PHOTOGRAPHING AN INDOOR CAR SHOW LIKE A PRO

Canon EOS 40D - Canon EF-S17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM - 17mm 1/60 f5.6 ISO 400

Intermediate level tutorial - posted on July 3, 2009 by Mark

International Motor Shows and car events are great opportunities to finally get some special cars in front of your camera, however shooting them isn't as easy as it looks, these events are real crowd pleasers, so many people want to get a glimpse of that special car you are eagerly wanting to capture.

thumbnail A shot with many people around the car is just a snapshot, not a photo. If you are serious about your shots you should take into account a few basics when you go to a motor show or car event that is covered.

The shot of this Aston Martin DBS was taken at the Brussels International Auto Salon, it took a lot of patience to get this award winning shot, combined with some minor post-processing we managed to take a shot that is worthy of being published in a magazine or a brochure ... and it was taken during the public days, not even on a restricted press day, not everybody is able to get press accreditation for these shows so you'll end up among the normal visitors most of the time.

There are a few key elements to make the best of your event visit when it comes to shooting cars at such an event, and we will give you the inside information on all of them :

TIP 1 : The lens

thumbnail If you want to travel light and only take one camera and one lens make it a wide angle, anything above 70mm will be difficult to use if you intend to shoot the entire car, the distance between you and the car will be too large, so take your standard 17-55 lens with you.

thumbnail You could go for an Ultra Wide Angle like the Canon EF-S10-22mm, but remember these UWA will distort the car up to about 15mm, so unless you really like the 'fisheye' effect, you shouldn't really use it in our opinion.

We really advice you to go for a lens with some kind of vibration reduction, like the Canon EF-S17-55mm IS USM, our favorite lens for shooting an indoor car event, it will allow you to take tack sharp images at very slow shutter speeds without having to revert to a tripod, which is very cumbersome to be carrying around all day.

TIP 2 : Polarize it !

thumbnail Usually the high end, international motor shows have a lot of spots and lights directed at the more important cars, these give unwanted reflections, so you will need to use a circular polarizing filter to counteract this.

You will most likely not be able to remove all reflections in shots taken at these indoor events, but you can make a decent attempt anyway, one neat trick is to shoot two or more subsequent shots of the same car, but with the filter in different angles. This way you will have one shot where the windshield is clear of reflections and one shot were the side windows are reflection free ... merge these two in PhotoShop and you've got a great shot.

Downside to using a polarizing filter is the fact that you loose one stop of light, so unless you dial in a higher iso value your shutter speed will get longer, which brings us to our next tip ...

TIP 3 : The camera settings

We get a lot of questions about this issue, what settings should you use to photograph cars at a Motor Show or any other indoor car event ? The answer unfortunately isn't that simple, it all depends on the surroundings and the level of light available inside the building.

Shutter speed with a normal lens and no tripod keep it between 1/60 and 1/125, especially if there's a model or a hostess in the shot, any lower and you run the risk she will have motion blur in the final shot.

thumbnail ISO setting don't even think about leaving the iso setting at 100, a motor show or indoor event will need iso values between 400 and 800, sometimes even up to 1600 to reach decent shutter speeds, note that the higher your iso setting the more risk of noise in your shots, so there is a downside here (noise can be remedied in post-processing to a certain extend only)

Aperture You should know this one from our other tutorials, for a three/quarter shot you will need a setting of 5.6 to 8.0 depending on the size of the car. Full side shots can be done at 2.8 however, so it is useful to have a fast lens at car shows.
Also try a few shots at 50mm with an aperture of 2.8, the shallow depth of field can be very pleasing at this focus length.

Focal length you are at a car show, so you'll probably be using the widest setting possible, 17 or 18mm are the most commonly used focal lengths at these events (on a crop camera), any shorter (like 10mm) and you risk having some serious distortions in the cars. Do use a zoom lens, primes are great, but not so practical at a car show.

Raw Always, and we mean always, shoot raw instead of jpg at an indoor car event. Your camera could get the white balance wrong, or you under- or overexposed slightly in the heat of the moment ... with raw all this is easily remedied, in jpg it could be difficult to correct.

Stabilized if possible use a lens with a stabilizer, the cars aren't going anywhere, so a Canon IS lens for instance will allow you to take tack sharp images at speed up to 4 stops less, if the car is on a turn table you will have to use faster shutter speeds, probably up to 1/125 to avoid any blur.

Burst mode now this is a neat trick, because indoor events usually don't have decent lighting you could end up with slow shutter speeds, if you don't have a stabilized lens take a burst of shots, for instance three subsequent shots at 1/8th will probably give you at least one picture that is reasonably sharp, as it's digital just delete the others when you get home.

