Tips for Photographing Cars



The scene setup – by placing parking a car in the shade of a building on a sunny day, you can use the ambient light as your main light, illuminating the contours of the vehicle.

Photographing reflective surfaces is no walk in the park. So, as you can imagine, photographing cars, which are essentially just giant reflective objects, is really difficult. It comes with all the same challenges, magnifies them, and adds the new wrinkle of your subject being too heavy to reposition easily. Sounds like fun, right? It can be, and it can still be pulled off without the use of a commercial studio, a giant cyclorama wall, or car-sized softboxes.

Made in the Shade

Take a look at the image above, you can see that I have a Tesla Model S set up in the shade of a building, on a sunny day. By positioning the car so that the ambient light illuminates the overall contours of the car and then placing lights in the shadow areas, it treats the ambient as the main light, and uses the surroundings to advantage, rather than fighting against them. This will minimize the frustration of trying to eliminate the ambient light, which would likely be an exercise in futility, especially when using small flashes.


The ambient light reading – by exposing for the highlights on the car’s windshield, I was able to determine which areas in which to add flash.

Before setting up any lights it’s helpful to start by taking a test shot, getting an exposure of the car’s highlights, especially such as the windshield, which would typically be the brightest spots. This exposure will likely look pretty dark, not unlike the image above. It will allow you to see exactly what the ambient light is doing and whether you need to reposition the car to change the angles of the light falling on the car. This exposure will also help you to determine where to add your flashes. The diagram below shows the lighting diagram used for the Tesla shot.


The lighting diagram – after getting an exposure of the ambient light, I was able to determine where to best place my three speedlights.


The raw file – the shadow areas are filled in with accent lights, although some cleanup in post-processing was needed.

I own three flashes, and I needed all of them for this shoot. When lighting reflective surfaces, you need a large, soft light source. To accomplish this, I brought several 40×60” white foam core panels with me, along with several light stands and sand bags. I set up two panels, one at each end of the car, securing them to light stands. I then aimed a full-powered flash into each panel. Since I couldn’t set up a third panel to light the middle of the car without blocking my view of it, I set my third flash on the ground, aiming it into the tire rim. The light placement was effective, although a bit of cleanup in post was still needed.


The lightroom settings – I chose to desaturated the image, one color channel at a time (rather than toggling over to Black and White mode or lowering the global saturation) in an effort to retain the mood in the photo.

The most obvious issue that needed taken care of was the unsightly reflection in the car door. Though the white panel served in lighting the contours of the side of the car, it left a garish reflection. Eliminating it required something a bit more powerful of a tool than the what Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool offered. Instead, I used Lightroom to color grade the image as well as bring up the highlights in a few areas, (see above). The red highlighted areas show where I painted in a brush adjustment, raising up the Exposure, Brightness, and Clarity sliders.

I also chose to desaturate the image, since it was already essentially monochromatic, except for the grass. Note that I kept the file in Color mode, rather than toggling over to Black and White mode or lowering the global saturation, and opted to instead desaturate the individual color sliders in the HSL panel. This is because I wanted to preserve the dark, moodiness in the image, and for reasons I don’t didn’t quite understand, the overall brightness of the image increases when I toggle over to Black and White mode. I also used the Luminance sliders to control the highlight and shadow portions of the image. For example, by lowering the Yellow slider in the Luminance panel, I dimmed the highlights in the grass, which had yellow in it, and shifted the focus back to the car.


The final shot – once the image was color graded and minor spots had been removed, I opened up the file in Photoshop to remove the white-board reflections, specifically the white panels at the base of the building in the background and the edge of the roof, (Figure 6). If specialized cleanup is not your forte, it’s totally acceptable (if not recommended) that you send the file off to a retoucher to finish it up for you.

Attention to Detail

Tips photographing cars 07

The setup – I am not a car person. By that I mean that I couldn’t tell you one old hot rod from another. That said, I find them to be absolutely gorgeous objects to look at. So, when the owner of this beautiful machine led me back to the spot where his latest project sat, I got really excited when my eyes caught sight of the immaculately restored, 1932 Ford Roadster (I only know the name because he told me). The details were phenomenal. Though I knew nothing of its history, and didn’t even really care about driving it or even riding in it, I knew that I had to photograph it. The owner pulled out a vintage magazine photo of a similar car and asked if I could make a photo that looked like that. I smiled and said, “We can do better than that.”

But first, the car needed to move. He had parked the car in front of a large, white door, in full view of the morning sun. This meant harsh, direct light, which was unflattering and boring. I quickly scanned the area, spotting a one-story brick building across the street, with a wall, still in the shade. I asked if he could drive the car over there, positioning it just inside the shade (see above).

