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How to do Automotive Photography on a Shoestring Budget

The automotive marketing industry is big business and with millions of car sales at stake, it’s easy to see why manufacturers are willing to pay handsomely to have stunning images of their latest models created. If you’ve ever seen a professional automotive photography shoot, then you’ll know that a lot of expensive gear and locations go in to showing off every gorgeous curve and angle of these magnificent metallic boxes.

But what if you don’t have a huge array of lighting, the warehouse sized studio or the big budget camera and lenses used in those shoots? Well, like most things in the world of photography, if you’re willing to get a little creative and spend a little time in Photoshop, you can end up with some very cool, low key images that are just as noteworthy as those top dollar productions, but at a fraction of the cost.

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In fact, most of the gear you need for these shots, you’ll likely already own. With just a relatively small outlay for a couple of bits of budget gear (which will doubtlessly see lots more use in the future) you’ll be set to go.

So all you’ll need to get a similar look to this is any entry level DSLR (mirrorless will work fine too) and kit lens, a basic tripod (or anything sturdy enough to hold the camera level) and an inexpensive flash/trigger combo and a softbox.

Now, as I mentioned above, you likely already have the DSLR and tripod, so how much will an off-camera flash and softbox cost? Well, not as much as you may think. The setup I use cost under £80 ($110 USD) total for a Yongnuo YN560iii flash/trigger and a Neewer 24inch softbox, both of which are available on Amazon.

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Software and studio

With regards the editing side of things, the advent of Photoshop (and Lightroom) Creative Cloud (CC) and the opportunity to pay monthly for a subscription, these two extremely powerful photo editing programmes have become a whole lot easier to justify monetarily. For around $9.99 per month (at the time of this writing), you can get full access and regular updates to BOTH programmes which, compared to the cost for Photoshop CS6 (the last standalone edition before CC was released), is an unbelievably great deal.

Finally, what about the shooting location, I hear you ask. Well, this is the “studio” I used.

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The Invisible Black Background

As you can see, these shots can even be taken in broad daylight, within a very small outdoor space. The key to achieving this look is the use of a technique called the Invisible Black Background, a phrase coined by my good friend Glyn Dewis. This technique could fill an entire dedicated tutorial on its own, and in fact dPS has just that in the form of a video guide from Glyn himself (which I urge you to watch, as it has so many different applications).

In essence what you are doing is using your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture together to cut out all ambient light from your shot, in order to record a completely black image. Think of it as massively underexposing your image. This is so that when you fire the flash to capture your working image, all the camera sees is the light expelled by the flash and none of the ambient light. Hence the term, invisible black background.

So with that said, it is impossible to tell you what settings you should use to achieve this, as it is entirely dictated by the ambient light levels of your scene. But as a baseline setting, start at around ISO 100, f/11 and a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. If you find that you can still see detail or ambient light in the shot after that, then either use a higher f/number (like f/16) or a slightly faster shutter speed (making sure not to go above your camera’s max flash sync speed, usually around 1/160th – 1/320th depending on the camera).

Once you’ve played around with those settings and have a completely black image on your screen, have some fun taking a few tests shots with the flash and softbox, raising and lowering the power of your flash accordingly for the exposure you want. Now let’s get to the good bit then – shooting!

Shooting Setup

Once you have your budget kit assembled, the process to capture your shots is fairly straightforward. With your flash trigger attached to the hot shoe of your camera and your flash head fitted to the soft box, simply set the camera on self-timer mode. Line your camera and tripod up front and centre to the car. Then hit the shutter button, hold your flash and softbox directly above one side of the car’s hood, with the light facing down toward the floor and wait for the shot to fire. Check that you’re happy with the light placement and then just repeat the process for the other side of the car.

You should end up with a couple of images that look like this:

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This shooting technique, and the following post-processing method, can then be used for every other angle of the car you want to shoot, but for this article, I’ll concentrate on the front profile only.

Editing Your Automotive Photography

Open your images in Photoshop. If you shoot in raw format, make sure that any global adjustments you make to white balance, exposure, contrast, etc. in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to one image are made to all the others as well. If they are not synced, when the two sides of your shots are merged, you’ll end up with a very odd looking image.

Combine your shots as layers

Once your images are open in the main Photoshop workspace, you will need to layer one image on top of the other. The simplest way to do this is to pull the image tabs apart, so you have two separate workspaces (see below).

