How to light & photograph cars in a studio
Car photography is notoriously difficult and often requires some high-level professional equipment.
In the video above I talk you through a recent car photoshoot and TV commercial we did in the studio using our new custom-built ceiling rig. Ceiling rigs, or floating panels, are commonly used in car photography as they help make an already challenging task much easier.
I've photographed plenty of motorbikes before (take a look at our motorcycle photography live workshop), but car photos require much more space and specialist equipment. Because space isn’t an issue in my studio, I’ve been wanting to fit a proper floating panel for car photography for a couple of years now.
This year, I finally did it. But before I share with you how we built this setup (you can see the whole process in the video too), there are a few key things worth mentioning when it comes to photographing cars.
How to photograph cars
As I said earlier, cars are particularly tricky subjects to photograph. Lighting is undoubtedly the greatest challenge when it comes to photographing cars in the studio (I share some tips for lighting cars at the end of this post). There are also the challenges of finding a large enough space to shoot in, controlling the myriad reflections, using the right modifiers, ensuring the car remains clean etc. With all of this combined, it’s no surprise that CGI is becoming more and more prevalent.
Because of this, many professionals tend to use very specialist equipment. However, that’s not to say car photography is impossible. If you know what to look out for and how to control your light, shooting professional car photography isn’t impossible.
If you’ve watched the car photography tutorial on our site, you’ll see that it’s possible to make your own, more economical setup that will allow you to get similarly great results. In this course, you’ll see that I explain my lighting setup for photographing cars — in that case, two different classic cars.
While this setup worked, it wasn’t necessarily the most efficient. This is why, now that I have space, I decided it was time to invest in a better setup that I would be able to use in the future.
Ceiling rigs for car photography
There was a lot to consider; should I go with a purpose-made system, such as Bacht, or should I try and fashion my own setup? I decided that for what I needed I could work with my local metal worker, Adrian, and between us, we could come up with what I needed.
I knew I wanted to use reflected light off of a white panel rather than lighting through a scrim. To do this was going to require a rigid frame that would allow me to attach highly reflective plastic white panels.
Adrian and I worked out how we could create the frame from an aluminium box section and have connection points that would allow us to include adjustable straps to vary the angle of the lighting panel as necessary. This was an important element as it would enable me to more precisely control the reflections on the surface of a car.
The whole rig had to be light enough to be lifted by an electric winch, which was fitted to our I-beam in the studio ceiling. We designed the electric winch so that it was secured on a pulley system to provide some horizontal and vertical movement so that we could change the height of the panel too.
Safety was another important consideration. To meet safety regulations, all of the components are able to secure an excess of the weight of the frame, and we also secured three additional safety and tensioning lines.
To ensure a super white finish we sourced a high-quality plastic that was then sanded and painted with an ultra-bright white matte paint. The plastic sheeting was then secured to the aluminium frame using industrial-strength Velcro on all the aluminium cross-sections and around the frame.
This new setup brings a great deal of extra versatility to my studio and will allow me to undertake more automotive photography shoots. Although many new car images are created with CGI there is still a demand for good car photography and my plan is to shoot classic cars. I’ll also be able to utilise this adjustable floating panel for many other shoots, such as product photography, without the need for lots of stands and supports.
Professional car photoshoot behind the scenes
My first project was for an electric car company that wanted to promote their range of cars using stills, video and short animations.
For the still images, I used a combination of studio flash lighting and some HMI daylight-balanced continuous light. In the video, you'll see a complete breakdown of the lighting, including how I used this new ceiling rig to create gradient lighting in the car.
One of the most important things I had to keep in mind during the shoot was that the cars had to be in the exact same positions for the video and stills so that we could create short animations showing the colour options of the cars (I explain how Ben, our video editor, did this in the video).
After we nailed all of the still shots it gave me a good idea of how I was going to light the shots for the video elements, which would also involve actors and dialogue.
For the video shoot, I could no longer use my studio flash lighting so I decided to use our HMI lights and a few of the new Broncolor F160 LED lights, which would provide me with clean daylight balanced light for video. Believe it or not, I also filmed the video elements on a Sony A7s ii with a 70-200 Sony G lens.
Having the ceiling rig meant the video lighting worked well and I was very pleased with the results.
From the stills and the video, we were able to deliver the client a multitude of assets for social media, print and television.
This first shoot with the new rig has made it worthwhile and the work and the investment are there for the future.
Tips for how to light a car
From this, you should now understand that car photography lighting is no small task. It requires a good understanding of light, careful control of light, attention to detail and patience.
If you watch the video at the start of this post as well as the car photography course that I mentioned earlier, you’ll see there are a few techniques that I employ in both shoots.
Use studio lighting for car photography
In both shoots I used studio lighting - a combination of studio flash and continuous lighting - and the reason for this is simple. Studio light offers far greater control than natural light (not to mention that it’s not weather-dependent) and allows me to make precise adjustments as I need.
Make use of indirect lighting
One of the biggest mistakes you could make when photographing cars is to use direct light. Instead, using indirect light will allow you to create beautiful gradient lighting and better control the reflections on the surface of the car.
Fast shutter speeds are best
Using a fast shutter speed will allow you to cut out any ambient light that might impact your shot. If you don’t understand the relationship between shutter speed and flash, I recommend you watch this class. However, if you are working with continuous light, you will have to work in a darkened studio to prevent the ambient light having any impact on the shot.
Ditch the softbox
Yes you may be wanting a soft, even lighting, but softboxes aren’t the only modifiers that will help you achieve this. You won’t see a single softbox in either of the car shoots mentioned throughout this post, but you will see polyboards and reflectors…
Use a tripod
Although I try to get as much right in-camera as possible, there are instances in car photography where it may be necessary to comp a few shots together. Fixing your camera on a tripod will ensure all your shots line up and help make the post-production stage go far smoother.
To learn more about car photography, make sure to browse our wide range of photography classes. Below are a selection of classes that will help you get started. Additionally, you'll find a selection of classes covering how to use studio light in our Lighting Theory & Equipment section.