In a secure parking lot in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, it’s dark and mostly silent. There’s a shuffling of feet, an arc of light gently making its way through the darkness, and the click of a camera shutter. The camera’s screen lights up with the result of a 10-second exposure. A quick image assessment, then the process repeats itself over and over again. This is automotive light painting.
The subject of my light painting efforts this evening was a stunning Jaguar XJ220 recently acquired by Phil Toledano alias Mr Enthusiast. The location was Hudson stables, a high-end camp for car enthusiasts run by friends who are patient enough to endure my late-night photo projects. The fridge full of ice cold beers was a nice welcoming touch.
What is light painting and how can you use it to create beautiful car pictures?
Let’s start with the basics. A camera catches light. If you take away all the light, no picture. But by selectively near-blackening your photo subject in the dark, you can go beyond a standard snapshot to something moody and artistic. Done right, you can use a light source to “paint” the features you want to emphasize. In car photography, this usually means framing the car’s silhouette, then sweeping the light from one end of the car to the other, illuminating the highlights of the car’s body. But this technique can also produce beautiful close-up photos of a part of a car. The possibilities are endless.
Things you need for light painting:
- A camera with manual shutter/iris control
- A tripod
- some lights
- A good deal of patience.
And that’s basically it! I use Photoshop to stitch the individual photos together into a composite image, but you can use light painting to create a beautiful single exposure photo without the need for any editing software.
There are no rules for this technique. Different photographers use different methods and equipment, most of which come down to personal preference. Anyone can use the basic building blocks to create something unique and impressive.
For these XJ220 photos I used a Sony A7R3 camera with a 24-70mm lens on a Manfrotto tripod. For light, I used a YN360 LED wand, but any bright LED flashlight will do in a pinch. Indeed when I shot the light-painted photos for this article about the Bridan brothers’ rally-built Alfa Romeo, I forgot to pack my professional photographer LED light stick. We made do with a cheap LED shop light. All of this means that you can try this method with almost any equipment. Patience and a keen eye are most important.
The best places for Automotive Light Painting are dark and lonely. You need to keep your tripod in one place for multiple exposures, and you need room to move your light source back and forth along the car. The Hudson Stables provided a perfect venue, especially since a car like the XJ220 would no doubt draw a sizeable crowd parked anywhere in public. You don’t want strangers getting in your shot, messing around with your gear, or distracting you.
With the car positioned and the garage lights turned off, I got to work. I always start with a few ambient exposures, with no extra light. These are mainly used as backups in case I mess something up later and need a clean reference image. I keep the ISO at 100 to avoid adding any noise or grain. Depending on the size and shape of the vehicle, an aperture of f/8 and an exposure time of 10 to 15 seconds is a good starting point. The goal is to have enough time to gently move your light source along the car and create an even highlight.
Time for light color. Press the shutter button and walk along the car with your light source. Keeping the light parallel to the ground creates clean, thin reflections on the body panels. Take a picture, evaluate, repeat.
This is where patience comes into play. Even among professional photographers, it’s rare to get the lighting right on the first try. Much depends on the shape of the vehicle. This XJ220 is one of those rare cars that fires very easily, with long flowing lines running from nose to tail. A car with a more ornate design, like the new BMW 4 Series, presents a greater challenge, with distinctive lines and angles that direct the light in different directions.
It takes a few tries to find the right way to light up the car you’re photographing. I usually get my best results by holding the light as high as possible and keeping it steady as I move along the car. Sometimes you need to change the height of the light or the distance between you and the car when you pass the light. Make sure your movements are smooth.
After capturing the environment layer (no light painting) and illuminating a layer of the car with the LED wand, I moved on to the XJ220’s headlights. I like to shoot a few variations of low, mid and high for the spotlights, which gives me options in Photoshop later. I like to “spill” some of the spotlight onto the ground, but try to properly expose the spotlight itself.
Sometimes you need a little directional light to help with realism. For the XJ220 I added an off-camera light source that keeps the LED bar stationary for a long enough exposure to expose the ground and give the car a long shadow.
The results may not seem like much at first, but this is where your favorite photo editor comes into play. I use Adobe Photoshop, but there are free post production platforms that will give you most of the features discussed here.
Once I’m done photographing, I combine my selected images as layers in Photoshop. The final image is made up of tiny pieces of each layer, all combined into one. The trick is to bring everything together without looking completely unrealistic. However, part of the magic of light painting is having an unnaturally lit car against a naturally dark background. Done right, the viewer leaves Wow, look at the carinstead of Wow, look at that lighting. It takes practice, but the result can be fantastic.
I generally build my final composition from 3 to 5 photos, but it’s entirely possible to get great results from a single exposure. When you try light painting for the first time, start with an image. From there, the deep rabbit hole of Photoshop layering and retouching opens up.
One final point: you don’t need a supercar. One of my favorite light painting shots I’ve ever taken was of my dad’s old Volvo 850 car with the fairing missing and all. This car has since been donated, but a poster-sized light-painted print immortalizes it in my father’s office.
If you use these steps or have your own light painting techniques, let us know in the comments!
Jonathan B. Harper is a professional automotive photographer working in NYC and LA. You can see his work on his website or Instagram.
Thanks to Dave Tormey from Enthusiast Spec for the behind-the-scenes photos and a big thank you to Hudson stables for the location and Mr Enthusiast for the car.