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Light painting a car without a light

Learn how to use available light for painting a car - no extra equipment needed. Shoot multiple layers and edit in Adobe Photoshop.

BMW 3 Series

I recently posted some tips on how to shoot your car with an iPhone. Let’s continue the theme this week with light painting a car, using no Ice Lights or strobes.

What you’ll need for light painting a car:

  • A camera
  • A tripod
  • Sunlight
  • Adobe Photoshop

On Location – set up

So you’ve picked a spot for a shoot as the sun sets, and you’d like to try to get a light painting effect without any lights aside from the sun. First, make sure the spot you pick is devoid of “bad” light. Street lamps, light from other headlights, etc. You just want the car nicely lit by the sun.

Next, once you’ve got the car set up, fire off a well-exposed shot. Make sure you’re happy, because once the sun goes down, there are no do-overs. As always, take a few exposures and rotate your polarizer.

Night time

Once the sun sets, you’ll want to shoot a background plate. Remember NOT to move the tripod from its spot. Try a few different exposures – here I’ve got the sun still lighting the sky a bit, but you can wait. As long as you’ve got enough light to bring out background details, you’ll be fine.

You can also lower the exposure to make the image darker, but there is a balance. To dark, and you’ll lose all the details.

Let’s retouch

You really only need 2-3 exposures, so let’s open them up in Photoshop.

BMW 340i sunset
The base exposure for the car.
BMW 340i sunset
The base exposure for the background.

Make your universal edits in Camera Raw, then drag both your images into one canvas.

Put the bright image on top and mask it. Then paint in the lit car from your sun light shot, making sure to bring out the lower half of the car (always darker). Use the airbrush tool to blend in the bright car and dark background. You don’t want it to feel like there is a giant spotlight on the car.

BMW 340i sunset
Here, I’ve combined the 2 and painted the bright exposure in. If you find it too bright, reduce the opacity of the daylight exposure.

Once you have both layers how you like, group them, copy the group, and rasterize it into a new layer. From here you can add your layer effects until the shot is how you’d like it to be.

So no fancy lights. Nothing expensive here at all. Just you, the sun, a car, and a little patience.

BMW 340i light paint
The final rendered image.

Commissions may be received for product links on this site, so help out if you can. I only write about products I use and believe in.

I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Email me at with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls


Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post.

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.

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