not to ding the outside of the car when getting close with your lens.

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Sometimes it’s all about the details. This early Bugatti on the SEMA show floor was a showstopper, but it was super hard to photograph seeing as it was surrounded by that ugly black bar.

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If you shoot around it and focus on the details then you can come out with some impressive shots.

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Be careful if shooting wide open when you’re at indoor car shows though, because most warehouses or convention centers are lit by fluorescent lights. You’ll get some funky colors if you’re shooting above 1/200 to 1/250th of a second. This is due to the pulse of the fluorescent lights.

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It’s important to get nice detail shots to mix up the regular front 3/4 and rear 3/4 shots of cars sitting on the show floor.

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Details in paint are also very hard to shoot sometimes and it helps if you have a polarizer on to get rid of some of the reflection.

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At most car shows there are vendors or products on display. Sometimes it’s fun to try to get creative with car parts.

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Even an exhaust can be beautiful. Especially if it’s for a Ferrari.

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Atmosphere shots are also very, VERY important.

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There are occasions where indoor shows allow the booths to provide their own custom lighting. Take advantage of this because you can easily expose for the car, effectively blacking out the background.

Shoot everything

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Always shoot outside of your comfort zone, because you never know what will look good until you shoot it. I admit that before I worked for Speedhunters I rarely shot hot rod shows, but now I actually look forward to them, because I want to get more people interested in more types of car culture to keep them alive.

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If you’ve stayed for long enough, then you can shoot roll out as well. This is usually later in the day when the light is softer.

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It’s easy to get lazy and stand in one spot waiting for all the cars to pass, but try to move around and get as many different angles as possible. Anything you get that is not traditional is good for show coverage.

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Roll out is always my favorite, because owners are more inclined to give it a few extra revs to do a bit of showing off.

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I usually like to take it one step further and go out onto the street to watch the cars pull out, because chances are they will get on the gas a bit and maybe burn some rubber while they’re at it.

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One thing that I learned from Mike Garrett is to always check out the parking lot, because many of the showgoers will bring their own pride and joy and the chances are you’ll see some badass cars out there.

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Speedhunting does not always have to be about going to races. You can hunt speed anywhere, even at shows. So get out there and track down some static speed at a local car event.


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36 comments
HectorSanchez
HectorSanchez

Unfortunately, most "action" photos in magazines are blurry pieces of crap.  Photographers are convinced they are artists when many of them are just idiots.

Ben Chandler
Ben Chandler

Great story. I concur that atmosphere shots are also very, VERY important!

dasalchemist
dasalchemist

Great write up Larry, all this advice is spot on.


I have been shooting automotive events here in Florida since 2007 and some of my favorite tricks: 


Use a oversized tripod or monopod and release trigger to shoot a car from a very high angle above the car, it's a perspective few go for and often allows the entire automobile to be seen more so than the crowd around it. The newer cameras have remote viewing via smartphone, it's much easier to do now. 


Don't forget that you can do panoramas, you don't be confined to the 5x7 box...it's a big world out there.  


During evening shows I prefer to use long exposure so the crowd is literally a blur and the automobile become the focus. Light painting also helps bring out accents. This trick can also be used during the day with a variable ND filter and a tripod to blur crowd moment....it's a bit surreal looking but in a good way. 


I have also been bringing in a fairly high powered monolight during day events to chase away harsh sun shadows or overpowering the strobe to silhouette the crowd more and make the car the light focus (though you will need an external light meter to do this correctly) 


My last tip would be simply be patient, worry about the composition and once that is established wait for the right moment, the right break in the crowd. Remember in the end it's more about the quality of shots than the quantity; I have had people see me standing there and ask "How long are you going to wait for this crowd?" often the answer is "Until the moment reveals itself" 


Cheers

- Jesse

buzz1
buzz1

I absolutely love these articles!  As a digital art instructor I know that you are always learning from the talents and skills of others and I offer my heartfelt thanks to Larry Chen and the rest of the contributors for letting us learn from their experiences.