Tips photographing cars 08

The lighting diagram – similar to the previous Tesla scenario, I used two of my lights to illuminate the front, and back ends, of the car. This time, however, I placed my third light between the car and the back wall, creating a nice separation between them.

Since I had come to the shoot prepared to photograph portraits and not cars, I didn’t have white panels to bounce light off of. I still only had three flashes that I could use to light an entire car. But just like the previous scenario, I used the ambient sunlight as the main light, adding accent lights to the front and back portions of the car. It helped that I had less car to light. This was a two-seater roadster, and thus was about three feet shorter than the Tesla. This meant that the back rear flash was able to light both tires this time, freeing up my third light to be placed between the car and the building behind it. That created a nice separation between the car and the wall. It also served to highlight the amazing detail of the open-air hood, which allowed you to see straight through to the wall (see below)

Tips photographing cars 09

The final shot – my favorite part is the open-air engine that allows you to see straight through to the back wall.

Do you have any other tips for photographing cars? If you’ve tried it share your ideas. If you haven’t give it a try and share your images and any questions you may have.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Nick Fancher is a portrait and commercial photographer based out of Columbus, Ohio. His clients include The New York Times, ESPN Magazine and Forbes Japan. He specializes in a no-frills, run and gun approach to lighting. His two ebooks are available here. You can connect with him on Instagram.

  • Will Gavillan

    What software do you use for your lighting diagrams?

  • Tony

    nice work. Please pardon my ignorance, but it appears you are using Lightroom, yet you have additional tool “bricks.” How do you add/duplicate additional tool “bricks”?

  • Pro Photographer

    Great post. As usual from you Nick. Awesome.

  • Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • I didn’t have additional bricks. I made a screen cap of all the panels and composited them into one image for easy viewing. Sorry for any confusion.

  • Will

    Sweet post. I am like you, I like to look at and photography cars but I have no desire to drive some of them.

  • I just find somewhere dark at night that will have a great BG. Shoot with a tripod and a 30 second SS (you know how to use proper camera technique). Put a strobe on a pole or lightstand set to 1/32 power and pop (count your pops) away above & all over the car. (I use a radio trigger set ~$20)

    Should take you 15 min to get it right and 2 or 3 tries to get your exposure to pop ratio right. One more exposure to light your background and composite the cool arch of lights over the car that were facing the camera 😀

  • Pro Photographer

    Not everyone likes to shoot cars at night though I’m sure.

  • Pro Photographer

    And very thankful we are for those. It’s one of the main reasons I admire your work here.

  • so so true…

  • Kristian Adolfsson

    Love the roadster.
    I’ve just started chooting cars 2 years ago but I only use natural light and bracket 3-7 shots. The one below is just sunlight from the left and a white building from
    the right. All shot with monopod and some of the detail photos are
    focus stackings. Use 32-bit HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom to finish them off.
    You can see some of the photos taken at car meets around where I live at:

    Cheers from Sweden

  • I saw Darien Chin do this with 3 light on a stand, some years back.

  • Photography by James

    Interssting piece Nick with some good tips. Sorry if I’m missing the point but I don’t understand how you got rid of the panel reflection in the door. You say you didn’t use spot removal but don’t really make clear what you did do.

  • LindyLuv565

    I don’t like to use flash. But I was taught a technique many years ago by an advertising photographer. We would pick a nice spot and wait for the sun to set and then photograph the car (or motorcycle) to get that brilliant “liquid light” that makes for an outstanding capture.

  • Tony


  • Jennifer Fuller Photography

    He used Photoshop to do the retouching. Likely the healing brush, patch tool and cloning to retouch those areas and a few other distractions as well.

  • Pro Photographer

    I am wondering if you’ve ever light painted a car at night Nick? I’d do that if I had access to a nice car lol

  • Kristian, your photos are beautiful! I have just discovered a weekly car show nearby. Your images have inspired me to once again try to master HDR. I’ll be using your pictures as my standard to judge my progress. Thank you for sharing!

