Photographing Cars on Display

Often we have a particular goal in mind when we visit an area as I did when visiting Point Pelee National Park. Sometimes nature does not cooperate and we end up finding an unexpected treasure. That was certainly the case for me when I stumbled on the Canadian Transportation Museum in Kingsville, Ontario.

This article shares a few images that I took during my visit as well as discussing some approaches to consider when photographing cars on display.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-560
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-560

Often the cars on display in museums and at events are packed quite tightly together and it can be a challenge to find a pleasing angle with which to capture multiple cars.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 19mm, efov 51mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-800
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 19mm, efov 51mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-800

I’ll often look for an interesting car to serve as a corner anchor and crop it to force a viewer’s eye further into the grouping as in the two examples above.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 13mm, efov 34mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-800
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 13mm, efov 34mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-800

Sometimes all you can do is focus attention on the car at the end of a row and use some other element, in this case the powder blue information posts, to lead viewers further into the image. After taking a few group images my eye is always drawn to details on individual cars. If you look at the spare tire on the car above you’ll notice a tire strap that is supporting a mirror. While I didn’t find this particular detail worth capturing, the straps on others cars really intrigued me…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 23mm, efov 61mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 23mm, efov 61mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-2200

It can be helpful to change your body position to check out various image angles and to see how the available light is interacting with specific details you are photographing on a car. In the case above I loved the high contrast tread design as a backdrop to the fine details I was able to capture on the centre strap. Depending on the nature of the detail it may provide multiple image opportunities.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-720
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-720

Vertical framing as seen above, or a horizontal view to get in tight on a design element as in the image below.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-720
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-720

Some displays may feature some kind of set decoration to add a period feeling to the display units inside as seen in the image below.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/15, ISO-800
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/15, ISO-800

I often use a tighter crop on these types of images to try to remove ceiling lights and other distractions as best I can.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 24mm, efov 63mm, f/5.6, 1/10, ISO-3200
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 24mm, efov 63mm, f/5.6, 1/10, ISO-3200

Once inside these types of display structures I often find that the lighting is quite poor which can necessitate shooting at fairly slow shutter speeds as with the image above. Using lighter weight gear like the Nikon 1 system can be very useful to cope with this type of shooting situation.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/15, ISO-1100
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/15, ISO-1100

I love finding vintage details and I’ll spend a bit of extra time in post with these types of images, often reducing highlight sliders close to their minimum and adding in black and contrast to get out as much detail as I can.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 70mm, efov 189mm, f/5, 1/60, ISO-1100
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 70mm, efov 189mm, f/5, 1/60, ISO-1100

Sometimes shooting with a longer length zoom can help with the perspective of an image, or it can provide an angle of view not possible with a shorter focal length lens because of the positioning of various cars on display.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 70mm, efov 189mm, f/5, 1/60, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 70mm, efov 189mm, f/5, 1/60, ISO-2200

To add drama to an image I’ll look for geometric shapes, parallel lines, or if I’m really lucky a strong ‘7’ as found in the image above that I can also use as a corner exit. On rare occasions I find detail on a car that provides a tremendous sense of movement and elegance at the same time…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 20mm, efov 54mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-450
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 20mm, efov 54mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-450

Images like the one above are some of my favourite ones to turn into ‘photo art’…and my print-buying clients seem to love them as well…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 20mm, efov 54mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-450
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 non-PD, 20mm, efov 54mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-450

Photographing cars on display can present some unique challenges as well as interesting image opportunities!

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Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.

3 thoughts on “Photographing Cars on Display”

  1. Love old cars – never know how to shoot them. In your first several shots you mimic what I usually do “fit them all in” or “fit it all in”. Lately, the last year or so, I have really been trying to follow the shots I most like in your article, the “fit less in”.

    So this last year to 18 months has me trying to do that, fit less in. Had a super cool building in NYC with great lines and reflection. I kept saying “how do I fit it all on”. Then stuck my 70-300mm on – and fit a BUNCH less in and created a much better image.

    Fit less in, really been working well for me. Clearly you learned this much before I did!

    Thanks Tom!

    1. Hi Mike,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the images and thanks for the positive comment! I agree with you wholeheartedly – sometimes less is more when it comes to image composition.
      Tom

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