Basic guide to night time car photography

I’ve been asked to produce a guide on simple guide on how to photograph your car(s) at night & also light painting. Very little specialist kit is required to do this, all you need is a camera with exposure control, a tripod, and of course your car you want to photograph.

Sometimes that is pretty much is as this shot (gratuitously pinched from Ed Callow)

Porsche 356A Cabriolet

demonstrates. Shot with a Nikon D3100 (their current ‘entry’ consumer SLR), taken in manual mode, with the aperture set at an ‘open’ F3.5 which in the depths of London at the night equalled a shutter speed of 8 seconds. This has given plenty of time for the passing traffic to give those wonderful light trails, which along with light bouncing off nearby shops & streetlights have nicely lit the car too.

Now I can here some brains melting at the back, apertures? manual? shutter speeds?

So some basics

ISO – this is old lingo for ‘film speeds, higher the number, the more sensitive to light your camera is (so shorter shutter speeds). It also equals more ‘noise’, less so on SLRs but a major issue with compacts. The cameras on a tripod, keep this as low as possible, and don’t worry about really long shutter speeds. In fact this is a bonus.

Shutter Speed – How long the camera ‘exposes’ the sensor to light. Hand holdeable speeds are above approx 1/60 of a second, to get time to ‘light paint’ the cars we need time to run around, so seconds, here shown as 2″ (2 seconds) or higher is what we are looking for.

Aperture – Inside the lens is an ‘iris’ just like the one in our eyes. The higher the number, the smaller the iris is, the less light is let in. Compacts are limited here as often the smallest the aperture can be is F8, whereas SLRs will stop down to F22-32 depending on the lens, which is a LOT less light hitting the sensor.

You’ve then also got the camera modes:

M – Manual, you set the aperture & the shutter speed yourself

AV (Canon) or A (Nikon) – Aperture Priority, in this mode you set the aperture, the camera automatically sets the shutter speed to suit.

TV (Canon) or S (Nikon) – Shutter priority, in this mode you set the shutter speed & the camera adjusts the aperture to suit.

P – Program mode, the camera sets the aperture, it usually attempts to keep it around the 1/125 mark, so will open up or shut the aperture down to achieve this.

Plus of course a myriad of scene modes which I’m going to completely ignore.

There’s also the ‘Exposure compensation/Exposure Meter’, in Aperture priority or Shutter Priority you can dial this up/down to instruct the camera to make the picture darker/lighter than the standard exposure. In manual mode this will show if the camera thinks you are going to over expose or under expose your shot.

I tend to use Manual mode, as this way your exposure is consistent between shots, as the camera can change the amount of exposure in other modes between shots as you compare you never can be 100% sure if the change is something you’ve done, or the camera. So I look at what the camera says in say, aperture priority mode, eg I’ve set it to F8, and the camera says 2 seconds, then use those as the starting point in manual mode, adjusting the aperture, or shutter speed, keeping an eye on the exposure meter indicator to ensure you aren’t heading in to over exposure, or so far off the bottom of the scale you’ll never light the car.

So light painting…, so adding to the previous kit of a camera, car  & tripod, we add a light source. For the basics you can use a big torch, so to demonstrate…

One Compact camera with exposure control, one car, and a torch…

There’s no right & wrongs here, this was shot in manual mode, in a dark area, the camera set to F8 and & 2″ (2 seconds), before the shot the camera was indicating this shot would be underexposed by about 2 stops, this would mean the shot would be very dark without any torch light. I set the camera on self timer and as the shutter went off, wafted the torch over the areas I wanted lit. Hey presto. The car is light painted, and the surrounding areas ‘underexposed’ into darkness. Unless you’re a prodigal genius, or just damned lucky, chances are it won’t work first time. Or the second. I’d probably suggest at a point where the camera suggests it’s only slightly underexposed, so when you take a picture you just get a slightly dark pic, then try another adding the light so you can see the difference, then start working to more extreme variations such as this which would be dark without the light. Beauty of digital is each shot is free and the feedback instant. Just keep changing the settings till you start seeing the results.

Photography is ruled by the laws of physics, so whilst this is using a model car, and a small pocket torch, scale this up to a real car, and a big hand held torch. If it’s too bright, then stand further back with the torch (double the distance the car will receive quarter of the light), or stop the aperture down to reduce the light allowed to the sensor. Too dark, stand closer or open the aperture up.

During the long exposure you don’t even need to worry about getting between the camera and the car either, as long as you keep moving then you won’t be stood still long enough to be recorded, as long as you don’t point the torch at the camera.

Here’s another demonstrate the process through the stages

Aperture Priority – No exposure compensation. F4.5 1/13th second


This is how the camera saw the shot, regardless of mode (without flash) this was pretty much the results you are going to get. Sat in the middle of nowhere, there is no passing cars, shops or streetlights to light the car.

Manual Mode – Under Exposed approx 2 stops.

This deepens the depth of the sky, but the car is now silhouetted as the sun is behind, and the car is now very unlit.

Adding some light

This is an identical exposure to the previous shot, but this time adding some light from a flash gun, just one on the floor pointing in quite clearly to the front wheel.

Finally adding two lights

The front flash is now angled to cash a bit more light along the side of the car, and a second flash is held up just out of the right of shot lighting the front end.

The above shot was done using radio remotes on the camera, as the ‘ambient’ light levels weren’t dark enough for longer exposures. As the light levels dropped, so did my batteries. You’ll see quite a lot of magazine shots done this way in brighter light, but they have much bigger flash guns than us.

Here’s something from a shoot a few years ago, did I mention white cars are awesome for this? White reflects the light superbly making your job easier. Dark cars as you can imagine suck the light in. Shooting my old Audi bordering on black but green really saloon on the same night I gave up as I needed a lot more power than my flash at the time .


Shot again in manual mode, with the shutter set to F13, giving an exposure of about 5 seconds. Later at night you lose the ‘dusk’ blues, but longer shutter speeds are easier to achieve, I then took my flash gun set to 1/8th power, and ran along it firing it so it got an even coverage of light. This could just as easily been some torches waived over it.

Hope this helps someone.

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