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Covering phone hacking scandal, how Oli Scarff gets ‘the car shot’

July 25, 2012 | By Oli Scarff | How-to, News, Photography, Photojournalism

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:

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Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive officer of News Corp., is driven from his apartment on July 12, 2011 in London, England. Allegations emerged yesterday that private investigators working for The Sun and The Sunday Times newspapers, owned by Mr Murdoch’s company, targeted former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to obtain bank details and his son’s medical records. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

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Roy Hodgson, the manager of West Bromwich Albion Football Club, leaves Wembley Stadium on April 30, 2012 in London, England. Mr Hodgson held talks with the Football Association concerning the vacant role of England football manager. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

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.

 

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Rupert Murdoch leaves his home in central London to travel to the High Court where he is due to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on April 25, 2012 in London, England. This phase of the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom is looking at the owners of various media groups. The inquiry, which may take a year or more to complete, comes in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that saw the closure of The News of The World newspaper in 2011. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

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.

 

 

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Lachlan Murdoch (L), Wendi Deng (C) and Rupert Murdoch (R) leave their home in central London to travel to the High Court where Rupert Murdoch is due to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on April 25, 2012 in London, England. This phase of the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom is looking at the owners of various media groups. The inquiry, which may take a year or more to complete, comes in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that saw the closure of The News of The World newspaper in 2011. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

 

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.

 

 

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Sir Paul Stephenson, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, leaves the The Royal Courts of Justice after giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry on March 5, 2012 in London, England. Phase Two of the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom is looking at the relationship between the police and the press. The inquiry, which may take a year or more to complete comes in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that saw the closure of The News of The World newspaper in 2011. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

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.

 

 

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Aidan Barclay (L), Chairman of The Telegraph Media Group, and Evgeny Lebedev leave the High Court after giving evidence to The Leveson Inquiry on April 23, 2012 in London, England. This phase of the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom is looking at the owners of various media groups. The inquiry, which may take a year or more to complete, comes in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that saw the closure of The News of The World newspaper in 2011. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

 

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.

 

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Home Secretary Theresa May leaves Parliament after Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne delivered his budget on March 23, 2011 in London, England. The Chancellor is expected to implement further measures to tackle the United Kingdom’s deficit when he presents the budget to Parliament. The UK Consumer Prices Index (CPI) annual rate of inflation has risen to 4.4%, the highest since October 2008, increasing pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates and slow inflation. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Then other times it’s just not your day…

 

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Rebekah Brooks arrives with her husband Charlie Brooks at the High Court to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards on May 11, 2012 in London, England. Mrs Brooks, the former Chief Executive of News International and editor of the Sun and News of the World newspapers, is expected to be questioned on her alleged close links with Prime Minister David Cameron. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

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  • David Stanley

    Fascinating piece, Oli and very funny too (who’d have thought that goes on in Bristol car parks?!) Thanks for sharing your tips.