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Virtues and vices of photographing black cars

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The late day sun illuminates the grille and the concours-quality detailed front suspension of this 1969 Buick GS 400, but the importance of this photo for this article is how the side has reflected the surrounding scene right down to the proper colors for the pavement, sand, boulder, water and tree line. It certainly grounds the car to its surroundings, but some may say that the details of the body side don’t stand out due to the reflection. Photography by author.

Some automotive photographers maintain a love/hate relationship with shooting black cars. While it’s important to be able to photograph a black car or any dark colored car to meet the standards of the respective publication in which it will appear, it usually takes more effort and forethought to accomplish than it would with brighter colored cars.

Those online, magazine, and TV ads you see featuring black cars bathed in liquid light with all of the highlights in just the right places and no unwanted reflections on the body are usually the result of using professional lighting equipment, likely including huge light boxes. Considerable post processing may have also been performed. Yes, these images are beautiful, but spending lots of money, time, and effort is not what this article is about.

1969 Buick GS 400

This is the same day and location, but the Buick is about 50 feet away from where the lead photo was taken and it’s about 15 minutes earlier. This positioning removed most of the side reflections and the polarizer helped with the rest. Thankfully the sun was low enough, so that the lower body lines and rocker panel are still defined. Is this photo more or less interesting than the previous one?

Instead, its intent is simply to help owners overcome some of the frustration they may have encountered when trying to photograph their own black or dark colored cars. Since this article is based purely on my experiences over the years, some other photographers may have different opinions.

A well-done black finish on any vehicle essentially becomes a large compound-curved mirror that reflects everything around it. Reflections that are perfectly rendered in the black car’s finish may be much less obvious in a like-model that was painted white or other bright colors and set up in the same location at the same time of day.

Consequently, more care has to be taken to eliminate or reduce undesirable reflections like mailboxes, fences, signs, trees, power lines, other structures and other vehicles, while still trying to retain the body’s details. It can be a real challenge, especially because the situation changes with the design of the car.

1978 Pontiac Trans Am SE

The challenge of this background for the 1978 SE Trans Am was that the car had to stay very close to it because that’s where the road was. Thus we’d have to live with the resulting reflections of the leaves on the hood, windshield and roof. However, the polarizer did a pretty good job of minimizing their impact. The attributes of this background include framing the car with the orange and gold leaves, how they tie in with the gold bird and stripes and the orange parking lamps, and the fact that the driver’s side still retains a clean horizon line.

For instance, slab-sided cars will likely pick up more reflections of items that are directly facing its side and at the same relative height, but a bit less of items above or below it. A vehicle featuring heavily sculpted sides will do the opposite under the same circumstances, however, and reflect more sky and ground instead.

Another issue is that in my experience, direct sunlight in late morning/early afternoon when sun is high and intense is not kind to black cars (not to mention other-colored cars). The body sides of black ones fare even worse in this situation, however, because the character lines and the gaps between panels can sometimes disappear into the blackness.

Additionally, photographing a black car with flash provides a less dramatic result than using flash with finishes of lighter colors. However, the non-black surfaces like the wheels and bright trim will still react to the added light as they normally would, so there is a chance that they can become overexposed in the effort to brighten the body.

Don’t mistake this with flash hotspots, which are simply a reflection of the flash itself in the paint. You can get plenty of those in black cars just like any other color, but they are generally distracting and not welcomed. Though someone will likely point out scientific reasons as to why black and dark colors react differently to the light than lighter colors do, I’m not delving into that topic here.

1978 Pontiac Trans Am SE

This rear photo shot on the same overcast fall day in the adjacent parking lot offers an excellent example of how the body shape determines what is reflected in the sides of the car. The trees you see behind the car nearly surround this parking lot, yet above the main body crease, the side reflects the sky (the streaks are clouds) and below the crease the ground is reflected. In this instance, the resulting photo is cleaner than if the trees were reflected. The gold stripes and bright door edge molding also accentuate the design aspects of the Pontiac.

Black cars can still be photographed in the sun, but they will generally look considerably better when the sun is low like in the early morning or in the evening. The same is true for other colors, but black just seems to be more sensitive to it.

Light pavement or gravel can lighten the appearance of the lower fender, rocker panel and lower rear quarter panel areas on a dark colored car, but it’s basically a result of the ground being reflected in the paint. You will have to decide if that effect is desired. The light gravel or pavement also provides a light and color contrast with the dark lower body and tires, which can be pleasing.

Boldly colored backgrounds can be used to great affect with a black car, since black goes with any color. If the car has differently-colored graphics or stripes, the background color can be chosen to complement them, adding further interest to the photo. Very bright or white backgrounds should be avoided however, because the contrast can be too much with the black subject.

A polarizing filter can aid in removing reflections from either the side or top of the car, just as it does for other colors, but it’s not a fix-all for a poor shooting location. You may find that in order to remove unwanted side reflections with the polarizer you’ll then be forced to live with gray sky reflections on the hood, windshield and roof when shooting on an overcast day. It may be better in that instance to find a location that produces side reflections you can live with, so you can turn the polarizer to saturate (remove the gray sky reflection) the hood, windshield, and roof.

1971 Pontiac GTO

Direct sunlight brings out a truer black in this 1971 GTO than we’d likely see on an overcast day. This shoot was earlier in the day than I’d normally like to shoot a black car, but it worked out okay. The stripes, door edge guard and rocker and wheel well trim help to break up the black panels. The white letters are just slightly starting to blow out, however.

If you are shooting outdoors and you want the cleanest reflections possible, you’ll have to work for them. You’ll need to find flat, smooth ground for clean lower body reflections and a cloudless sky for smooth upper body reflections. Also, there shouldn’t be any trees, fences, structures, power lines or anything unwanted remotely close enough to the car to reflect in the paint. Don’t forget to choose a time of day when the sun is low and at your back, the sun has just set, or the sky is overcast. Those are a lot of considerations, but each one is important. Now you know why desert photos are so popular.

Since it’s rare to be able to meet all of those conditions, you’ll likely have to make some compromises just like we do every time we photograph a car. Survey the foreground/background/lighting situation, set up the car, decide what you can and can’t live with, and make your adjustments accordingly.

Of course there are seemingly countless post-processing procedures that can be utilized in your favorite photo editing software to enhance the photos, but to reiterate, this article is simply geared toward a car owner who would like to take a nice photo of his/her black car and not worry about spending lots of time in Photoshop.

Triumph TR3

You may recognize this Triumph TR3 photo from the lighting article. Just after sunset, the horizon line picks up an orange highlight, as the rest of the ambient light turns bluer.

As you can see, none of the photos presented here are perfect by any means. They all contain compromises and are simply examples that illustrate the results of techniques I’ve used. None have been Photoshopped. This way you can see them as they came out of the camera.

When attention is paid to the eccentricities of working with a black paintjob, the resulting photos can be quite pleasing and just as striking as those of other color cars. If you own a black or very dark colored car, hopefully some of what was presented here will be useful to you.

For further information regarding photographing your car, see these past articles: “Take better photos of your car, today,” “The story behind this action shot,” “Ideas for backgrounds when photographing your car,” “A few lighting tips for photographing your car,” “Shooting the moon…behind a Z/28,” and “Behind the shoot: 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6.”