Concours, Car Shows and Cameras

The Classic Concours Cliche

Car shows are some of the most frustrating places to take pictures and yet, at the same time they are also what the military mavens call a target rich environment. Target rich because at almost every auto show, weekend “Show and Shine” and full blown Concours that I have attended, the cars are lined up door handle to door handle, row upon row—all polished and prepped to perfection. And I say frustrating because there are almost always people ogling the car (moving in slow motion) standing in your way making good photography if not impossible at least difficult. Getting decent images at these events requires careful planning, the proper equipment and, above all, patience.

Planning—The expression “the early bird gets the worm” is never more applicable than at a car show. Getting to the site before the crowds—maybe while the cars are being placed by the organizers—opens up opportunities to shoot without someone’s backside intruding in your shot. In addition, the light is always better in the morning than it will be at high noon when the crowds are milling about eating finger foods next to the GTO you want to capture (photographically) for posterity.  

Another part of the planning process is what you will wear. Good shoes mean a lot at a serious show on a huge show field. If your feet hurt, your creativity will wane and your images will suffer. Also, because the cars are almost always packed tightly together, you will want to crouch low or shoot down from on high to get that perfect picture. I usually carry along a soft kneepad (I got mine from Mini) that lets me get low for a unique angle that isolates the car. If I have an assistant, I carry along a tiny but rugged aluminum 3-step stepladder. That little bit of height gives me another way to isolate a car (or part of a car) when I shoot.

Equipment—I find that a zoom lens in the wide to medium telephoto works very well. Nikon, Sigma, Tamron and Canon all have a very affordable 18-200MM lens in their line and I find mine works perfectly for most outdoor car shows. These “pro-sumer” lenses usually have a maximum aperture that isn’t all that “wide” so shooting indoor car shows could be a challenge.  If you can afford a more pro-oriented lens, zoom lenses in the 24mm–70mm range with a maximum aperture of f:2.8 are another excellent choice.  

Old Gauges Close-up with a Macro Lens

Another good option to have along is a macro lens—a macro will get you in close for dramatic shots of those badges, grills, wheels and other exciting details when a complete image of the car isn’t possible. It is also useful for getting artsy pictures of cool old car things for sale if there is a flea market or auto jumble running long with the show.

To light the engine compartment and interiors, I always have a flash handy. But as I have mentioned before, you should dial back the flash’s power (minus 1 stop is a good place to start) so you don’t over power the scene.  

And I would definitely recommend having a polarizing filter along too. On a bright day, you can tone down paint and chrome reflections, darken the light on a windshield or side window and improve overall color saturation.

Note—make sure you get the right kind of polarizer for your camera (circular vs. linear)—your camera’s owner’s manual should help here. 

What I would not bring along is a tripod. The main reason I don’t carry them at car shows—I don’t want to haul around the extra weight. Plus, the chance that I could whack a car’s finish is too much for me to contemplate! You may not feel the same so the tripod thing is up to you.

A good camera bag (I like at Domke and Think Tank), strong sun block, a lens cleaning cloth and a hat round out my kit.  And while I think sunglasses are a great idea to protect your eyes, I don’t wear them at car shows. I find they distort the colors and my perception of shadows. Your vision (I hope) is better than mine so you can make that decision too for yourself!

Frustration Happens at a Concours

Patience—I always give the field a quick scan (another benefit to arriving early) and keep track of the cars that I think I want to photograph. I then know where and what I want to shoot and all I need is the when. The when means, getting into position by the car I want to photograph and then I compose, set the filter and flash (if applicable) and then get ready.  I stand there like a sequoia, holding my position and when the crowds part like the Red Sea, I take my shots. And, I would be lying if I said it isn’t frustrating because some people will obliviously walk in front of you or just hang out in front of a car (the worst are the people chatting on their cell phones) while you patiently stand there, obviously waiting to take a picture. I usually send mental messages but try to not be too obnoxious myself—these folks deserve to be there too.

Subjects—While with patience it may be possible to get a good shot of a car at an auto show, more than likely, because of the close proximity of a neighboring vehicle, you will be limited to tightly-cropped detail shots, artsy angled images and, of course, shots of the engine, interior, wheels, chrome and assorted badges. But please, don’t forget to shoot pictures of the people around the cars—especially at big time car shows where the models displaying the cars are often as appealing as the car models the models are displaying! (Dirty old man comment apologies all around…) 

Some parting thoughts.  At some events, the cars are roped off to keep people from accidentally damaging the cars. If the car owner is there, I always ask if I can go inside the rope to take a shot or if I can move the rope to improve the shot. I have never been refused and if you are polite, I bet you won’t be refused either.

If the car really excites you, get the owner’s name and contact information and offer to send him or her a picture. And then, you can use that contact to schedule a formal one on one shoot later on. Again, this has worked well for me as I am always searching for cool cars and owners about whom I can write feature articles.

Color, Contrast, Close-up, Good Light

Cool Old Engine Detail

Don't Overlook Private Car Collections

Get there early for crowd-free images

Get there early for crowd-free images

Keep your eyes open for unique shots

Radiator caps are always a good target

Mercedes Museum with fast lens

Shoot close-ups of an interesting badge

Wait until the end of the day to capture this shot

Wolfgang and Peter Porsche in Number 1 at Concours

High angle helps isolate the car

Low angle helps here

The final official installment of this series will be a brief overview of today’s digital equipment. Hope you are having as much fun reading this as I am writing it.