These settings will give you relatively good results when visiting a motor show or car event in your area, one thing you must always keep in mind : do not expect to take award winning shots at events, the surroundings are not ideal for this. Don't take this badly, we've managed cover shots from events (like the Aston shot in the intro) but that was one shot from many hundreds. And with this we get back to one of our initial tips : shoot a lot of pictures, it's digital so feel free to fill up that memory card. At events like this you will have people walking in front of the car the moment you press the shutter, don't worry, just take another picture and delete the first afterwards.

TIP 4 : Early birds get the best shots

Be there early, if the event or show opens at 9am, be at the gates at 8:30 so you'll be among the first to enter the grounds. Don't get stuck in traffic, we've encountered it on our last trip to the Mondial de l'Automobile in Paris, the highway was really jammed ... at 7am in the morning !

thumbnail Take this into account when planning your visit, make sure to get there before the doors open, so you can take shots of people unveiling the cars on the stands (they are mostly covered during the night) as such shots are unlikely to be taken by regular visitors and are really good to give an impression of the show in an article.

Most normal visitors to these events don't arrive too early to avoid traffic jams, so you are likely to be taking shots with next to no people in the background for the first hour or so, which brings us to the next important item to consider.

TIP 5 : Preparation is king

For most important motor shows you can download a layout of the grounds, with all exhibitors listed, get this list in advance and plan your visit carefully, take your time to decide which stands are the most important to you so you can make sure to go there first, when not too many people haven entered the grounds.

thumbnail This way you can concentrate on getting the shots that really matter and spend the rest of the day looking for opportunities to make some more shots, but expect a lot of people by the time you get to your second stand.

If you are on an assignment from the organization behind the show or for a specific car builder make sure you get several shots showing how successful the event or their stand was, hence showing a lot of people in the aisles and on the stand, a good idea is to take a higher angle for this kind of 'overview' shots, showing an empty stand is no good for the people behind the show, on the other hand for a magazine it is ideal.

TIP 6 : Be nice

Always stay polite at a Motor Show or indoor event, the people standing there have a long day ahead of them (or behind them in the evening) also note that when you are forced to visit during public days these hostess and security people have to fend of hundreds of visitors who's only concern is to gather as much brochures as possible, and use their cell phone to make snapshots.

thumbnail The more exotic makes will not allow people onto their stand most of the time, so you will have to find a desk or a gate that is manned with a guard, just ask if you could be allowed to make a few photographs of the cars on the stand, showing your dslr naturally, you would be amazed how many people will think you are a pro, even with a 350D (with grip and flash to impress them).

Do not make the mistake to lug around plastic bags with brochures when you want to photograph cars at an event, make your shots first and then gather the info leaflets you are interested in, they will not take you serious if you have a truckload of folders with you.

thumbnail The black Cayenne here wasn't even visible on the Porsche stand at the IAA, it was on display in a restricted area open to customers on invitation only, time it right and you could get in too. Shortly after opening there aren't any customers yet, so if you ask nicely most of the time you will be allowed into these areas, you might even get one of the rare hard cover brochures only available to their vip customers.

This won't work if the stand is crowded, as you will be setting a precedent and all those guys with their cell phones will want to get in too, also if they have customers in there you might be out of luck, so take a look around and be as polite as possible, remember they are not obliged to let you into their restricted area ... nice things happen to nice people.

TIP 7 : Show some respect

This might be an outdated concept, but showing some decency will go a long way at any car event, be it a high end motor show or a local happening.

thumbnail Remember that you are standing next to a small fortune, most of the time the cars we photograph are worth a nice house in the suburbs. At a motor show the cars on display are factory owned, but still show some respect, this is even more important at a car event. The people showing their cars actually own them and have invested a lot of time and money in building or restoring them. They do not take kindly to people jumping behind the steering wheel or leaning over the side to get a glimpse of the engine.

thumbnail If you want to shoot the car ask the owner to close the engine cover and the doors, a car should not be photographed with it's doors open (unless it is a Mercedes Gullwing and you want to show these amazing upwards opening doors), however do not make the mistake of closing the doors yourself, ask the owner to do it for you. If there is paperwork or placards in the shot you should also ask the owner or stand holder to remove them for you.

Talk to the people on the stand, this could be the owner or just a hostess, but talking to them will open a lot more doors than just shooting away, remember those exotic factory brochures are worth a lot of money to those collecting them. If you happen to catch the owner at an event you could even schedule a private shoot in the future, leave a business card so they can contact you to obtain the shot of their car at the show, they will appreciate the gesture.

