Covering phone hacking scandal, how Oli Scarff gets ‘the car shot’
Editor’s note: Award-winning Getty Images photojournalist Oli Scarff knows how to get a “car shot.” In fact, when he was recently named Photographer of the Year by the Society of Editors at the British Press Awards, his winning portfolio included this one of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s how he does it:
The car shot requires a fairly unique skill-set and is most usually deployed when the person in question absolutely, categorically and unequivocally does not want their picture to be taken. Since this accounts for virtually every high-profile attendee to the Leveson Inquiry, which I’m frequently assigned to cover, taking car shots has become all too familiar.
Before I begin, allow me to address the ethics of car shots. You see, there’s a bit of cross-over here, as paps are also a bit partial to the odd car shot, since celebrities occasionally travel in cars. To the great disappointment of many of my friends however, I’m not a pap (I know it’s more exciting than what I do, but I’m not) and I struggle to condone any of the ethical reasoning I’ve heard for their actions (that’ll be contentious). I’m a press photographer and when I take a photograph of someone in a car, and arguably invade their personal space, there’s always a news-worthy reason for me doing so. It’s not a water-tight defense, but it’ll do for now.
The first thing to mention about car-shots is that they’re tricky. They’re tricky in a whole myriad of ways, but the overriding one is that the person you’re trying to photograph is sat inside 2 tonnes of fast moving metal whose driver generally displays negligible regard for your personal safety. Because of this, preparation is everything; usually you’ll be able to get one or two shots of the car as it comes past (your camera may be able to take more photos, but typically your flash won’t be able to keep up). So timing is crucial.
As an over-excited young photographer I would frequently take a photograph as soon as I saw the car just to get “one in the bag.” Then, whilst my flash was recharging after attempting to illuminate an entire street, the car would speed past and I’d be left with a nice sequence of unlit black photos. In an attempt to “sharpen us up” the picture editor at my first employer in Bristol (SWNS) instructed a few of the photographers to practice their car shots by taking it in turn to drive at each other in the staff car park. With hindsight, this flagrant disregard for heath and safety legislation did help reduce my reluctance to run up to moving vehicles.
For the camera obsessives out there I’m about to reveal the closely-guarded secret settings* to achieve the perfect car-shot:
- manual exposure (several stops below ambient)
- manual flash (although as a photographic renegade, I use ETTL)
- manual focus, set to ~1m and often taped down
- some sort of external battery pack to speed up the flash recycling time
- remove lens hood
- shoot in RAW (as the final result will probably so poor you’ll need all the post-production recovery tools as you can muster)
*not really, this is the sort of tedious nonsense press photographers spend their days talking about.
The final tricky technical point that’s the undoing of many a car shot is glass tint. Since all the settings have to be dialed in to the camera in advance you’ll have to choose between the car having clear or blacked-out windows. But call it wrong and you‘ll almost certainly get no pictures. If you’re set up for clear glass and the car has blacked-out windows, all the shots will be far too underexposed to bother with. If it’s the other way ’round, your flash will be so bright it’ll probably melt their face off.
Other hindrances can be:
- Rainy windows
- Internal car blinds
- Wrong side of the car
- Wrong car
- Too many photographers
- Too few photographers (extreme self-consciousness)
But sometimes with a bit planning and a bit of luck it can all come off beautifully.
Then other times it’s just not your day…