Catching Cars At Speed, Shooting Car To Car by Dom Miliano

Dom Miliano taught photography for seven years. His photographs have been published by AutoWeek, Cavallino, Excellence, Forza, Corvette and Bimmer Magazine, Porsche Panorama and in several automotive books.

Capturing the excitement of a car blasting along the twisty bits is the challenge that all automotive photographers face. If you are shooting video, conveying a sense of motion is built into the platform – QED. But capturing speed and motion in a sharp, still picture is both difficult and exhilarating – but only when you get it right. 

Unlike the technique we discussed last time – panning – shooting cars at speed from another car – i.e., car to car – requires that you not only have a driver of the subject car but you also need an “appropriate” second camera car (I’ll define appropriate in a minute) and a second, competent driver. A pair of walkie-talkies doesn’t hurt either. As with panning, you also need to pick the right road, right time of day and right background. But since you are also moving, you need to make sure you are operating in a safe manner to protect everyone and every vehicle involved. 

The best kind of vehicle (i.e., appropriate) for car to car photography is one that makes shooting the leading (or following) subject car possible. I have used an Audi convertible, Fiat 500C drop top, several cars that have a wide sunroof opening, a Toyota 4-Runner with an opening tailgate window and even a Ferrari 400i – leaning out of the wide passenger window like a cocker spaniel in August! Doing this, however, introduces an element of danger and possibly an element of lawlessness to your activity (Most states have strict seat belt laws, frown when you stand on the passenger seat with your body half out of the sunroof or lean out over a convertible trunk and they especially look askance when you drive in the incoming lane to take pictures!). So if you are going to shoot car to car, be exceptionally careful and be respectful of other people and cars on the road.

  Kalikow car to car cal spyder





OK, enough of the caveats, here’s how to shoot car to car! First, scout out your location – again, background and the quality and direction of the light still count. Next, finding a road with two lanes going in the same direction really helps – that way you don’t have to drive (ever so briefly…) in the incoming lane. I also think that early morning and weekends work best most of the time (good light, less traffic). If, however, you shoot in a resort area in season, weekends may not be all that traffic free so choose wisely and, again, be very careful.

Next, I coach the drivers of the subject and photo cars, showing them where the cars have to be relative to each other when you finally hit the road. I usually put the two cars in the position I want in a parking lot so I can confirm the framing from the photo car and the two drivers get a feel for the relative position they need to be in once we’re moving along.  

The camera equipment I use for car to car photography is similar to what I use for panning shots. First, I use a digital SLR and I always work on these shoots with a zoom lens and one that has image stabilization or vibration reduction built in.  I have several lenses that have that capability but really love using my 18-200MM zoom because it allows me to fill the frame with the car regardless of how close or far away it is. I say that because no matter how well you coach the drivers, the distance between the two cars always changes as the cars move along.

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One of my editors out in California said she always shoots at around 25MPH and she uses a shutter speed of around 1/50 sec. While 25MPH is a nice safe speed, I like to shoot with a bit faster shutter speed (up to 1/125 sec,) because our North East roads seem to be a bit bumpier and the shorter exposure seems to give me a better number of sharp keepers.

I use walkie-talkies to coach the driver of the subject car to come closer or move left or right because if I try to use hand signals, I have to take one hand off of my camera. If I drop it, the lens or camera could hit the side of the car and damage the paint (not a good thing). By the way, the driver in the camera car does the talking - I really do like to keep two hands on the camera!  
Make sure to shoot pictures of the front of the car as it approaches and the rear of the car and it drives away – I personally think the rear angle conveys the best angle on a lot of cars and if the car is a powerful sports model, most of us only get to see a rear view of it departing!

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Final thoughts – Make sure to shoot lots of pictures so you have a choice of shots and vary your shutter speed as you go. Also, you will not see everything in the frame as you speed along, hanging out of the photo car (and you won’t have time to check them on the fly either). When you’re editing, you are bound to see pictures with a fire hydrant, light pole or street sign sticking out of the top of your subject car. Having to “PhotoShop” those issues out of your shot is work you can avoid if your pictures don’t have them in the first place. Use your camera's "motor drive" and shoot, shoot, shoot!     
Next time, we’ll cover taking pictures of cars at a race track – my favorite kind of auto photography.

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