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Automotive Lighting 3: Using flash


John Jovic

Using flashes (or strobes, it's the same thing) when shooting cars has become quite easy with the instant feedback that comes from digital cameras. Of course you can shoot cars without flashes, obviously you can, but the flexibility and freedom you get from a handful of moderately priced flashes is addictive and it lets you shoot cars in new and different ways. Flashes won't solve all of your lighting problems and there are certain things you can do with simple reflectors that you can't do as easily with small strobes, and vice versa. There are also times when using flashes is the wrong course of action but it's still very useful to know how and when to use them and how to get the best out of them.
The examples below show some very simple ways to use flash, simply to fill a shadow. You could use a reflector to do the same thing in most cases, if there is sun to reflect.
Without flash fill.  

With flash fill. The shadow side of the car should generally look a little darker then the sunny side as this looks more natural.

Here the car was mainly lit with ambient light but the grille was filled with a small strobe.  

A Canon 580 EXII with PocketWizard as used for the previous image.

Strobes allow you to shoot in ways that simply might not otherwise be possible, such as at night or shooting into the sun or simply to under expose the background for effect.
Shooting at night with strobes.  

A dramatic sky was taken advantage of as a background. The car was in total shade and was lit with strobes.

There are probably a couple of basic strobe lighting arrangements which work quite well in most circumstances. Normally one strobe is used for the front/rear and either one or two strobes are used to light the side of the car. The type of paint used on the car has an influence in determining the strobes needed because a normal non metallic paint can usually be lit quite evenly with a single strobe. Metallic paints usually need 2 strobes to light the side of the car evenly with each one positioned to light the area above each wheel.
This car has a non metallic paint and was lit evenly with a single strobe (to light the side of the car). Keeping the strobe as far from the car as possible makes the light distribution more even than if the strobe was close so is more important when using a single strobe.  

This car also had a non metallic paint however shooting the car in profile required 2 strobes for even illumination.

It is important to try to light cars as evenly as possibly so 2 lights where used for the side of this car, again with a flat paint (although very slightly metalic).  

White cars are usually quite easy to light and in this case 2 lights where used on either side of the camera (and out of shot), which in fact mirrored the 2 lights positioned behind the car for effect. Note also that a strobe was placed on the ground behind and below the car to light the concrete floor under the car for effect.

This image illustrates how metallic paints react to direct light and why a single strobe is usually not enough. In this example the flash was overexposed to show it's effect in the cars panels. The metallic paint only 'pop's at the exact angle where the flash is being reflected directly into the lens. Although these two flashes would easily illuminate a straight paint colour quite evenly they simply can't do that with metallic paints and hence the need for more than one strobe, particularly with darker cars. Dark metallic colours are difficult to light with strobes as can be seen in the above example where the lighting would be uneven even when exposed correctly, to reduce the effect of the strobes relative to ambient.  

In contrast this light metallic car is lit quite evenly using the same setup as the dark metallic car in the previous image. Two strobes are still needed to light the side of the car evenly.

Flashes are very useful for making metallic colours 'pop' particularly when there is no sun in the sky. Overcast days often lead to drab colours and often the best way to bring the colours to life is to light them with some direct light. Flashes seem most effective with metallic paints for 2 reasons. Firstly they simply bring out the colour that was meant to be seen but which simply doesn't appear without bright direct light. The second reason flashes work so well with metallic paints is because the metallic paint gradually changes the way it reflects the flash depending on the angle on incidence. This has the effect of creating a smooth gradation in the way the flash is reflected in the panel. This gradation simply does not happen with solid (non metallic) colours which often look flat when lit with direct light such as flash. Metallic paints require the light to be reflect directly from the panel into the camera lens. This means the the strobe will generally be effective on only a small part of the car, maybe only one quarter panel, so more than one strobe is normally required to light the side of the car. Typically one strobe is used to light the front quarter panel and another for the rear.

A flat panel can be difficult to light with a reflector because the reflector would be difficult to hide (you'd see a reflection of the reflector). On the other hand this flash made the colour 'pop' but didn't leave any nasty highlights or reflections.    
Metallic colours 'pop' when lit with flash or direct sun with fill. This car was in full sun however strobes where still used to bring out the metallic more than with the sun alone. A polarising filter was also used to increase colour saturation in the side of the car and in the sky.  

The strobes where positioned to bring out the metallic paint evenly along the length of the car instead of only where the sun was reflecting in the car (which was above the rear wheel in the previous image). Each strobes only affects a relatively small part of the car so multiple flashes are used to try to light the car evenly from front the rear. Metallic paints require the light to reflect directly from the panel into the camera lens. In the above image the rear quarter panel of the car shows no effect at all from the strobes as this image was NOT shot from the camera's position. This image shows how critical it is to position the flashes accurately for the position of the camera and the effect required.

Metallic colours work well with strobes. This was shot on a dull, overcast day which made the colour look drab. Strobes were positioned to highlight the metallic colour.  

The lights where arranged in a typical setup with 2 strobes to light the side and one strobe for the rear.

Interiors, engine bay and details shots are well suited to being shot with strobes, usually with light modifiers to give a soft light. The consistent colour of the strobes also makes it easier to get accurate colours compared to shooting in open shade which is often quite blue.
Softboxes, or similar light modifiers, are best suited for interiors, engine bays and other detail shots where a soft light is required.  

This is a basic setup for shooting an interior. The consistent colour and soft light from the softboxes gives more vibrant colours than simply shooting an interior without strobes, ie in shade.

Small strobes fitted with radio slaves come in handy for awkward spots like car interiors or engine bays where they can be used for fill.

The speakers on the door trim have been lit with a small strobe just enough to keep them from disappearing into the darkness. Without fill light the speakers are simply too dark and lacking in detail.  

A small strobe with a radio remote or optical slave can often be hidden in a foot well and used as a fill light.

The height of any strobes should be carefully considered for each individual light as there is no single best height for strobes. You can not simply set all lights at the same height and expect them to be effective, that would be a 'schoolboy mistake'. Some strobes are best close to the ground whilst others might need to be as high as possible. The exact position of each strobe will almost always need to be altered each time the camera itself is moved. This is the reason zoom lenses are more practical than prime lenses when photographing cars with strobes because you can simply zoom in or out and change the composition of the image without actually repositioning the camera and potentially having to adjust the lights to suit.

The lights were raised on stands so that they would light the raised carburettors and engine bay.  

The lights were lowered for the rear shots so that they would light the differential and tyres as much as possible. Using strobes on stands may have prevented the rear tyres being lit at all. Strobes positioned close to the ground can have significant light spill which may need to be controlled with barn doors or cutters (stiff cards or similar) to shade the light.


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