Hot Import Nights – the ultimate photographer’s battleground Part I: Gear

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Hot Import Nights – the ultimate photographer’s battleground Part I: Gear

Pleasanton (CA) – Photographing car shows is great… not only do you have good looking cars, but you also have plenty of attractive models who are more than willing to pose for the camera.  At these shows, you’re jostling against dozens of other photographers trying to get the perfect shot – in short it’s a friendly battleground where getting the perfect shot requires a technique, patience and the right gear.  In this multiple part series, we’ll show you all the secrets behind getting all the best pictures possible and we’ll start it off with this article about gear.

SLIDESHOW: Hot Import Nights PleasantonThere’s almost an unlimited variety of photography gear you can buy, so maybe it’s easiest to show you all the equipment I carry to a car show, specifically Hot Import Nights.  Billed as a lifestyle show, HIN has morphed from a pure car modding show into a hip party filled with tricked out cars, gogo girls and even video games.  At most shows they’ll even throw in a motorcycle stunt demonstration full of burnouts, ramp jumping and wheelies.  For beginning to advanced photographers this is a great show because you have a variety of difficult shots fast action motorcycle and car shots to glamour close-ups of models, but we’ll talk about all that in future articles.

Before I talk about the equipment, I want to make one thing absolutely clear.  Great gear is never a complete replacement for good photography technique.  I’ve seen too many people invest several thousands of dollars into expensive cameras and lenses in the mistaken belief that the gear will take the pictures for them.  In fact, the truth is usually the opposite and their pictures come out worse than they did before!

My Gear


  • Canon 40D with battery grip
  • Canon Rebel XT with battery grip

I carry two camera bodies because I have two lenses, one for close-up model shots and a telephone for “sniper” shots.  You can get away with only carrying one body and two lenses, but you will waste time unscrewing the attached lens and putting on the replacement.  Two cameras also provide redundancy – if one camera dies, you still have the other one.

The Canon 40D and Rebel XT normally hold a single battery which may not last you for a busy shoot.  I’ve seen photographers blast through 3000+ photos at HIN and this would probably roast a single battery.  The Canon battery grip attaches to the bottom of the camera and holds two batteries thereby giving you double the staying power.  These grips also add a little more weight and extra gripping area.


  • Canon 35mm 1.4L lens
  • Canon 70-200 2.8L IS lens

It’s often said that the lens is what makes the camera and this is especially true in the digital SLR world.  Don’t skimp on lenses and buy the best that you can afford.  Canon “L” lenses the equivalent Nikon ones are indeed extremely expensive, but they should last you several years.  Think of them as a long term investment, because good quality lenses will stay with you through several camera generations.

You’ll notice that the 35mm lens is what’s called a “prime” lens.  This means there’s no zoom – I zoom with my feet.  Prime lenses have fewer elements inside and generally focus much faster than zoom lenses.  This particular lens also lets me take shots in relatively dark lighting situations without flash – a situation that happens quite often as I’ll detail in upcoming articles in this series.

The 70-200L lens is for my faraway shots like people dancing on a stage or a motorcycle flying through the air.  I’ve had this lens for approximately three years and it has yet to fail on me.  The image stabilization is great and I’m still amazed at how it resists my hand shaking.  Oh and being an L lens, this thing is built like a tank.

Lens protection

Crowded shows are a very hostile environment for your lenses.  At any moment, your camera can be elbowed, knocked out of your hand or even dropped.  How many times have you stood behind someone, only to have them suddenly turn or back up?  Now imagine what would happen if you were holding a camera with an unprotected lens.  You guessed it, shattered glass all over  the place.

The main protection against impact in a hard Canon lens hood.  This shroud protrudes out several inches and not only shields the lens, but also prevents lens flare from errant light.  Hey it looks cool too.  The UV lens filter is another essential piece of protection and really isn’t used for filtering out ultraviolet light at all – it’s meant to sacrifice itself for impact.  These filters screw onto the front of the lens and will block anything that gets past the lens hood.  Sure it may get shattered, but hopefully the real lens under the filter will be ok.

Some people disagree with me on the need for a UV filter, but I think it’s only prudent to protect your $1000+ lens with a relatively inexpensive UV filter.  Be advised that there are many grades of filters and the cheaper ones will have a yellowish or greenish tint.  More expensive filters should be as clear as possible.

Flash and diffusers

  • Canon 580 EX flash
  • Gary Fong Light Sphere II

For flashes, you are most interested in the “Guide Number” which is how far the flash will project.  The higher the guide number, the more powerful the flash will be.  Flash diffusers soften the light and will give models a flattering studio-like look.  The Gary Fong Light Sphere has served me well for two years and it is probably the most popular diffuser you’ll see at the car shows.

