Sculpted in Steel exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

steel-15When I look at new cars today, I appreciate their technological advancements; fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, and all of the other things that we take for granted that a car is supposed to have. But sadly when I look at most mainstream automobiles I see a lack of style. So many cars look like cookie cutter clones of each other that if you don’t read the badging on the car you can’t tell one make or model from another. That’s why I couldn’t wait to go down and see some of the old classic Art Deco styled machines that are on display down at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

There are only 17 vehicles on display in the exhibit, but the ones they have on display are some gorgeous examples of a time when the style of a vehicle was something shaped by art and beauty. If you have a passion for the old machines then I recommend going to see them while the exhibit is on display. The display ends May 30th, but there’s still plenty of time and the museum is open extra hours until the show leaves.


I’ve discussed shooting cars at an outdoor car show in this posting. Shooting vehicles on display in a museum has many of the same challenges such as cluttered back grounds and limited room to isolate the cars in. However the biggest challenge you will face in shooting in a museum is light. Or rather the lack of it. Despite the fact that the vehicles have a lot of small spotlights on them, the overall light level is pretty low. Now complicate that with the fact that museums don’t allow tripods or flashes to be used and you’ve got a challenge on your hands.



There is no magic bullet to work around all of these problems. But here are a few tips:

  1. First off, don’t be surprised that your shots don’t look like the ones on the postcards in the gift shop. Those were taken in a studio with a nice clear backdrop, with a ton of lights set exactly right, from a camera on a tripod. Taking pictures like this in a museum environment is really more a case of taking a decent photo as a reminder of what you’ve done than capturing a fine art piece to add to your portfolio. So just know that going in.
  2. Be patient. If possible go at later hours when the crowds are smaller. It will help you to be able to get shots without people standing behind the cars, or walking in front of you when you’re standing back to capture the entire vehicle. Bide your time, and you can usually get the shot you want. A polite “Excuse me, can I have just a minute to take this shot?” can help too. (Although it’s more likely to work in a museum where people are more cultured than some other less cultured venues.)
  3. Use a wide angle lens. Not to help with the lighting but because you’ll need it to get the whole vehicle in the shot when you have limited room to step back away from them.
  4. Leave some room around the edges of the vehicle you’re shooting for cropping later. Because you can’t shoot from a tripod, you may need to go in and level the picture out a little to get everything squared up. If you don’t leave some room around the edges you may find that you have to cut off the tip of a bumper if you want your picture level.
  5. Use a wide aperture to let in as much light as you can. This will help you keep your shutter speed up.
  6. Keep your shutter speed at a setting of at least 1/focal length. If you’re shooting a wide angle of 20mm then keep your shutter speed at at least 1/20th of a second; if not higher. This is a rough rule of thumb to help keep your shots sharp.
  7. Crank up the ISO. You’re going to have to make a concession somewhere; and a slightly noisy sharp image is better than a noise free picture that looks out of focus because you can’t keep the camera still while the shutter is open. Most modern DSLR’s and post processing software can do a pretty decent job of cleaning up a noisy image. Don’t be afraid to crank the ISO up. On some cameras 1,600 and even 3,200 can make a usable image for desktop display and web purposes. Experiment and push your camera to it’s edge on this if that’s what it takes to get a shot.
    As an example… below are two shots of the same image. The top one was taken at 3200 ISO and has no noise reduction run on it in post processing. The bottom one is the same image, just with noise reduction applied in Lightroom. Not a lot of difference, and either image is usable for something like blogging or posting to the web. If I needed a poster sized print; I’d be in serious trouble of course.


ISO 3200 – No noise reduction.
ISO-3200 – Noise reduction applied.

The last thing I want to mention; which probably deserves it’s own post one of these days is be aware of the barriers used to keep people away from the vehicles. In some cases you can compose your shot where they aren’t in the frame. In others you may be able to have them in the frame but not actually blocking off any part of the vehicle. In the worst case there’s just no way to get around the things and you just have to take the shot; knowing that you’re going to have to go into some editing software like Photoshop and remove it in post processing.

If you know you’re going to have to do this, try to position the obstruction in an area where it will be the easiest to clean up later.

In the case of the picture below, to get the head on shot of this car I had to get low which put the cable barrier in the shot. But by positioning the camera where the barrier only crossed a minimal area with a lot of detail – the tires – it made easy work to edit the cable out once back home.


Position the wire where it will be easy to edit out later.
Barrier? What barrier?

So go check out these beautiful machines for yourself. Pictures don’t do these three dimensional works of art justice.

As per the norm… if you want to see the other few pics I liked from this outing you can see them on Flickr by clicking here.