Monday, July 9, 2012

Car Show Photography

The summer car show season has arrived, and it's always great fun looking at the cars, talking to the owners, and photographing these masterpieces. My first on of the season was in Port Elgin, New Brunswick this past Sunday. Click here to enjoy.

Taking pictures of cars isn't too difficult of course - they just sit there, but on bright sunny afternoons there are certain challenges. The range of highlight and shadow created by a highly polished car is extreme, and needs to be tamed for best results, and the best way to even out the lighting is to use your camera's flash. That's right- we normally think of using flash to create more light in dark situations, but in bright sunshine, the flash serves the purpose of making the lighting more even by pushing more light into the shadowy areas. Flash photography often intimidates me, because it totally changes the way a camera behaves. There is a whole new set of numbers that come into play - one set is for the surrounding natural light and the other set is for the added effect of the flash. You have both things happening at once.

With natural lighting, the numbers aren't really that important - like I've said here before, the camera is smarter than you are at figuring out an optimum exposure, and all you really need to do is set your camera on one of it's automatic exposure settings. When flash is added to the mix, the same thing is true, the camera can still calculate how much light is present, and compensate the flash output for proper exposure, but in situations like car shows, when you want the flash to fill in shadow detail (this is called "fill flash"), the camera isn't exactly sure what you're doing, and when it sees flash in the mix, it immediately reacts toward underexposure. The camera doesn't know that you want it to add more light - a lot more light actually, to uncover the detail hidden in dark shadows. Therefore, when using "fill flash", there are a few things you need to do to fool your camera:

  1. Don't use a fully automatic mode. Use Aperture Priority instead.
  2. Make sure your camera's flash-sync speed is at it's highest setting (1/250 sec for Canon, some other brands can sync much higher.) What I mean here is that Canon is capable of flash-sync at only two shutter speeds - 1/60 and 1/250. For outdoor work with plenty of sunshine, you need to go into your setup menu and force the Sync speed to always be the faster 1/250
  3. Also make sure the flash setup menu is set so the flash always fires - don't set it on "automatic" because the bright ambient light will make the camera think it shouldn't fire.
  4. Use a low ISO setting, like 100 or 200
  5. Force the flash to be even brighter than normal. In the camera flash setup menu, set the flash compensation at +1
  6. Having done all the above, you might notice, depending on your camera, that your shutter speed will be blinking on and off in your viewfinder or rear LCD display. Simply ignore this - that's the cameras way of complaining that it thinks it's being fooled and the picture is going to be over-exposed. But when you half-press the shutter to meter and focus your picture, the camera will take the readings and compensate exposure with the flash + ambient calculation on the high side, to fill in the shadows just like you want it to, but everything else in the photo which is beyond the flashes distance range will remain exposed according to what the camera thinks is correct.
Here's another picture that shows what I mean by the flash filling in shadow detail:

The detail that would have been lost without the flash are things like the tread on the tire, the bright chrome strip under the car door, that little glimpse of under-carriage, the grass on the ground underneath the car, and probably a lot of the detail in the front grille. Also notice that the license plate is leaning toward overexposure, but that is perfectly OK. I think in this case, I should have boosted my flash compensation even higher than +1, as this would have brought out even more detail in the grille.

Finally, unless you're a very short person, you ought to crouch down on one knee for every car photograph. This makes a much more exciting photo than being in a position of looking down on a car.

Next weekend is the big one - the Atlantic Nationals in Moncton NB. I think I'll need to buy another memory card to cover that one.

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