Memory and readers

  • PNY 4GB 266X CF card
  • 2 X Transcend 8 GB 133X CF cards
  • Cheapo Sandisk USB CF/SD card reader

Flash memory cards are very cheap these days and you should get the fastest ones available.  I keep the 266X card in the 40D and then transition to the 133X cards after it fills up.

Miscellaneous stuff

  • Rocket blower to blow off dust
  • Extra Lenmar camera batteries for the battery grip
  • 16 spare 2500-2700 mAh AA batteries

All of this stuff is packed into a Pelican case that is approved for airplane carry on.  

Other gear that works

To take a great picture, sometimes you have to squat or vary the camera height and angle.  Wearing jeans just doesn’t work when you have to crouch, so I switched to military style pants or BDUs.  They are relatively inexpensive (just buy them at your nearest surplus store), have extra pockets for all your spare batteries and are much looser than regular pants.   BDUs will also keep you much cooler, depending on the material they are made of.  Trust me, you will expend a lot of energy walking around, fighting the crowds and taking pictures.  You need all the cooling you can get.

You can never have too many spare batteries and my Canon battery grips hold two batteries each.  I’ve used third-party Lenmar batteries for several years and they work just as well as the Canon factory batteries.  They last just as long per charge, but cost approximately 30% less.  Some camera salesman will try scaring you into buying official Canon or Nikon batteries, but why pay the premium when the alternative is just as good?

Gear that sucks

I admit that I’ve spent a lot of money on gear that hasn’t lived up to their promises.  When I first started attending shows, most notably Hot Import Nights, I wore a photographers vest.  You know those black or beige vests with the billions of pockets.  I ditched the vest after two shows because 1. I never used all the pockets 2. The darn thing was too hot (especially in the Southern California daylight sun) and 3. It makes you look like a complete noob that’s trying too hard.  To top it all off, these things are expensive because anything designed for photographers seems to command double the price.  For me, military style pants with a few extra pockets work just as well.  If you really must wear a vest, I suggest buying a fishing vest.  They are generally cooler and much less expensive.

Most camera straps suck.  They are either too spongy which bounce your camera up and down while you walk, or they don’t grip well and you constantly have to pull the strap up as it almost slips off your shoulder.  So far, I’ve found one solution, which I’ll talk about in the next section, upcoming purchases.

Upcoming purchases

Photographers are known for buying the latest and greatest gear and I am no exception.  I’ll be buying the upcoming Canon 5D Mark II and another Canon flash (580 EX II).  The full-frame sensor of the 5D Mark II should go well with my current batch of lenses and the high-definition 1920X1080 30P video is big plus.  In fact, at most conventions I also carry a Canon HV20 camcorder so this camera might eliminate that extra baggage.  Trust me, when you carry this much gear, every ounce I can shed is a big deal.

Yes, the video of the 5D Mark II will be tough to edit on my laptop because it’s recorded at 38 Mbps H.264, but in analyzing my total time to post (the time to transfer, edit, render and upload) it might actually come out even.  With the Canon HV20, I have to rewind the tape, fire up Sony Vegas and then capture in real-time – so if I have 10 minutes of footage, I have to wait 10 minutes for the capture.  On the 5D, I’ll just pop the CF card into the reader, move the file over and begin editing right away.  Yes, I’ll gain time in the transfer, but I’ll lose a little in the editing and a fair amount in the render.

For CF card transfers, my Sandisk USB reader is getting a bit old.  At most car shows, I’m shooting upwards of 1200 pictures which actually totals 2400 files because I have the camera set to take a JPG and RAW version of each shot.   I also end up having at least a few of my CF cards completely filled, so I have to swap cards while uploading the pics to my laptop.  The Delkin Image Router could solve those problems.  We saw this baby back in January and it’s basically a huge CF Card reader that can transfer four cards at once.

A camera strap may seem like a lowly piece of gear, but when you lug cameras all day, they can make a huge difference.  One of my friends, actually the guy who started me on this insanely expensive hobby, showed me the UPstrap which is a Kevlar strap that really grips your shoulder.  He had the strap attached to his new Nikon and it stayed on my shoulder even when placed on the very edge where other straps would have fallen off.  The strap is a bit expensive, but for me I’m willing to spend the money to secure my gear and to prevent sore shoulders.

Forums and review sites

Let’s face it photography gear is extremely expensive and just like computer gear, you should always do your research before buying anything.  There are many fine photo websites, but I’ve found DPreview and Luminous Landscape to be the most informative.  Both have excellent reviews and extremely busy forums.

Coming up … Part II technique