TIP 8 : Female attraction

thumbnail At all major shows and events you will see various hostess and models around the cars you want to photograph, they do not take kindly to being asked to get out of the shot, just leave them, it's all part of the show. And most of the time they aren't bad looking either and they really enjoy being photographed.

thumbnail Some makes even have special models on their stand during the press days, at the 2009 Paris Motor Show the new Lamborghini Estoque concept car was surrounded by actual Versace models, but after the press days they wouldn't stay on the stand anymore, so you just have to take a few shots of them, scarcely dressed women are all part of the show during car events.

If you visit a local tuning event this will be even more obvious, most of these happenings even have a podium with non-stop dance acts, and several stands will have bikini babes walking around. Granted you came to shoot cars, but why not take a few shots of these ladies too while you are there.

TIP 9 : Mind the details

thumbnail Sometimes you will end up in a car event where you'll encounter a nice row of cars all parked closely together ... this is hell for us automotive photographers, so we have to improvise here by shooting details of the cars.

thumbnail Because all cars are in close proximity of each other you will end up with massive reflections if you do try to shoot an entire car, so your best chance of coming home with decent shots is to concentrate on shooting parts of the car, like the grille on this Austin Healey, or the air exhaust on the concept car.

thumbnail However also consider taking a shot of an entire row of cars, combine this with a relatively shallow dof and you could end up with a really nice shot, especially if the cars are various different shades.

Really nice subjects for our detail hunting are the emblems and type scripting on the cars, something like a 'Flying B' on a Bentley, or the Lady on the Rolls Royce for instance, take a shot with a very narrow depth of field and you have a winner, nobody ever made a rule you have to shoot entire cars at a motor show, sometimes it is better to shoot a small but interesting detail that leaves a lot open for imagination ... which is what makes life interesting in the first place.

TIP 10 : Close encounters

thumbnail You've taken your wide angle lens to the show, so get close to the cars. You will be shooting a lot at 17mm or 18mm if you want to come home with good shots, and what's even better, as you are standing or kneeling down so close to the cars the chances of anybody walking into the frame are reduced at the same time.

To get so close to exotic cars we tend to come back to tip 6, be nice, ask permission to access the stand so you can capture the cars from a different angle compared to the regular visitors, one problem arises here however, you will be shooting into the aile where people are walking by or staring at the same car. Have some patience, they will eventually go away, or leave it to post-processing to remove them.

TIP 11 : Bring your tripod

There are occasions when you will not be able to get a decent shutter speed, not even with a stabilized lens, so you will have to revert to using a tripod, which can be less than ideal during crowded motor shows, but there are a few alternatives.

thumbnail It is always nice to shoot the car from the beltline, not from eye level. Most people see cars from a higher angle all the time, so you should look for different shots, a low height angle looking up is just perfect, and you can use a nice little tripod for this kind of the photography. A low tripod has a few advantages, for one it is usually very light, it doesn’t take too much space when not in use and it needs a relatively small footprint to set up when you do want to use it.

Want to know a nice trick using a tripod ? Find a car that is turning on the stand, position your tripod on the turn table itself (if allowed naturally) and use a long shutter speed, this way the entire background of the car will be blurred as it moves while the car itself well be perfectly sharp.

Do take care that if you carry the tripod over your shoulder or on your backpack you don't accidently hurt somebody when turning around, or worse, damage an ultra exotic, stupendously expensive car (an insurance might be a good idea after all don't you agree ?), we've seen it happen, it is not a nice sight and the outcome can be very costly.

TIP 12 : Flash

This is a dangerous tip, some people will never use a flash at an indoor car show while we actually use it most of the time, but not to flood the car with light but rather to enhance some of the shadows and darker parts on the car.

thumbnail A single camera mounted flash will never be able to engulf an entire car with light, so don't even bother trying to, if you do you will end up with a shot that has a nicely exposed front bumper and a dark car from the doors onwards. What is very handy however is using the fill flash option, here you will shed some light on the otherwise dark parts of the car, like inside the wheel arches or the grille, if the car is displayed on a black floor the flash will create some brightness on the lower sides.

Most exhibitors will have put some serious thinking in lights on their stand, so there is no need for you to overrule them with your flash, that is why you should dial in a Flash Exposure Compensation of up to -2 most of the time, so the flash gives some light, but not enough to overpower the ambient, which will result in a nice 'event' style look and feel of your shot while the small amount of flash brings out the metallic paint better and can give you some nice 'sparkles' along the way.

TIP 13 : Variations

Shooting at a car show is no different then doing a photo shoot with only one car, you have to bring variation into your shots, don't settle for hundreds of front three/quarter shots at headlight level.

thumbnail While this is a classic view of a car, and one that works really well, you should experiment with all kinds of different angles and views. At some show grounds you can get higher up to take overhead shots, these are also great for shooting details with a long telephoto lens by the way. Otherwise get low to the ground, we've been found completely flat on the floor for some shots. It does look a bit awkward, and people might smile politely at you (don't even bother with what they are really thinking) but the resulting shots are truly amazing.

