When you finally get to shoot the interior of the car through the window – and if you are lucky enough to fid a car with the passenger’s side window rolled down – you can start to experiment – and to succeed. Remember the code of honour – do not enter the car, do not touch*.
Pick the widest lens or zoom setting you can. If you are using an APS-C camera 18mm is acceptable but you’ll be happier if you can go to 16mm, 14mm, or less. The Sigma 8-16 lens is the rectilinear champ for interior shots and you can get it to fit Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Sony. I loved mine though I now use a 14mm Fujinon for inside car shots. You can probably dispense with the lens hood unless, like the Sigma, it is an integral part of the lens barrel.
A TTL electronic flash is ideal – some cameras have them built into the prism housing or alongside the hot shoe on pop-up pantographs. If you are using a separate flash try to get one that can be connected to the hot shoe for TTL metering by means of a coiled cord. Users of the canon 5D Mk III and the Canon 600 EX RT flash can laugh at me as they do not need a connecting cord. I would also advise the car shooter to get an adequate flash diffuser – the Gary Fong collapsible Lightsphere II is my best choice. The use of the flash, diffuser, and TTL cord means the flash will throw off a ball of light but be controlled in intensity by the camera itself.
Sit just outside the window and direct that ball of light in. Shoot in RAW for preference or jpeg if you must and observe whether you have gotten the steering wheel, dash gauges, knobs and seats in one shot. Shift to the front and aim back if you can’t clearly see the upholstery of the seats – this is important illustration too. Consider looking straight through the rear window to see the whole dash spread out in front of you.
If you chosen car is a big old 40’s or 50’s sedan – or better yet a convertible with the top down – you are on easy street. Just pop away. If the rodder or customiser has chopped the top you have a more difficult placement job for the camera and flash – you might have to separate the flash from the camera by a considerable amount to let them both see through the slit-like windows of a radical rod.
When the window is shut you have a problem – any flash from the outside will bounce off the glass surface and white out the image. You’ll see reflections of your own equipment and body overlaying the interior. here is where you can get clever. Look through the front side window and stretch the flash backwards on the TTL cord so that it looks through the rear side window and cannot reflect off your section of glass. Put the power up on the flash and close the aperture down. This will darken the world outside the car and highlight the inside.
If you are getting troublesome reflections from the big blue bowl of the sky outside the car, fit a circular polariser filter to the lens. Boost power, shift the angle at which the light enters the window, and the glass will magically disappear.
If the owner opens the door for you it is magic – all the colour shifts seen by firing through glass disappear and you can get true colour in one shot. Try to see the interior from both sides to give the best impression of a ride in the car.
* It is rare that the owner will invite you to sit in the car whilst wearing muddy boots and eating a soft-serve ice cream. Try not to put boot marks on the dash…