I borrowed a friend's camera and went a a car show in Orlando a few months back and shots some pics http://www.flickr.com/photos/94971482@N06/  I can see some mistakes in composition and I got some ideas of where I would like to go thanks to input from articles like this.


Keep em coming!

Nikhil_P
Nikhil_P

some very useful tips!

i always get this nasty yellow hue when im indoors thanks to the lighting...anyway way to get rid of it?

or is it just a case of fiddling with the lighiting settings? because i cant seem to find one that works!

bigeastbay
bigeastbay

I have found that moving is key at car shows. Whether you are going from crouching, to standing to elevating yourself, it makes all of a difference. Also, if you are using a primary lens with manual focus I recommend taking multiple shots from same or similar angles with different framing and focus. The more pictures you take the more likely you will take a good one.

I have found a lot of success with a 50mm but if you are at a slightly populated car show it is still very wide. The best lens I have used for more populated shows is a 20mm or 24mm primary.

My biggest struggle I have found is actually finding enough car shows to practice at. Anyone know anything coming up in the sf Bay Area (@larry Chen)

Check out my flickr, I would love to hear some comments and criticism about how I've shot so far.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/75773714@N08/sets/

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

Keep the tips coming you guys. I know there are many of you who love to shoot shows.

MatthewDear
MatthewDear

Another good tip I've found is, for many shows you may switch the JPEG for quicker editing etc, but if the lighting is being awkward, colour casts etc, keep it in RAW, you'll have a much better chance of correcting it later on. Found this out after shooting under yellow lights in JPEG, getting back and just not being able to properly correct it easily.

zephoto
zephoto

Well I learned one thing which I haven't personally encountered as an issue--perhaps because I use CP and ND's often but this quote was one I had not known about:

"Be careful if shooting wide open when you’re at indoor car shows though, because most warehouses or convention centers are lit by fluorescent lights. You’ll get some funky colors if you’re shooting above 1/200 to 1/250th of a second. This is due to the pulse of the fluorescent lights."

2xthefun
2xthefun

What kind of lenses do you usually pack for shows? Outside of the 135mm you mentioned in the article. I like the shot of the guy cleaning his door the most, I don't know why but it just seems like a private moment. 

bmxatv10
bmxatv10

Thank you for all of the helpful tips Larry.

Partyvi
Partyvi

Larry can you get more photos of that underslung '25 Dodge?  It was an awesome build!

boosted un busted
boosted un busted

My heart goes out to the feller in the scratched 32 ford. I'm more a biker than a car Modder, at a great little bike show there's this chap with a full resto Triumph Bonneville 1968? any way it was stunning, whilst chatting to said feller this other bloke kept rubbing the fuel tank/ seat, to my horror he had rings on most of his fingers!!! the owner kept telling him to get off to the point of mid conversation went storming off told the rubber to "sod off" quite angrily them promptly made a KEEP OFF singe. What is it with some people?? would they mind if I cop a feel of there girl friends boobs? probably so leave owner pride and joy alone!! 

RichG
RichG

Fantastic post in true SH style, great tips thanks!!

koko san
koko san

Didn't know about the fluorescent lights, it really is difficult to get decent shots at shows. thx

AlokPaleri
AlokPaleri

Listen to the Chen and you'll never stop learning :) Thanks for the tips Larry!

eefy
eefy

Great feature, and agree with getting there early to beat the crowds and being patient, kneeling next to a car with the camera up will always, well usually part the crowd to allow you a shot. I also agree with how hard it can be shooting at indoor shows, as mentioned especially with barriers around some of the more expensive and jaw dropping cars. I also love chatting to the owners most are more than happy to let you crawl, with in limits, over their cars and tell you all about them. Wearing a logo'd t-shirt always helps aas well. Oh and some fo the shows I;ve been to this year-

http://issuu.com/thepetrolstop/docs/2013_magazine_fullpdf

bigeastbay
bigeastbay

Love your stuff, and your editing is very good. The only things I can think of is needs more low. Try going from different angles and perspectives to show different views of the cars. Chief example being the toyobaru twins, they photograph really we'll from a low perspective in the rear and 3/4 view and have a great side profile that doesn't Need too much design perspective.

