What it Takes to Light a Car

I get a lot of upstream questions about lighting cars, and to be honest I am frequently at a loss what to say.

To shoot a car effectively, you generally need huge soft boxes (or silks), many watt-seconds of light and a large, dedicated space. Take this photo, for instance, uploaded into the Strobist pool by Bryan Cook. It was lit by about $30,000.00 worth of Profoto gear, in a large studio designed exclusively for shooting automobiles.

Just kidding. He did it in a cramped garage with five speedlights.

Keep reading for a quick walk-thru, and how you could do something like this with just one speedlight.
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Here is the setup, minus two flashes. He used one on-camera (which traveled on-cam with this setup shot) and one in upper right that he could not get into the frame. You can see the light stand, tho.


Sez Bryan:
" ... Five strobes: One camera left and up high, one camera right snooted on the wheel, one up high camera right toward the rear of the car, one behind the right rear of the car, and one on camera zoomed 200mm at the front fascia. ..."

He said would also have liked to have a couple extra speedlights to shoot under the car and to flick a little light on the side mirror. Yep, and I could also see a CTO'd interior light -- just a hint -- to give a smidge of defined info behind those tinted windows.

You can do all of that with just one flash by shooting multiple frames and combining layers. You want things to be very still, of course, but you can solve any slight camera movement problems with the "align layers" tool in Photoshop. Just shoot a tad loose as there will be a slight crop involved after the alignments.

When you get the layers aligned, I like to work with the work-in-progress on top and the incoming layer beneath. That way you can either choose "lighten" (lightest pixel wins), "screen" (like a classic, film-based multi-exposure) or simply erase to the new layer with a brush of any shape, size and/or opacity.

If you want to know any more, go find someone like Ben Willmore or Matt Kloskowski, who wrote the book on the layers stuff. Pathetically, I just start to get interested in it when it keeps me from having to buy more flashes.

For more auto inspiration (or perhaps a spasm of jealousy) check out Ken Brown's classic, all-in-one-frame shot of a vintage Mercedes Gullwing with just two bare SB-24's. Or you can go all bumper to bumper on it and join the Car Strobist group on Flickr.


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