How to Use Light Painting to Take Incredible Car Photos

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Whether you drive a beat up station wagon from the 80s or a finely tuned Porsche, light painting is an excellent way to photograph your car and truly make it shine! Light painting results in incredibly unique and impressive images. With a bit of persistence and creativity, you can create pictures that look like commercial photoshoots – even without heavy editing.

A photo of a car taken using the light painting style

The reason that a light painted picture looks so incredible is because the light is literally wrapping around the subject. Normally, we see objects lit from only one angle, often the sun, which can get a bit dull at times. In addition, there will be cool reflections on the body of the car that trace the path of your light, giving the shot a highly commercial look.

Getting started

What’s the first step? Clean the car! Light makes every speck of dirt and grime become immediately visible. Unless you are going for a grungy style, you’ll want to make sure the car is squeaky clean.

Since light painting involves leaving the shutter of the camera open for some time, you will need to wait until it is dark outside. If you try light painting during the day, you will get a completely white image as the sensor collects all the sunlight.

Alternatively, if you have room in your garage, you could park your car in there and cover all windows so that there is no ambient light.

Your light source

One of the cool things about light painting is that you don’t need to invest thousands or even hundreds of dollars in equipment to get started. Literally, any light source can be used, whether it is a professional video light or simply a flashlight app on your mobile phone.

For my example picture, I will be using an LEDGo Portable Video Light, which is a small but powerful light that I can hold in my hand.

video-light-for-light-painting-1

video-light-for-light-painting-2

One drawback of this type of light source is that it throws light everywhere, including back at the camera. If possible, you will want to find some way to shield the light so that it is directed only at your subject. Professional light painting lights, like the Westcott Ice Light, have flaps that prevent the light from spilling everywhere.

A light painted car where the light source is visible

In this example, the light source was seen by the camera, which created a unique halo effect around the car.

A light painted car with the light source not visible in the final image

In this image, the light was shielded from the camera and pointed only at the car, so that the light path isn’t visible.

Setting up the shot

Perhaps the most important piece of equipment you will need for light painting is a sturdy tripod. This is because you will be taking a picture that lasts for many seconds. A tripod that shifts over the course of the picture, or that is blown around by wind, will result in some serious frustration and blurry images.

You don’t need a special or expensive lens for light painting – any lens will do! When you are setting up your tripod, remember how zoom influences a picture. Shooting from close with a wide angle lens will make the car look fatter. Shooting from a distance with a bit of zoom will lessen the distortion.

Behind the scenes of light painting car photography

Behind the scenes of the setup. There is some light filtering in from the left from a streetlight, but I can use my camera settings to reduce the effect of that ambient light.

Exposure settings

The first goal will be to get a base exposure. This requires that you go full manual on the settings. If you leave the camera on auto, it will try to compensate for the low light and may pop up the flash.

To make an image with a black background like the one in my example, you will want your base exposure to be very dark. If you want more of the surroundings to be visible, you can make your base exposure lighter. Be aware, however, that will mean that you are more likely to show up in the final image as you walk around the car with your light.

  1. First, select a low ISO so the sensor doesn’t collect much light from the surrounding area. As an added benefit, using a low ISO will also result in a very high-quality image.
  2. Next, you will want to choose a fairly narrow aperture. This will keep a large portion of the image in focus. It will also help to make the image darker, as needed.
  3. Last, choose a shutter speed that gives you a bit of time to paint the car. For my purpose, I chose 25 seconds.

As you can see below, this base image is nearly completely dark. This is perfect. Now the final image will only be what I paint with my light.

The base exposure for a light painting car image

The base exposure for my image was ISO 100, f/9, 25 seconds.

Let there be light (painting)

Now we’re ready to start painting!

You can either have a friend press the shutter button, or you can put the camera on a short timer so that you can start light painting immediately after the shutter releases.

There will inevitably be a bit of trial and error as you try to find the right angles at which to paint the car. Pay close attention to how the light is reflecting in the body of the car and try to find ways to make it look flattering. Typically this involves moving the light at a uniform level so that there is a clean and crisp line of light reflected on the car.

light-painting-example

Chances are you’ll have to throw away a lot of images because parts of the car weren’t lit well enough, or the reflections looked messy. Don’t let this discourage you. The more you practice, the more you will get a feel for how to move the light.

Don’t forget to play a little bit. Waving your light around in circles, for example, can make some cool light trails and some memorable images.

A light painted car with light trails

A light painted car with light trails

How come you don’t show up in the final image?

A camera can only see objects that have light shining on them. When you aim the light source away from yourself and keep moving the entire time the picture is being taken, you simply won’t be in one place long enough for the camera to record your image.

If you do see yourself faintly in the final image, this can be due to one of three things:

  • You might have been caught in the light reflecting off of the car (or accidentally lit yourself up).
  • There might be too much ambient light. Try adjusting the settings to make your base exposure a bit darker.
  • You stood still in one place for too long, keep moving.

Typically, these ghostly appearances can be fixed easily enough with Photoshop later on, though you may want to adjust some settings to save yourself some time in the editing room.

Controlling the power of your light

If you find that your light isn’t having so much of an effect on the final image, there are two ways to control this.

To effectively make your light more powerful, you can choose a wider aperture (lower f-stop number) or raise the ISO. Either of these options will make the camera more sensitive to all light, including the light in your hand. Be aware that these changes will also affect your base exposure for the ambient light conditions. So you may also need to change the length of the shutter speed in order to keep the image properly dark.

If all else fails, your last option might be to simply to purchase a more powerful light. Yes, it is possible to do light painting with a small flashlight, but if you are serious about light painting, it might be a good idea to upgrade to something with a bit more power and control.

Making some final edits

Often, light painted pictures look pretty awesome right out of the camera. By pulling the picture into an editing program like Lightroom, you can make some simple tweaks to complete the image.

The original, straight from camera image of a light painted car

This is the image straight from the camera. It has a really unique look, even before we do any edits. You can see that my feet were caught in the reflected light and will need to be edited out.

It’s a good idea to shoot your light painting images in RAW. Shooting in RAW as opposed to JPG gives you some extra flexibility when it comes time to edit.

General adjustments

First, you’ll want to find a nice looking white balance. Light painted cars often look very sleek with a steely, cold white balance, but you can experiment to find a nice balance for the car you are working with.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to make sure the car is clean before you photograph it. Any minor imperfections or dirty spots that might still be visible can be removed using the spot healing tool in Photoshop or similar editing programs. You may also want to use this tool to reduce or remove bright and distracting glare reflecting off the car. I used this method to remove a harsh reflection in the example picture just above the front wheel.

Selective adjustments

Next, you may want to take some time to selectively lighten or darken parts of the image. In the course of your light painting, it is possible that you might have spilled some light into an area of the picture that you wanted to leave dark. You can control this by using gradients or adjustment brushes to precisely control the amount of light on different areas of the image.

For my picture, I wanted the light to quickly fall off around the car. I was able to emphasize this by using gradients and a vignette to darken the edges of the image.

The final edited image of a light painted car

As you can see, the final image isn’t drastically different than what came out of the camera! This final image in a combination of two of the images, borrowing some features from both shots.

Get out there and start light painting

Light painting is a very fun, simple and rewarding style of photography. It doesn’t take any special equipment to get some incredible and truly creative results that will amaze your friends. Give it a try and share your light painted car images in the comments below.

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Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

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