A Shot in the Dark: What to do When the Light Ain’t Right

OK, real world here.We’re not talking about working in a studio big enough to be home to the Goodyear blimp and a few of its closest airborne friends, with turntables, coves, and banks of lights putting out so many photons that you could weigh them on the kitchen scales. We’re talking about the outdoors, inhabited by the evil Siamese twins of existing light for photography, too much and too little, either of which can keep your pictures from being seriously short of spectacular.

If I have to choose, and it’s not an action shot, I’ll take too little. Too much is tougher; it occurs every sunny day, starts pretty early in the morning and stays until much later in the afternoon than you’d think. There’s plenty of light around to picture your car, but that quarter-sized sun up there is producing a hard, unflattering quality of light that is necessarily tolerable for a three hour sprint race starting at 1 p.m., but doesn’t show the car in—forgive me—its best light. Contrast is raging; shadows are sharp and hard; you often can’t see the inside of the car if the outside is correctly exposed, details are obscured. And we haven’t even mentioned dealing with those degrading specular reflections off glass and chrome, so bright that no camera can record any detail within, and few lenses can fight off their image-killing flare. 

Bright sunlight makes for dark shadows and severe contrast. It's the best you can do when the race determines when you have to shoot. When the photographer gets to choose, better light is available.


A polarizing filter will help some and is worth trying: paint colors can be enhanced and reflections off water, paint, and glass may be tamed, but light off chrome and other metal is not polarized and so the filter will be of limited help there. Another problem is that many times reflections are an important part of car photography, and removing them may not be at all what you want.

Ideal solution: wait for the golden light an hour or so before sunset to about half an hour after (reverse the procedure for sunrise) and shoot like a bandit in a bar room. The light can be very beautiful, soft, showing the contours of the car without the detail killing contrast of the high noon shoot. A tripod is a must-have to get the sharp pictures that you will want, and it can extend your shoot time to well after your eyes will tell you that it is no longer possible, with even more interesting effects. A large reflector (which can be anything light colored, even the side of a building) can punch in additional light to add interest and detail to the image.

Use of a colored gradient density filter helps to control the contrast between the very bright sky and the much darker car.


Shooting just before and after sunset provides a softer, richer light that goes a long way to making a car look good.


Using a large reflector, in this case a light colored hotel just to the left of the car, permits interesting and even lighting in what would have been a difficult situation otherwise.


If you find you enjoy these sunrise-sunset situations, invest in an inexpensive gradient density filter of the square variety like Cokin, because you’re bound to want to do some backlit shots with the sun and golden sky in the picture. Remove the lens shade (one of the very rare times when I do this), hold the filter over the front of the lens, and move it up and down to make the sky exposure similar to that of the car in the foreground. It’s not the easiest thing to get right, but it’ll make your day when you do.

But if your photographic life is like mine, it is often impossible to shoot exactly when you want to. What then? A good answer is often to move the car into the shade, which usually means under trees. Mottled light with shadows can actually enhance many car images, although the light filtering through to the car may still give undesirable contrast problems, and you may again want to consider a polar filter and reflectors. Caution with the polarizer though; it can kill those reflections that make the picture sing. Fortunately it’s not all or nothing; watch carefully as you turn the outside ring on the filter; partial polarization can fill that painful artistic hunger.

If time constraints require shooting outside the "golden hours" around sunset and sunrise, using filtered light through the trees provides a useful alternative.


An overcast day can provide a softer contrast situation that can be used to make effective car portraits.


Another trick worth a try is daytime fill flash. Much less bulky and clumsy than a reflector, just a light touch of flash, best done with the strobe off the camera and on a fairly low manual setting rather than automatic, can open up the shadows under the front bumper, put some light inside the car, and even out the contrast. Watch for unwanted reflections, though; glass and polished metal can throw a lot of the light back at the camera, and it’s easy to get windshield or headlight glare, often with one headlight throwing back more light than the other. Weird. And reflective license tags are a particular bane; they can really light up in an unnatural way. Watch the monitor on your digital camera and try moving your camera or strobe position if this is a problem.

Portable strobe provides good light fill for the driver and the details of the car that are in shadow, but literally backfires because of the unacceptable reflection from the 924's sidemarker.


A final thought: fill flash is even more useful with people than it is with cars. Think of all the pictures you’ve seen of a driver wearing a helmet, or one of those caps with the sponsor’s logo and the obligatory curved brim so long that the guy’s feet have never seen the direct sun. On a bright sunny day the camera, left to its own devices, will expose for the overall scene leaving the face and the all-important eyes in a pool of shadow. 

Helmets and caps can make a driver's eyes disappear in shadow. A touch of fill flash can make a world of difference.


Sure, you can intentionally over-expose to bring out those eyes, but then the rest of the picture is painfully over-exposed. Just a touch of battery powered lightning—perhaps a half or a quarter of what the camera would like to do on automatic—can make all the difference. The background is lit by the sun, the face and eyes by the strobe, and there is the extra bonus of the “catch light,” that little reflection from the strobe, that puts fire into the eyes.

There’s a lot more to say about flash, but that’s for another day. In the meantime, keep shooting, and let me hear from you at leonardt@pca.org.