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Three tips for lighting your car

You don't need a big expensive light to properly light your car. Learn my 3 tips for correctly lighting a car in any outdoor environment.

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If you want to be looked at as a “pro”, the best tell tale sign is a properly lit subject. Photography is really just making sure to use proper lighting.

When it comes to cars, it can take some practice. The bottom half is always in heavier shadow and can hide details that matter. And the car should always be separated from the background. If you can’t tell where the car begins and ends, it’s not going to help tell the story of the car.

You may have seen shots that have a certain “heavy contrast” kind of style. Sometimes it’s intentional, but just because it’s mainstream does not make it correct.

1- Use a tripod

I see it a lot on Instagram…no tripod. Shooting the car with the camera hand-held. Stop this. Use a tripod. It allows you to:

  • Plan your shot
  • Take multiple exposures

Instead of a spray and pray technique, slow down and take a minute to explore the scene around you. More importantly, it means you can take at least 2 exposures. One for the car, which means holding the shutter open longer, and one for the background and sky, which will be brighter, and require a faster shutter speed so it isn’t over exposed.



Here’s the second exposure, with the exposed car painted into the first shot.


BMW 335i
This image is a result of taking an exposure for the car, and another for the sky, then combined in Photoshop.

2- Use free light

The sun. It’s up there, and it’s free to use. Even on the most rainy, cloudy day, just before sunset, holding the shutter open longer will let you expose the shadows on your car. Pros can and do use separate light sources to get the results they want and control the light more accurately, but you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on lighting equipment.

Take a look at the front lower intake, a notorious problem for late model BMWs. The honeycomb grille is usually lost in shadow. Here, we’ve combined 2 exposures for 1 seamless image.


BMW 335i grille
The original exposure taken for the sky – the grille is lost.

3- Remember the Star Wars rule

My dad actually taught me the most important lighting tip of all – where the light comes from. Let’s take a picture of the Millennium Falcon.

Millenium Falcon
Where’s the light coming from?

Notice how the ship is perfectly lit, with the light source coming from the top left, based on shadows. But, if the ship were truly in deep space, it would be pitch black. There is no light source in space unless you’re near something giving light.

It’s not a mistake – the ships need to be seen for all those amazing space battles. We do the same thing with our car shots.

BMW 335i at ross dock
In real life, it wasn’t quite so dark/light, but we can tweak it.

The shot above shows an example – in real life, the difference between clouds and sun were not as dramatic, but we can stretch the truth. Just make sure too have a shadow somewhere. Don’t put a lens flair behind the car if it’s being lit from the front. Keep things subtle.

And use appropriate lighting!

Feel free to 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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