Guest
Guest

@Nikhil_P Those are the "funky colours" he's talking about from the fluorescent lighting. Though they look white, they actually flash blue-yellow-blue-yellow in very quick succession. Or if you are shooting under incandescent lighting, try looking for a "white balance" setting on your camera, and adjusting that.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@MatthewDear If you have the memory space then I'd say it's a good idea to shoot both.

KeithCharvonia
KeithCharvonia

@zephoto That's a good tip. I've encountered the color shift in my own garage. At least now I have a shutter speed to aim for.

Larry Chen
Larry Chen moderator

@2xthefun I usually just use two or three lenses, depending on how tight everything is. If the show is super tight I may bring a wide, 17 or 16 and a 35mm and 85mm. If the show is very open then I will use the 35mm and 135mm. Less is more. If you bring too many lenses it will slow you down. You should be able to shoot most shows with just two lenses. If you are on a budget and you have a crop body, then just go with a 50mm and one wide angle, 18mm or lower.

MatthewDear
MatthewDear

@2xthefun I'm not a SH (professional at least) but I shoot a lot of shows. I just take my 24-70 2.8, as it's the best walk around lens, and then have a 50 1.8 in my bag for some more shallow stuff. However a slightly longer prime as mentioned can help separate the subject even more. Something like a 17-40 would work well in an indoor show too, where there won't be much space to work with. If you're on crop, the 17-55 2.8 is a good match for it.

JoshuaWhitcombe
JoshuaWhitcombe

@eefy I wish kneeling next to a car with a camera would part the crowds here, people usually ignore you, I have even had one rude lady come and stand right in front of my camera once. I think next time I'm gonna take my HI-VIS, that might make me a bit more noticeable haha

buzz1
buzz1

@bigeastbay  Thanks for the critique.  I appreciate it.  It is always good to get outside opinions.  As for the Toyobaru twins... well, I have one and have taken lots of pictures of her http://imgur.com/a/Uii60#0  And some down low from rear quarter http://imgur.com/a/6qn4b#0  And some CG modeling and visualization that I have done.  http://imgur.com/a/2ZOh3#0  I love (looooooove) this car.   I just recently moved to Silicon Valley and am looking for some picturesque spots to do some photo shoots of her.

MatthewDear
MatthewDear

Oh yeah if your camera supports it, always worth having some backup JPEGs just in case. Saved me once already.

Hills
Hills

@Larry Chen @2xthefun These are great tips. A couple or other things to suggest are B&W and different views/ angles. I am not talking about hipster 45 degree angles but shots from a wheelwell, etc... Most shows have similar cars and B&W helps pick up negative space and different angles allow a car to look a little special. Everyone knows what a Cobra looks like but seeing one from the side pipe back is a little special. 


A lot of the shows that I go to make longer lenses impossible. The cars are too tightly packed or the people are too self involved to notice that you are a few steps back trying to frame a photo. I usually go with a 28/ 2.8 and a 16/ 2.8 fisheye.


bigeastbay
bigeastbay

@buzz1 @bigeastbay nice, very jealous. I would recommend mt. tamalpias and most parts of hwy 1 and 101. Basically a good driving road will eventually lead you to some picturesque spots, or not. either way, the curves are sublime.

eefy
eefy

@Larry Chen @JoshuaWhitcombe @eefy and if its not happening, "hmmmm" loudly a few times also works he he

The NEC show now that was a challenge, indoor, crap lighting and really busy and that was on the Friday, sunday would have been virtually impossible to shoot anything!!!!


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