Open Menu
Open Menu

A few lighting tips for photographing your car

Published in

Photography by author.

Over the years, you’ve likely put a diligent effort into making your vintage vehicle look its best. If you’re sharing your pride and joy with someone via photos, keep in mind, their quality can make or break the viewer’s first impression. Last week’s blog, Ideas for backgrounds when photographing your car and this blog are provided to aid you in making photos of your car stand out. I mentioned some of these lighting characteristics in the backgrounds blog, but here I’ll expand upon them a bit. I’ll also provide a few examples of different types of natural light that you’ll normally have available to you, so you can decide what works best for your car.

Lighting Conditions

Keep in mind that sunrise and sunset times vary with the time of year, so look them up for the day you plan to shoot, while you are checking the weather conditions.

 Sunny day—The sun provides directional light to make the car pop in the photos. You may, however have to deal with mild to harsh shadows depending upon the intensity and position of the sun.

Overcast day—This condition greatly diffuses the light and can virtually eliminate the shadows. The light takes on a bluer cast that can be left to create a mood or lessened through a white balance adjustment. Contrast is lower, so the car usually doesn’t pop as much, but the softer light can still provide fantastic photos.

s02-Lighting Blog

Many photos shoots are done in late-day or early morning direct sunshine, which lights the car evenly and doesn’t introduce any off-color casts. Note how the intensity of the light is generally equal down the side of the Mach 1 and across the tail panel.

Early morning or evening sunshine— These are very good times to shoot. The sun is low in the sky to light the car pretty evenly and the color rendition of the paint is generally accurate.

s06-Lighting Blog 

Close to sunset, the light changes quickly. Here we have a strong smooth horizon line down the side of the Triumph TR3 that’s highlighted by reflections of the sun in the leading edges of the front and rear fenders. Note how orange and warm the ambient light is at this time of the evening.

At sunrise or just before sunset—The light becomes golden or orange, and the effect can be used to your advantage depending upon the color of the car and the mood you are trying to achieve. Photos generally look warm and inviting with the orange-cast of the setting sun.

s07-Lighting Blog

Just a few minutes later, the sun has dipped behind the mountain and light gets a lot bluer and cooler even when compensating by changing the white balance setting. But notice how the horizon line has subtly changed to an orange glow sans the sun highlights. Which is better? It’s really a personal preference.

Just after sunset—The light becomes soft and diffused and pinkish purple before turning bluish. This time also offers opportunities for great shots.

Horizon line reflections—Getting a visible horizon line along the side of the car is possible under many lighting conditions, but it’s most prominent, in my experience, at sunrise or sunset. That’s when it glows orange on the car.

Why not noon? When the sun is high in the sky it can be quite harsh, especially for light colored cars. White and yellow cars tend to blow out at this time of day. In order to get them properly exposed, the grilles, tires and wheel-wells and the background then tend to go dark. Also, depending upon the design of the sides of the car, the lower portions may fall into harsh shadows.

Shooting Techniques

Direct frontal lighting—This is often used for photographing cars, one reason being that everything in the photo that faces the camera is lit by the sun. For instance, if it’s a front ¾ photo, the grille area, hood, roof and side are all evenly lit because the sun is directly behind the photographer and camera.


s03-Lighting Blog

Side-lighting puts the shadows to work by further accentuating the character lines of the car, as shown on this Torino GT.


s04-Lighting Blog

By comparison, overcast reduces both shadows and contrast for a softer appearance and even ambient light. The two photos of the Torino GT were taken just a few minutes apart in quickly changing weather.

Side lighting—It increases texture and accentuates the lines of the car. You are still shooting the sunlit side of the car, but the sun is more to the camera’s left or right than right behind it. A byproduct of this type of directional lighting is that there will be a large visible shadow on the opposite side of the car if it’s a late-day shoot. Some photographers don’t mind that, others do—it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

s05-Lighting Blog

If you’re quick, you can use encroaching shadows to your advantage. In this instance, they’ve placed the background and even the foreground, both of which were sunlit five minutes earlier, in shade. By moving the Nova SS into a small area that’s still lit by the receding sun, the red paint glows when compared to muted, lower contrast, darker tones now surrounding the car. Just make sure that none of the shadows actually creep onto the vehicle.

Between-the shadows-lighting—It makes the car pop in the sunlight and standout from the darker shadowed background and foreground. There are some occasions where this option will become available to you, but it’s difficult to look for when scouting a location because it doesn’t usually last long, as the sun is always moving. Often it becomes apparent during the shoot when the sun is setting and the shadows of trees, buildings or mountains are encroaching into your shooting location.

