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How To Light A Car

A Car Is A Chrome Ball

Chrome_ballWell, the short answer is that you can’t light a car. At least, not in any conventional way.

A car is essentially a chrome ball. If you try to light that ball with a conventional light, you will see that light reflected in the ball. It doesn’t matter where you move it (except perhaps directly behind it), you will still see its reflection.

So what to do? Let’s think about it.

A car is essentially a direct reflection of its environment. In other words, a car is lit by it’s own reflection. So the bottom line is, you have to find or create a good looking environment that makes the car look good.

If Outside, Make The Car Look Good

Blue Cheve dullWhat does this really mean? It means that the light sources you are going to use, when you look at them directly, have to be pleasing to look at. Can you think of some light source that is pleasant to look at? How about the bright blue sky? The blue sky is basically a big cool soft light, but when seen reflected in a car it looks soft and natural and defines the shape of the sheet metal. If we follow this logic along, what is more beautiful than a bright blue sky?

How about, a blazing sunset, streaks of orange and yellow with purple and blue? Some of the best car shots are recorded in this light, very often with the sunset seen directly in the side of the car.

Sunset reflectionHow about some light sources that are not so photogenic? Well, the naked sun ball reflected in a car, except for special effect, is just a hot blob of light screaming down the barrel of your lens reflected in the side of the car. As you are probably trying to make the car look smooth, sleek and sexy, having hard sunlight on the car is probably not a good idea.

What other kinds of soft light are there that might look good reflected in a car? Well if we are outside it might be the brightly lit side of a building, a group of trees, or a landscape. But if we are going to shoot a car on stage we need to come up with whole new set of tools to make a car look good.

Tips For Shooting A Car Indoors

Big Lightbox

A large flat panel of bleached muslin stretched on a frame, or a large overhead box-light are commonly used tools. By moving the light box or by lighting the muslin panel with interesting light pattern and seeing it reflecting in the car can give the sheet metal new life and definition. Now the problem with shooting a car on stage goes back to the chrome ball analogy. Even if the box light and the muslin panels are huge, we may still be able to see where they begin and end on the stage. That’s why we usually put the car onto a white cyc before we start lighting. A cyc is where the floor and walls of the stage backdrop blend into each other by curving the floor into the walls making one smooth surface. Sometime the walls are curved into the ceiling as well. This is the way we try to eliminate reflections of the stage interior.

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These methods tend to give an interesting but somewhat artificial look. Creating a set on stage, which is specifically designed to reflect in the sheet metal is another method of lighting cars. But the set must be specifically built to be reflected by the car. It wouldn’t be good to see the wooden structure supporting the scenery reflected in the sheet metal. Nor do we want to see the lights, illuminating the set.

Full Cove

One type of set, which we often see in car commercials, is an auto showroom. This usually starts by hanging a huge white “rag” in the ceiling of the stage and building the showroom set beneath it. It usually has large windows, through which we see either a “translite” or backlit tracing paper flats. All these features create pleasing reflections in every facet of the car.

Another method for getting naturalistic reflections in a car is to use a “translite” by itself. A “translite” by the way, is a life size backlit photo backing which might be a beautiful landscape, or a cityscape, etc. These backings are not cheap to rent or easy to hang and light but they a great tools if you have the budget.

Lighting A Car On A Budget

Aston SunsetBut let’s assume you are doing a “spec spot” (a commercial shot on spec, for the sole purpose of showcasing your talent). You will be spending your own money, so you it would be nice to find lighting that is free. This is actually easier than it sounds, but it takes time and preparation.

As we said earlier, we need a beautiful environment to put the car into. We need to find this location and we need to study the light in this location to see what time of day it is best for reflections. There are no short cuts here, even the most experienced car shooter needs to do this.

The other thing we need is the actual car or a “stand-in” car (same color and approximate size) to test this environment and see how it’s going to look when we shoot it with actors and all the other production values.

What Color Car Is Best?

Mas with blipsLet’s now talk about car colors. A black car will act the most like our chrome ball analogy. Because there is no light being reflected from the black color itself, what defines the car to our eye is the reflection. A white car will have the opposite properties. The car will mostly be defined by the light that is reflected off the white paint. This will minimize the reflections of the environment. For this reason a white car is a lot more forgiving when being lit on stage. But it has its own challenges in creating contrast and modeling.

Brightly colored cars have some of this same characteristic but to a lesser extent. Cars that are dark but have subtle low key colors act almost like black cars. The challenge here is that your client will want to see that color in the final result. The trick is to make sure not to underexpose these shots. By being slightly overexposed, you will record enough color information to be able to force more color into the sheet metal in post-production grading. If your shot is underexposed, there will be no data with which to do this.

A Car’s Blind Spots

Photographrr blipI’ve left one of the greatest challenges about shooting cars until last. Back to our chrome ball. As we move close to the ball the thing we notice the most is “our own reflection.” Bummer! What are our strategies for getting rid this unwanted reflection? Well, luckily most cars are not exactly like chrome balls. As you walk around the car you will notice “blind spots” (places where your reflection disappears or is so small that it is not of concern).

These camera angles will usually include:

  • the four corners of the car (i.e. ¾ front left, ¾ rear left, ¾ front right, ¾ rear right)
  • high, looking down on the front or rear of the car
  • most low angles
  • backing away from the car, shooting it with a long lens

Sometimes it will be impossible to avoid “being seen” because of the camera move required by the creative content of the commercial. The strategy here is to disguise the camera and crew by hiding it in the environment. This would include covering the camera and crew with plants or greens. Camouflage netting. Blacking the camera and dolly and crew. Hiding behind other generic objects in the scene.

Final Tips

Over head flat

One more tip for creating stunning sheet-metal shots is to move the car or move the camera. This movement creates a jewel like quality to the vehicle and greatly enhances the viewer’s ability to see its form. A word of warning however is that all the problems we have taken efforts to solve for our static shot will have to be solved again at each different position of the camera. Check your light sources and reflections carefully. A light or camera that was not noticeable in a static shot will be much more visible in a moving shot.

Well that’s about it for now. This is a vast and complex discipline where experience and the ability to take short cuts and break the rules will make you a great car shooter. Go for it!

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About the Author


Bruce Logan, ASC was born in London. His love of imagery started when he was hired by Stanley Kubrick to work under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He came to California in 1968 and worked as a DP on over a dozen films, including: Tron, Star Trek, Airplane, Firefox, High Road to China, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Big Bad Mama, and Jackson County Jail. He did visual photography for most of these films as well. He has shot commercial films for most of the major companies: Pepsi, GE, Visa, Chevrolet, Pontiac, DuPont, Contac, Sprint, Amtrak, Suzuki, Sunlight, and Armstrong. And—he has applied his talents to making music videos for such high profile performers as Prince, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Glenn Frey, The Go-Gos, Karyn White, Tevin Campbell, Hank Williams, Jr., and Michael Cooper. See Bruce's full bio here.

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