Automotive Light Painting Editing Process and BTS

Light painting is one of the rights of passage photographers have to try at some juncture. I enjoyed playing around with it in the early days, but what surprised me is I have used the techniques commercially on several occasions; from creating better backgrounds to my portraits in dark locations to capturing English Heritage sites. The importance of knowing how to light paint isn't necessary per se, but it does help you understand how light works and how your camera exposes a scene.This video is a great demonstration on how one might go about light painting in a commercial setting. From my own experience I would say that a continuous light source inside a softbox is by far the best way to go about it; particularly if you're working with shiny objects like cars. Generally speaking, the bigger and the softer the light source the better, although there are exceptions to that rule such as painting in minor details. In this tutorial they tread a fine line that I identified while light painting a small and complex room last year; the line between too many and too few exposures.

If you spend huge amounts of time carefully light painting every inch of the subject meticulously you're met with two problems: the first is that you've got a mammoth composite job waiting for you when you get in. The second is that you can get a strong "artificial" feel to the final image; something along the lines of HDR. That's not to say that with the right retouching it can be avoided and perhaps even having more exposures puts you in a stronger position, but I would always err on the side of caution when it comes how many images you use.

Regardless, this tutorial is very interesting to watch and undoubtedly helpful to those of you wanting to try your hand at these sort of techniques. I would also echo the comment in the video regarding compositing: Mike Kelley's approach of layers masked out and set to "lighten" is very effective.

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Shaun Maluga's picture

Whilst layers set to lighten is good for particular passes (thin reflections), don't forget that shadows and fall off are just as important as highlights. So you don't want to stack all of your layers set to lighten and mask off the nice highlights, sometimes you want to use that nice gradient where the light falls into shadow.

Shaun Maluga's picture

And for car stuff you really need to pay attention to the reflections. It can be hard to do (I certainly haven't done it enough to master it) but you need to have the reflections in logical places to highlight the lines of the car, shoulder line, roof line, wheel arches/lip maybe etc.

Robert K Baggs's picture

The photographer in me really likes this shot. The petrol head in me LOVES this shot.

Casey Morton's picture

Very interesting stuff. Not my sort of photography, but I love the techniques and the skill it takes to make a stunning image like that

Shintaro Maeda's picture

Been experimenting with this stuff myself. I wonder what led light he used in the softbox to get that even coverage. I've been using just a led flashlight inside of a 24inch box.

Chris Ingram's picture

Good tutorial on how to achieve this type of shot, but for me, the final result is way too "fake". The car totally looks composited into the scene. I think the key to getting a more 'grounded' image is more light around the base of the car, perhaps even some rim-light (for want of a better term) shooting low from behind the car to light the ground under the car back toward the camera. The other thing that I don't like about this image is the amount of rim light shining across the bonnet and windscreen. That's one of those lights that feels completely unnatural to the viewer. Where is it coming from? The light on the near side of the car could be from a bunch of different light sources, including strobes/softboxes etc, out of scene...but the other side clearly shows no lightsource on the car. A far more subtle rim light, not from such a downward angle, would be much more believable to viewers, as it could be cast by the buildings in the background.

The pass down the near-side car doors really washes out the final image and is very hazy. It would have been much stronger without it.

I feel like the comments below demonstrate much better/realistic results. But then I'm no expert on actually doing this stuff...I am just commenting on what I see in the image from my taste.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Looks like a lot of effort went into the shot, and it shows how hard it is to shoot a black car at night.
I cant tell because it's too small but what's is going on in the side of the car?
Are those some sort of graphics or lights below the A pillar near the front wheel? or is that a reflection of the streetlights? The side is not cleanly lit and there's a ghostly reflection down the side of the car. You need to follow the "character lines" the designer designed into the car, not over whelm with light...
The weird thing about many light painting shots is when there is a disconnect between the light and the environment.

Fraser Almeida's picture

Wow, thanks Robert for the article, I'm actually the photographer who shot the car and created the video tutorial. I'm no expert, but just wanted to share what I've learned with others who may be interested in this type of photography and techniques. Mike Kelley and Fstoppers played a huge role in the tools I've learned to apply for my commercial and personal work.

Robert K Baggs's picture

My pleasure Fraser -- it's great work. You can see by the number of comments this has been getting how popular it is. I look forward to more videos from you!

Emil eriksen's picture

heres my first try I almost had the same approach but a cheaper car ;) I like the result but there is still room for improvements. ill add those when i have a more interesting subject :D

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Good for a first time but a few things to think about.There are no specular highlights which show up when the light source is reflected in the paint so it looks almost matte finished. IS this all direct light? The hood, roof and side are almost all the same value of red. Usually I like to "break the planes" by having one of the horizontal and vertical planes be brighter than the other..which one is up to you. The far A pillar is lost in the shadow, a little rim light and some light reflected into the windows might help. the color looks good, but now you need to work on using the light to give more shape to the car. Good start.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Here are a couple of shots that I posted on Fstoppers a while back. I used similar light painting techniques as well. Depending on the look I'm going for, I like to soak up some ambient light as well. The daylight shot is a combination of ambient frames mixed with light painted frames. The darker image is entirely light painted.

Fraser Almeida's picture

Good shots from everyone, I'm always learning with this style of photography. Can't wait to apply the new things I've learned to the next shoot.

Here's the other angle I shot for those interested.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

A polarizer may help clean up the stuff reflected in the side.

Fraser Almeida's picture

Good tip! Didn't event think about that, will have to keep that in mind next time.

Matthew Aims's picture

Polarizer is one of my number 1 tools when shooting a car on location! Especially handy when stacking layers because you can cut out reflection on each part of the car frame by frame. Hood, side, windshields... All by twisting the filter!

Fraser Almeida's picture

Definitely need to make it a priority to use next time I shoot anything reflective. Thanks!

Chris Ingram's picture

Hang on, but wouldn't that produce the 'matt' look that we're seeing in some of the other images here? A complete lack of reflections leaves the car feeling rather dull. Or do you get the reflectionless image of each side as a base image and then turn the polarizer "off" for doing the lightpainting, so that you get better reflection values from your painting? Can someone explain in more detail, or better still, do a tutorial on how to include a polarizer into such a shoot?

Chris Ingram's picture

I like the result on this image so much more. The car feels far more planted in the environment, and the lighting is more believable. Well done.

Cédric Bloch's picture

And one from me as well! I use the same method! Softbox and continous light. In this shot i tried to combine the lights from above, including the reflections. Normally i would shoot a black car in a pitch black enviroment...

Fraser Almeida's picture

I like it a lot. Just some notes, the rear wheel looks darker than the front, and the hotspots on the red doors have a weird ring around them, maybe Toning it down might help with that. And if I really wanted to be picky, I would say make sure the vertical lines are straight, look at the wall on the left of the image, you'll notice the angle. But besides that love the contrast with the colors, good job man.

Cédric Bloch's picture

Thank you very much Fraser! Yes, now i see that the rear wheel is darker. And yes the lines aren't straight, because i completly forgot to do that! Thank you very much for the informations!

Cédric Bloch's picture

Fraser, would you mind looking at the updated version? What do you think?

Mr Hogwallop's picture

This is one I shot a while back...tried to keep it simple with the minimum of lighting. By not over lighting it the shape is more defined.

Paulius Staniunas's picture

I did something very similar, but we've used fire for painting. You can check the image attached here. More images from that shoot can be found here: It was a commercial photoshoot for VW Malaysia.

Joe Carr's picture

Which light(s) were you using in the softbox?