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Dash lamp memories

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The gauges are lit by their own bulbs, and the rear sail panel-mounted interior courtesy lamps were employed so that you could actually see the instrument panel details that aren’t normally lit. The under-dash courtesy lamps were left off, so as to not draw attention away from the gauges by lighting up the pedals. Photos by author.

Recollections from when we were young of how the instrument panel lights glowed and the courtesy lamps reflected off of the interior surfaces at night remain vivid to this day for many of us. From riding in the back seat of our parent’s cars to reaching driving age and finally being able to borrow the family hauler, or better, buying a car of our own to cruise in and take on dates, many warm memories are derived from the vehicles of our childhood and adolescence.

I have those remembrances as well of the 1960s GTO, LeMans, 4-4-2 and Cutlasses my parents owned and later, the various models that I had. Now that I photograph and write about many of the cars of that era, some photo shoots bring back those memories even while I’m trying to overcome a shooting challenge or refine a technique.

In my opinion, interiors are rarely easy to photograph well, as they are an enclosed space to begin with that has a habit of swallowing all the available light, and there are many surfaces, textures, protrusions and depressions that can drive a photographer crazy by producing unwanted shadows even in natural light, but especially when trying to add fill light via flashes.

During the photo shoot that produced the interior pictures in this blog, I had an interesting conversation with Kurt Shubert of the Automotive History Preservation Society and the owner of this 1965,, four-speed, Oldsmobile Jetstar I. After completing the body photos, it was time to shoot the interior and engine, and it was getting dark. The contrast of the black instrument panel, pad and carpet with white seats and side panels would make proper exposure more of a challenge than in a monotone interior. Too much exposure and the seats blow out, too little and the dash and floor look like black holes.

Dash lights

In this overall photo, the under-dash courtesy lamps are also lit, highlighting details of the tach, shifter and console, as well as the pedals.

Instead of the diminishing outside ambient light being a hindrance, it instead afforded me the opportunity to take some artsy/moody shots using the dash lights and interior lights combined with slow shutter speeds. My rationale was that by having the dash gauges lit by their instrument panel bulbs and the overall dash and the footwells by the interior courtesy lamps, the areas that normally remain dark will come up, and though the white seats and side panels will also be somewhat lit by the fairly soft interior lamps, they won’t blow out. (Even though I shoot interiors and engine compartments in the shade to avoid harsh shadows, it’s still not usually dark enough for the instrument lamps and interior courtesy lamps to be really visible during the day, so this technique works best for me at dawn, dusk or at night).

I explained to Kurt what I was doing, saying that though I sometimes like to use some off-camera fill flash on interiors in the daytime because they are usually still a little too dark, when in this situation, I like to use the effect that the car’s interior lights provide.

After seeing it, he commented that he liked this effect better as well because that’s the way he remembers the dash and interior appearing at night back in his youth. It’s exactly what I had always thought when doing this, but no one else has ever actually acknowledged that it elicited specific memories for them.

Though a perspective of the instrument panel from the rear seat would really hit home for many of us, it was not possible because the shutter speed was so slow—30-seconds (at F5.6 aperture) in this case—that a tripod would be needed in the backseat and there simply wasn’t room.

The specific panel design aside, since not all of you had families who owned a 1965 Oldsmobile, does this lighting evoke memories for you of spending time in vintage cars at night?