Showing Off: Shooting Auto Shows

One of the great parts of this job has been the chance to go to the occasional auto show. Actually, there haven’t been that many, as travel is based on whether or not Porsche Cars North America has something they’re really interested in showing to you guys through PANORAMA. More often, they show new product through specific car presentations and drives, but auto show presentations do come along, and it occurred to me that you might be interested in some of the tricks and pitfalls of shooting such events.

Rule 1 is get there as early as you can and shoot fast. You can always throw out poorer images if you get a better one later, but you can never go back to an image you didn’t do to start with. Early is good because you may beat some of the crowd, because you will have a chance to see the formal presentation if there is one, and because the unexpected happens. In the recent Detroit show, for instance, the overall star had to be the 918 RSR featured in the current issue of PANO, and it was on an airplane and gone before the main show even got started (don’t ask what kind of planning let this happen—I’m told orders came out of Germany!)

You probably don’t want to use a shot that includes everyone else doing what you are, but this early version (left) was “in the can” and ready for use if something happened later. Patience pays off. Everyone has gone (right), and another shot can be set up.


Second, decide how you’re going to handle the light. Show cars tend to be spotlighted to set them apart, so you will have a lot of contrast to deal with. This means some details may be obscured, like the darker parts of air dams, rocker panels and diffusers, as well as interiors and even brake calipers. I tend to like the look of the bright car in the pool of light, so I don’t like to lighten the background surroundings too much, although you might prefer this less contrasty result. I will, however, often lighten specific areas of the image, either with strobe, which is more than a little unpredictable, or by dodging or using computer controlled fill light or other adjustments locally. Shooting raw files instead of jpegs is a huge advantage for allowing lightening of dark areas, as are modern full-frame cameras with the new very sensitive sensors. Use both and you can find things you wouldn’t expect in very dark shadows. Bracketing one or two stops over can buy you some additional quality in shadow detail.


The pool of light focuses attention on the car and obscures distracting background activity at the price of being very contrasty (left). The diffuser (right) will wind up being a black feature without detail unless you work to bring it out of the shadows.


Your best lens will be a wide to normal or wide to short tele fast glass; the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 works for me on my full frame camera. This produced almost all of my shots in Detroit, though a little longer telephoto can be very helpful for detail shots—like that video rear view system on the showcar 918 RSR—if the car is roped off and you can’t get very close to it. Anything much wider than 24mm (or 16mm on a smaller sensor camera) would produce a lot of apparent distortion working close to the car, although it might be useful for overall shots of a group of cars.

Be patient, and spend time with the cars that interest you most. My whole focus in Detroit was the 918 in its new coupe form, and being able to spend a lot of time around the car paid off with a number of shots. People in the way will eventually move, and opportunities open up. For a short time, they had those majestic doors open on both sides of the car and let us onto the stage. That was the time to do the all important interior and detail shots. When they kicked us off and closed up the car, there were a couple of angles to shoot from above, and a time for low angle shots from the edge of the platform on which the car was placed.


Working the angles: this was done by sitting on the floor to silhouette the dramatic doors and show some of the interior.


Concentrating on your main interests also provides an opportunity to talk to people who can help you understand the details. What’s the engine? Will the video camera rear view system and the posh interior make it to the track version? On press day, we had the engineers, but any representative of the company can give you some information—and maybe even help you get the shot you want. Another useful source of information is any descriptive placard around the car—a quick close-up shot of the card can fill in your memory of the stats later.

Two final points: camera position and polarization. Remember that all photos, even those done with DSLRs, don’t have to be from eye level; holding a heavy camera out at arm’s length is not usually good practice, but sometimes it can get you a better angle, just a bit closer or above the heads of the crowd. The polarizer, if you can afford the 1-2 stops of light loss, can provide a different look by enhancing colors, reducing the glare off paint, and cutting through the glare on glass.


Holding the camera high for a shot of chief engineer Dürheimer (left); better shots came later, but it told the story and got into the can early on. Never forget the details (right); they can add much to the overall story of the car.


Beyond that, it’s just a good exercise in camera basics. Carry enough memory cards, a back-up battery, look for details, and try to cover your subject from a variety of angles. Check your histograms or at least “chimp” the camera monitor to make sure you’re not blowing out your highlights. If you change a basic setting in your camera away from where you normally shoot (think going from raw to jpeg, setting up a bracket sequence, or just giving extra exposure compensation), go back to your preferred settings just as soon as you make the shot. I can’t tell you the times I’ve gotten caught on this one, sometimes with very disappointing results—there’s nothing worse than finding a key shot two stops overexposed because you forgot to turn off the bracket feature.

Bottom line: shooting a car show, national or local, is not much different from other car photography, but preparation, dealing with lighting, and having the right equipment can be a big help.

Thanks for reading, and as always - give it a try, and let me know what you think. I'm