Walk around the car before taking the shot, imagine the picture you want to take in your mind beforehand, only then start composing the shot through the viewfinder. If there are people in the way, wait it out, chances are they will move away shortly, when they do be ready to press the shutter and start thinking about your next shot.

TIP 14 : Stay late

We know, you've been there since the doors opened in the morning, but if you want to have some more great material you will have to sit it out until the show closes and get back in action to conclude your visit.

thumbnail Most of the very exotic cars get covered up during the night, but there are still many that just stay on their stand ... with nobody in sight. Sure they are locked for the night, and the alarm is probably armed, but for exterior shots who cares.

If you look a bit like a professional photographer, even the security guards tolerate you, they will keep an eye on you naturally, and you probably can't stay for hours after closing time, but on your way to the exit (which just happens to be at the opposite end of the show naturally) you can continue to shoot the most amazing photographs.

If you managed to get talking with one of the representatives on a stand you like, you might even get a VIP treatment after the show closes for the public. Most exhibitors have some kind of 'de-briefing' every evening, an ideal time to shoot the cars on their stand, with permission naturally, who knows with a bit of luck they will leave the cars unlocked for you, all it takes is to ask politely, some may so no, but rest assured that you will receive a few positive answers too.

TIP 15 : Dress code

Normally there isn't a dress code for motor shows or car events, only for the VIP gala evening or something similar, but those are on invitation only most of the time, so they don't apply to you.

thumbnail Prepare for a very busy day, you will be at the show from early in the morning to late in the evening, so dress comfortably, take specific care about the shoes you'll be wearing, you will be on your feet most of the day, so don't make the mistake of wearing brand new shoes.

Also wear something with lots of pockets, you should be handing out business cards remember. Also expect to receive a few cards in return, so you need a pocket to put them in.

A nice back pack would be a good idea too, so you have something to store the folders and cd's you might receive during the show, we tend to use a belt system that holds our cameras in holsters and use a harness to distribute the weight to our shoulders (available from Think Tank by the way), it looks weird but works perfectly.

Do think about getting a shirt with your name and website on it, you would be amazed how many people note stuff like that, each time we've visited an event we see a spike in visitors to the website the following days, it's free advertising so use it ! Such a detail gives a professional impression, facilitating your entry onto those restricted stand areas.

Things to avoid at an indoor car event :

thumbnail The above tips should be able to put you on the right track for your next indoor car event, however keep in mind there are lots of pitfalls along the way, one of them being the nature of car paint ... it shines. Hence it also reflects people that are standing just outside of your frame, but still close enough to get reflected in the side of the car.

Because most people tend to collect leaflets and brochures like crazy at these events they will be carrying around large plastic bags in the most horrendous colors, try to avoid having them standing close to the car at all times, also keep an eye out for people in bright shirts or jackets, they draw attention away from the car when they appear in the background.

thumbnail

Not all cars at the show will be good to photograph, sometimes there are cords around the car for protection, or a low glass divider will make it next to impossible to get a decent shot, in these cases don't even bother, you will end up with a snapshot that won't be useable for publishing anyway. You could ask the people on the stand to remove the cords for the shot, but that won't always work, especially when it is crowded.

thumbnail

You've managed to get past the security hostess and you find yourself on the stand, next to an ultra rare super car ... and still the shot is worthless. Beware of spotlights on the cars, they can really ruin a shot, also as you are standing on the stand you will be shooting into the crowd from some angles, this doesn't work either. If there is a nice model standing next to the car, make sure she is facing towards you, nobody is interested in a nice back (well most people aren't).

We could go on for hours like this, there are so many details you will have to think about when photographing at an indoor car show, but the only thing to improve your skills is to make lots of pictures ... and lots of mistakes, it comes with the territory.

Make yourself used to browsing around on various car forum on the internet, they announce events well in advance most of the time, don't be shy to visit small, local events, they are great practice grounds for the bigger motor shows as the conditions are likely to be somewhat similar.

Final thoughts

Just about every picture you see published in a magazine will have been through post-processing to some extend, so don't be disappointed with your event shots straight from the camera. Magazines have an entire team of people going over these shots before they are published, a little tweaking on your computer afterwards can considerable improve your photography.

Above all : have fun ! You are a car enthusiast with a passion for photography, so visit a car event to admire the cars and enjoy yourself ... in the mean time you shoot some pictures, life can be good sometimes right ?

 

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