How to Capture the Perfect ‘Light Painting’ Car Photo in Three Shots

How to Capture the Perfect ‘Light Painting’ Car Photo in Three Shots

If you spend any time scrolling through car ads or magazine spreads, chances are that you’ve seen a very specific type of dramatic, “light painting” car photo. The background is dark but the car is evenly lit, pro-style. As it turns out, it’s actually very easy to nail this shot.

My own car photography tends to take place during the day. It’s when I happen to do most of my driving and I don’t need additional equipment for low-light situations. This year, I want to try shooting in different lighting conditions and experiment with different exposures. A new video from car detailer Larry Kosilla of AMMO NYC and photographer Mike D’Ambrosio makes my fingers itch to try out this shot myself.

To start, you need a few things: a DSLR camera (obviously), a tripod, a polarising filter and a light source in the form of a light bar or something similar.

Park the car in a dark but attractive environment. Somewhere like an empty parking garage, a lot or an empty street. Set up your tripod and make sure it doesn’t move from that spot, either with tape or sandbags. You’re going to layer all three photos on top of each other in post-production and if they aren’t consistent, you’re going to have a hard time.

Your camera should be set to manual mode, because you’ll want the aperture and ISO to stay consistent while you play around with the exposure. Keep the aperture high (that’s the f-stop) so everything is in focus and lock the ISO at 100 (the lower the ISO, the less graininess). The polarising filter will help reduce unwanted reflections on the car.

The first shot you’ll need is the two-second exposure. Keep this base shot well-lit, as it is meant to capture the details of your scene.

Screenshot: AMMO NYC

The second shot is the light painting shot. Turn the lights off so it’s dark. Set the camera for a 10-second exposure and a 10-second timer so you have time to walk over to the car itself. With the light bar, try to cascade the light downwards, emulating how sunlight normally falls on a car. You can repeat this second shot with the light in multiple places in multiple angles to give yourself options to use in post.

The third and final shot requires you to go back and look over your first shots and evaluate where the shadows fell most heavily. Usually these will be on the side vents and on the wheels. Keep the camera on a 10-second timer but set the exposure down to five seconds. With the light bar, you’re going to highlight those shadowy spots. You can keep the overhead lights on for this.

It’s good to remember to periodically check your work, either on the camera’s screen or a large one, to make sure everything is in focus.

Now, time for post!

You might notice that you yourself turned up in the photos while you were using the light bar. Fear not, because Photoshop exists. Import all of your photos into one Photoshop file. They’ll open as separate layers, but make sure they are all lined up.

Open one of the light painting photos, select a layer mask and use the erase tool with a bigger stroke and brush away the light painting in the air above the car. Do that for each layer.

Screenshot: AMMO NYC

Now for the base exposure photo, add a mask, brushing out the part that is covering the car and reduce the opacity of the layer to about 20 or 30 per cent. This will show the background, but not brightly so that the subject is overwhelmed.

Then group all the shots together, duplicate them and flatten them into one image. The car should be evenly lit from all angles with a darkened background. That’s your finished product!

If you’re only just learning how to use Photoshop (full disclosure, I personally do not use Photoshop when I shoot, so I’m learning this at the same time as you) Kosilla has helpfully provided a PDF of instructions on his website.

Real talk, though: It all comes down to practice. Spend time playing around with different exposures, different light painting and Photoshop. And have a look at the video, it’s a good and straightforward how-to.