Shooting A Car Meet

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There are many ways to shoot a meet or show, I’m just going to list the basics that I follow.


While all  you need a decent DSLR and lens, really recommend that you get a couple of extra items. For my camera, I use a Nikon D600 with an assortment of lens, but the main ones are a Sigma 35mm prime, an 85mm prime, and a 20mm prime. If you are shooting a crop-sensor camera, like a Nikon DX, you would want something like a Nikon 10-24mm, and a 17/18-55mm.

I carry at least two filters with me – a CPL (circular polarizer), and a ND (neutral density) filter. If I am shooting near wide open in bright daylight on my primes, I will put a ND4 on it, and then stack the CPL on top of it – otherwise, I will leave the ND filter off, and just shoot with the CPL. My CPL is almost always on the lens, as cars are extremely reflective, and I use the CPL to control reflections.

The other item that I really like to have with me is a tripod. Not a heavy or expensive one, just a simple basic one with a ball head. It is a must if you are shooting at night, or if you are taking multiple shots with the CPL for a composite. If you are shooting with wide lenses, then a lightweight one is adequate in most situations.


If you are going to post-process your photos in a software program on your computer (i.e. – Photoshop, Lightroom, Photomatix, etc), then shoot in RAW. If you have no intentions to post-process, then shoot in JPEG.
Image Size doesn’t really matter, as even a 6MP camera has more than enough size for the web.

I use an Expodisc to set White Balance most of the time. If I don’t have it with me, I will set a close Kelvin setting, and adjust in post. For color space, I shoot sRGB.

Nikon offers a variety of options on color processing for JPEG output. I use Standard on my D600. Again, JPEG settings usually don’t matter much to me, as I usually just shoot RAW and post-process everything.

If you are shooting on a tripod, set your ISO to its lowest native ISO value, generally 100-200 is the value – you will need to look it up if you do not know it. Whenever possible you want to shoot as low of an ISO while still maintaining a decent shutter speed.

If you are hand-holding your camera, shutter speed generally should be 1/(the focal length that you are shooting at). An example is that if you are shooting a 50mm lens, then you should be at 1/50 or higher. If you are shooting an 85mm lens, then you should be 1/85 or higher. Of course, if you want to freeze motion, such as people milling about in the background, you will need to shoot at 1/125 or higher.
If you are on a tripod, just lower your ISO, and don’t worry about shutter speed. Shooting at the lowest native ISO allows you to use all of the dynamic range of your camera. Raising the ISO reduces the dynamic range of your camera. At night, that might not be too noticeable, but it is during the daytime. You will get washed out skies, and light colored shadows if you limit your dynamic range.
If you find that you must raise the ISO, and that it will limit your dynamic range too much to get the entire color range if the scene into one shot, then shoot a three shot bracket of 2 stops over and under and create an HDR image in post-processing – see below.


The two most important things to remember are focusing and exposure. If the photo is not in focus, no amount of post processing can help it. All you can do it trash it.

Pick the part of the car that is closest to you, and make certain the focus indicator in the viewfinder shows that it is in focus. It’s easy, but very important.


Most of the time, you can use Matrix Metering. If you are using an older DSLR, you can use Center Weighed metering. IF the car is white or black, switch to spot metering or adjust exposure compensation.


If the day is bright, set your exposure compensation to -0.3 on older cameras, or leave it at 0.0 on the newest ones that have plenty of dynamic range. You don’t want to blow out highlights. Focusing on black or white spots can throw off the metering, and you may have to manually adjust the exposure.

If the car is white, and you are in either matrix or center weighted metering, change the compensation to 0.3 or 0.7. You will have to play with it to see what will let you get the background properly exposed with the car.

If the car is black, and you are in either matrix or center weighted metering, change the compensation to -0.7 or -1.0. You will have to play with it to see what will let you get the background properly exposed with the car.


With some older cameras, you may find that you don’t have enough dynamic range to keep from blowing out the highlight (like the sky). Use a 3 shot bracket to take a -2.0, a 0.0, and a +2.0 exposure, and then use a program like Photoshop or Photomatix to create an Exposure Fusion TIFF output that you can edit in LR or Photoshop.


When you go to actually take the shot, you need to first pay attention to two things – composition and lighting.

First, you need to look at where the light is falling, and what areas are in shadows. When possible, use the sun to your advantage, and take the photo where the light is falling on the area that you will be focusing on. When you shoot the dark side of the car, the background tends to be too strong, so minimize the background by using the sun to light your subject. One thing to watch though – your own shadow. If you put the sun directly behind you, you may find that your own shadow is in the photo – don’t make this mistake.
Second, you have to determine the composition of the photo. I like to fill the frame at events, without cutting off any of the parts of the car. In other words, get the whole car in the photo, but not a lot of extra space around it. For these shots, you have to see how far back you can get without getting people walking between you and the car. When the event is very busy, I shoot my wide angle lenses, and get close, to keep people behind me. When the event is winding down, and people are heading out, then I switch to my 85mm, and shoot from farther away.

When I shoot my primes, I tend to shoot close to wide open on the aperture. This is how I get my shallow depth of field (DOF).
Here’s the tip to remember. The closer that you get to the subject, the smaller the aperture needs to be to increase DOF, and the farther that you move back from the focus point, the larger the aperture needs to be to decrease the DOF. If your camera has a DOF preview button, use it before you shoot to get an idea of what you will get. DOF is very dependent on how close you are to the subject and how far the background is behind the subject. If you can put a good bit of distance between the back of your subject and the background, you can easily create a smooth background blur.