In a perfect world, I would personally schedule every photo of a car I’ve ever taken within an hour of sunrise or sunset, with slightly scattered clouds, little wind, and a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world and some photos need to be taken in less than ideal conditions.
One of the most challenging situations for me to photograph cars in – besides the night of course – is a sunny afternoon. Unlike evenings and mornings, when the sun has a warm glow and casts dramatic shadows that work beautifully with the lines carved into the car’s sheet metal, the afternoon offers nothing but harsh overhead light that flattens out details. and usually hides style features. Unfortunately for me, most of the first drives car writers take (yours included!) only offer a chance to shoot our test vehicles from late morning to early afternoon, when conditions are worst for interesting photos.
As a result, I had to learn to take headline-quality photos, even in circumstances where I’d rather have my camera in my backpack. In this episode of Picture Perfect, I’ll walk you through the tricks I’ve learned to take a great photo of your car, even if the timing is all wrong.
To make light work with you anytime, we first need to break down how light itself works and how you can use it for a dramatic shot.
In car photography, I tend to have a simple rule of thumb for all my (sunlit) photos, regardless of the time of day they are taken: part of the car should be in shade and part of the car should be in direct light. Usually I try to let this light cast its most direct and high-contrast shadows on interesting contours of the car itself, such as the roofline or the front 3/4-rim. In the early morning or evening, this is an incredibly easy proposition, as long shadows and low-lying sunlight make it easy to park a car from a dramatic angle.
You can see this idea at work in Shot #1 of the Toyota Supra I reviewed for The ride, taken within 20 minutes of sunrise, where it was possible to perfectly illuminate the entire side of the car while leaving the roof unlit. The low angle of the sun shows off the curved fenders and scalloped roof of the Toyota pit. This would be an impossible photo to take later in the day.
With the post-dawn shaded roof option, I let the well-lit roof and hood of the car dictate how I align my shot later in the day. Shot #2 from the Civic is a perfect representation of how to get a strong day shot using the same principles used in the Supra shot, but with the lit and unlit areas reversed. Since the sun was directly overhead, I tilted the car so that the longest part of the shade shaded the driver’s side, and I was able to get a well-lit hood, roof, and front, and still have the sharp separation between the front of the car. could retain the car and its side quarter panel.
This shot was taken barely an hour and a half from the sun’s noon (also known as “high noon”), where the sun is highest in the sky during the day and shadows are smallest. Fortunately for us as photographers, even during the midday sun there will still be a little bit of shade to work with, like here. The only exception would be if it’s the summer equinox at the equator; shadows are cast directly straight down which would make it more challenging, but the next tip I have provides a solution for even direct overhead light.
Understanding car design
So let’s say it’s the middle of summer, and you just can’t find an angle for your car that matches your setup and your lighting that gives a nice 3/4s sun-kissed contrast like on the Civic. What must we do? This approach to shooting requires us to analyze the car design and how it is meant to be viewed.
Photos #3 and #4 of the Kia Sportages I tested for The ride are an excellent illustration of how you can make the sun work with the design of the car so that it looks much more dynamic than it otherwise would. The car’s character lines (its crouching and the sharply drawn door pleat line), rather than the front, rear 3/4’s or roofline, are what I’ve focused on here. I achieved this by parking the car approximately parallel (from front to back) with the sun’s rays; I say “roughly” because each car’s character lines are different, and depending on how deeply they’re drawn, you may need to move it a few degrees away from really parallel to the sun’s rays for maximum effect.
Shot #4: Sportage at 2:15 PM (one hour and 35 minutes after noon on solar power)
Don’t be frustrated if you can’t get it right when you park either – it took me 10 minutes to finally get this Sportage into position for Shot #3, which felt like millimeters until the body lines popped. Taking a photo that highlights the car’s design is an art, not a science, because every car is different. The best place to start for any car is with the sun directly out your windshield or rear window, then tweak it slightly to the left or right until you get the look you’re dreaming of.
Better photography through chemistry
The last step, of course, is to break through the editing tricks to really make your shot pop.
Challenger at 1:40 PM (solar 40 minutes after noon)
Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm f1.4 @ f/4.0 for 1/800 second, ISO 80
Shot #5 of the Challenger straight from my camera is a tricky one to work with. The Challenger’s bulging side panels and black paint made it nearly impossible to pop the car’s natural lines like the Sportage did, and on top of that, I was in California’s Central Valley in August, just 40 minutes past noon. All I could do was set up a 3/4s lit shot (with the rear as the lit part and the passenger side as the shadow part) and hope I could edit it for more visual interest.
As you can see in my edited version, Shot #6, I went a long way to make the shot more interesting and gave the Challenger body folds a lot more depth. I did all this without leaving the basic Light editing in Adobe Lightroom, my favorite photo editor. However, these tips will work with almost any existing photo editing program (including most smartphone image editing apps).
The workflow is simple. Instead of playing directly with the Contrast slider, which tends to increase the saturation unnaturally and flatten out any shadow details, instead I change three settings instead: Highlights, Shadows and Blacks. First, I lower the Highlights slider to avoid over-brightness of the sky and highly reflective debris, then raise the Shadows slider to bring back to life the detail that would be lost in the Challenger’s black, shadowed side panels. The whole photo looks washed out at this stage, which is when I grab the Blacks slider and lower it until the shadows of the car are completely black again. This brings us to Shot #6. From here it’s a matter of color editing to get the final product.
In shot #7 you can see my final product, which is a much more interesting, dynamically lit and evocative photo than what I started with. Unfortunately, the full process for my color editing is not within the scope of this story, but I will write about it in a future installment of Picture Perfect. Suffice it to say, though, that I enjoy very warm photos when shooting in the desert in the afternoon.
I hope this tutorial has helped you rethink the least useful hours of a photographer’s day and reassure you that even if you have to shoot in the afternoon, you can still get phenomenal shots. Until next time, have fun shooting and don’t forget sunblock for all those mid-day desert photos!
Do you have a tip? Email [email protected]