  • Joe Krepps

    Sorry but I _completely_ disagree with purposely putting the cars in shade!
    My goodness – what car doesn’t jump out at you on a sunny day?
    Over the past couple of years, I’ve shot thousands of cars, trucks and SUVs for local dealer’s websites. Granted, I’m paid by the vehicle, not by the hour so there’s incentive to be quick but deliver on quality (lest they decide they’re rather give their detail guys a cheap “camera” and the results are…well…what they are). I also make heavy use of a polarizer filter – that is a “MUST have”, even for interior shots. If the polarizer isn’t having much effect on glare on an exterior shot, I’ll go for “dark” blue sky, ideally with puffy clouds. I choose where and how much glare to put in a photo. I don’t wan’t a plain, slab-sided photo so I’ll put _just_ enough glare on edges and contours so they’re visible but not annoying.
    Black vehicles reflect _everything_, white vehicles reflect nothing. Very different mindsets when I’m looking for the right angle. My customers are, unfortunately for photography style purposes, particular about “where” I can shoot. Understandably, they want their wall signs and logos featured, sometimes I’m forces to shoot the dark side of a vehicle.
    Though they haven’t verbalized it directly to me, I was honored when they commissioned an app with my photos, which includes other services like scheduling appointments, etc.. Now, there’s nothing like whipping out my iPhone when someone asks about my work, and show them what I do. (Look for “Stetler Dodge” on iTunes or Google Play OR go to Please note that almost everything I’ve shot has the “Stetler Auto” sign on the wall. I did shoot many vehicles for one of their other dealerships but money got tight so they bought an iPhone Touch(?!?!?!) for their detail guys.)
    I started with a used Nikon D60 and upgraded to a new D5300 in late spring. Ok, I still use the kit 18-55 lens but that’s because it gets the snot knocked out of it when I climb in & out of everything I shoot. I’m nervous about smacking better glass up against the steering wheel, etc. “For now…” a cheap Hoya circular polarizer, which _really_ takes the brunt. I use the “Vivid” setting on the camera – no other post processing aside from resizing. I shoot jpeg simply because, on “a good day”, I shoot 400-500 photos – there’s no time to tweak that many Raw photos. I shoot Aperture Priority because I often shoot, for example, a car with a white body but a black interior – there isn’t time to fiddle with Manual settings. Also, I find f14 lets me get decent depth of field for instrument cluster/odometer readings but I can still a fast enough shutter speed when I don’t quite stabilize myself for other photos. 20-30 photos in 5-6 minutes, including moving the vehicle so I can shoot both sides.
    Mind, I _do_ appreciate the time and effort you spent to set up the Tesla and the street rod! It _is_ kinda’ nice to shoot on an overcast day because I don’t have to worry about shadows. However, my favorite photos are always direct sunlight, low humidity and “interesting” clouds. I’ll attach a few taken at the dealer who no longer uses me – I had the freedom to pose the vehicles where I wished. I’ll also attach photos from Stetler Dodge/Chrysler/Ram/Jeep.

  • Kristian Adolfsson

    Thank you Al.
    Try the 32-bit route if you haven’t, don’t use to much negative Highlights on pale cars, though. They turn grey and you get the horrible HDR-look.

    Let me know when you have something to show.


    The end result of the Tesla was waay overprocessed and dark compared to as iof you had just cropped the first photo in the article…

  • Ronster

    Pretty interesting article. I’m always shooting at open houses, meet ups, etc, so I’m not able to set up lighting and I have to wait for people to clear out of the shot most times. Still, a couple tricks:

    Go low, camera almost on the ground to make a Mini Cooper look big:

    Go high, put your camera on a monopod and hold it over your head for ‘aerial’ shots:

    Pan, for moving cars, go to Shutter priority and slow the shutter speed to blur the background and give impression of speed:

  • Mister_Roberts

    NIce shots for sales, not art like the article talks about

  • Frankytrav

    The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow…..
    Sorry, but I wouldn’t want you to take commercial photos…period

  • Frankytrav

    Good article mate -> reflections O.o

  • Joe Krepps

    I haven’t shot at Stetler for 5-6 months. My post was from 2 _years_ ago. There’s almost nothing left of my photos on their website. They’re now using “Redline”, who take not-so-good photos. (Photos are just part of their services. If there are any of my photos left, the windows will be down and the front wheel turned away from the camera.) As of early Dec. 2016 (in case you wait another 2 years), my work is now on Still a D5300 though a good 130k+ more on the shutter count and, because I’m not shooting 500-600 photos/day (was shooting 340 cars/month), like I was a few months ago, I have the time to shoot Raw, then edit in Lightroom. My photos are taken in the middle of a dealer’s parking lot – hardly practical to set up lights and reflectors! I have to make do with what light is available and what room is available to shoot.

  • Joe Krepps

    Thanks and “fair enough”. Sorry I didn’t catch your reply when it was posted. My wife had a major stroke 2 years and 9 months ago. It’s difficult, now, to say where my mind was at the time. Due to her stroke, which she is still recovering from, I had to give up a lot of work to take care of her so we lost our house and her Jeep. An ugly time in my life that likely spilled out online. What’s left of my workload has taken leaps and bounds forward from where I was back then. Almost nothing left of mine on Stetler’s website, they use someone else now, unfortunately. My work is now on I wish I could only focus on shooting one or two vehicles when I go out but I need to shoot as many as are available to shoot, in whatever lighting is available that day, in whatever room I have to stage/pose a vehicle.
    Anyway, thanks for the compliment. I do appreciate the kind words.

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