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Then while holding the shift key, drag and drop the Background layer from the layers panel of one image over to the other workspace. This will automatically create a new layer of your imported image and by holding the shift key, it will drop it square to the other layer. Your layers panel should now look like this.

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Don’t worry about which layer sits on top of the other at this stage, as the next step can be done either way.

Blend the layers

Next, make sure that you have the top layer selected in the layers panel and then click the blend mode drop-down box at the top of the panel and select “Lighten”.

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This tells the top layer to blend with the one below and reveal the layer underneath, BUT only where brighter pixels are detected. As such, the part of the top layer where the image is already lit remains unaffected, while the dark part of the top layer is concealed, revealing the lighter part of the layer below.

Your image should now look something like this:

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At this point, you’ll want to merge the visible layers, as any adjustments you make beyond this will need to apply to both layers. To do this, simply right-click on either of the layers and select Merge Visible.

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If your shot has any reflections, like mine has on the top of the hood (I clearly didn’t alter my settings enough at the beginning to record a completely black image, but it’s a good learning point!) then there are a few ways of removing them. However, you may find the most effective way to combat them is to use the healing brush tool, which is fairly similar to the Proximity Match option of the spot healing brush but allows you greater control by letting you choose your source area.

It also gives you a smoother transition around your brushed areas, so the edges of your troublesome parts become a lot less defined, helping to blend them into the rest of the image. By selecting a nonaffected area close to your reflection and brushing over the edges a number of times, you’ll find it ends up looking a little more like this.

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Burn the edges

To finish off this area and to make it blend in a little further, you can use the Burn tool. Set it to affect only the shadows, at an opacity of around 50%. By making a couple of gentle sweeping brushes over the top of the hood, you can effectively mimic light fall-off from the flash.

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Clone out unwanted bits

Finally, depending on the car you’re shooting, you may want to remove the license plate which is a simple task for the clone stamp tool (S hotkey shortcut). The method of doing this largely depends on the type of grill your car has but so long as the license plate doesn’t take up the whole front end of the vehicle, then taking various samples from different spots and cloning them over the plate should be easy.

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You should end up with something like this:

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You’ll also need to remove any unwanted elements that were copied during the cloning process, such as the repeated Quattro badges here. For this, the spot healing brush in content-aware mode works best. By selecting a brush size just slightly bigger than the badges, a single brush over should eliminate them entirely.

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Final touches

If there are any finishing touches you want to add at this point (like the S-Line badge I imported from the image I took of the side wing at the top of the article) then now is the time to do it.

To add extra elements, open your donor image in Photoshop and using the quick selection tool, mark around the element and hit CMD/CTRL+C.

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Then go back to your main image and hit CMD/CTRL+V. Depending on the size of the image you’ve copied from, this will likely end up being ridiculously too large. To correct this, make sure the element’s layer is selected, and go to Edit>Free Transform and resize/position it to suit.

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If you also find that the added element is over or underexposed, hit the exposure setting in the adjustments panel, right-click on the layer it creates and select Create clipping mask to ensure that any changes to exposure apply only to the element and not the whole image (or do this as an Adjustment Layer which is non-destructive).

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To make sure that your car gets all of the attention and nothing else around it, select the Burn tool again, still set to affect shadows, and gently brush out the floor around the front of the car.

Finally, to give your image a bit of punch, you can take it into the Camera Raw Filter (Filter>Camera Raw Filter) which gives you most of the options available for a raw image even if you’re editing a JPG file.

This part is purely down to taste but I like to add a bit of contrast, clarity and sharpness to make the image super crisp, and bring the shadows up slightly as well as a slight crop and straighten. Just have some fun with it and see what you think looks best.


After that, exit out of Camera Raw filter, admire your handiwork and imagine it gracing the pages of your favorite car magazine!

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I’d love to see your creations, so feel free share your images in the comments section below. Let me know how you get on and ask any questions you have as well.

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Peter Treadway
Peter Treadway

better known online as Hybrid Peter, is a UK based international Wedding and travel photographer, who uses his years of professional experience to educate and train the next generation of photography enthusiasts, running regular photo walk workshops with his company Hybrid Photography. When not shooting events or teaching, Peter can be found photographing many of the world’s most beautiful architectural interiors. See more of his work on his Instagram page and website.

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