Shooting from the shadow side—These photos are more artsy in my opinion, but still work well…and they can be dramatic. In this instance, the sun is backlighting the car. It’s usually lighting the hood and the roof, but not the side that’s facing the camera. Consequently, the hood and roof will be a slightly different shade of color than the side and there is sometimes light emanating from under the car as well, all of which can add drama to the photo.

White Balance—Be sure to adjust the camera settings to match the light. Cameras with manual controls will have various white balance settings to cover sunlight, overcast, shade etc. If you are unsure what to use, simply set it to auto white balance (AWB) and fire away. If you’re adventurous, you can experiment with the different settings to get color cast effects that you may like better than what’s supposed to be the “correct” one.

s08-Lighting Blog

By turning the headlights and driving lights on for the action photos of this modified Thunderbird, attention is drawn to the car even though it’s in the shade while part of the background is still sunlit.

Parking lamps or headlamps on— In low-contrast situations like overcast or after sunset, turning on the parking lamps or headlights can add some light and interest to the photo. Be aware that the headlights can greatly affect metering, so you need to take some test shots and will probably have to meter manually to get the proper exposure. Check to see if low- or high-beams work best. I generally like to use high-beams on a quad headlight car so all of them are lit instead of just two, but sometimes it’s simply too much light I revert to the parking lamps. The headlights may also create lens flare depending upon the camera position relative to them.

Tripod—If you plan to photograph your car just before sunrise, just after sunset or on an overcast day, a tripod is advisable. Without it, you will likely have to increase the ISO setting in order to get proper exposures while maintaining a shutter speed conducive to handholding the camera. Doing so can degrade the images. How much depends upon the quality of the camera you’re using. I try to always keep the camera at its lowest ISO setting, usually 80 or 100. For more information regarding camera settings, and the basics of setting up the photoshoot and preparing the car, you can refer to the blog Take better photos of your car, today that was posted in October of 2014.


Reflections are almost always a compromise. Basically, you do your best by repositioning the car or camera to remove the most distracting ones and then live with the rest of them. If they remain abstract, they’re usually less noticeable, but if you can clearly see another car or person, or there’s a sign with words on it that you can read in the paint of the car you’re shooting, you should do what you can to make it go away. Possibly even find another location at which to shoot. Slightly repositioning the car or the camera can also eliminate, or at least reduce to a highlight, any hotspots caused by the sun.

s09-Lighting Blog

Though many photographers are used to employing a polarizing filter when the sun is shining, it can be put to good use in overcast weather, as well. A polarizing filter can reduce reflections in the paint and windows and bring out the car’s color. Simply by looking through it and turning it, you will see the reflections change on the hood, roof and windshield and on the side of the car and side windows. In this photo, the reflections were greatly reduced on the side of the Packard Hawk and its vent window. However, notice how white the roof, backlight and deck lid remain because they are reflecting the overcast sky.


s10-Lighting Blog

After turning the polarizer, now you can see some reflection of the gravel in the side of the car, the front fender tops have lightened considerably and the vent window has gone white, but the roof, backlight and deck lid are a deeper, richer black. Both photos will work, but you have to decide, which you prefer. No polarizer at all would have left all of those reflections.

Polarizing filter—Attaching a polarizing filter to the end of your lens will allow you some control over reflections. It can reduce them in water, glass and the body paint of the car. It also further saturates the colors of surfaces that were affected by reflections and the blue sky. For DSLRs, polarizing filters are available in variety of sizes and thread onto the end of the lens. I haven’t seen much available for point-and-shoot cameras, likely because of the vast design variety of those cameras and the lens on a point-and-shoot usually retracts and is automatically covered when it’s turned off, so an add-on filter would hinder that operation. However, I have held up my large DSLR polarizer in front of the lens (close to it but not touching) of my point-and-shoot, turned the filter to get the desired effect and photographed through it. Since the camera meters through the lens and the filter is in front of it, the metering system will automatically compensate for the light loss (and there is light loss) through the filter. Just be careful not to cover up the any other important sensors or the flash if you are using it, or get the edges of the filter in the frame when shooting. If you’ve wondered how some photographers get those dark windshields and color-saturated hoods in car features, usually, the polarizer did it.


You can use most of these tips (except for possibly the polarizing filter) with just about any camera you may have. However, all my experience with them comes from using my DSLR or my point-and-shoots, so I’m not sure about how great or lacking the results may be under some of the conditions, such as low light with a camera phone. Like everything else, it likely depends upon the model and its quality and features. Whatever type of camera you choose, enjoy yourself. That’s why you purchased the car in the first place.