Becoming a Jedi master of light is knowing how to shape it. Lighting for automotive photography requires you to join the automotive luminous flux alliance (ALFA) and struggle against the evil reflective refracting empire.

In these first steps of joining the powerful ALFA Order we’ll push studio automotive photography lighting over location car photography tips. Studio lighting for car photography will weed out the weak. Lighting for automotive photography in a studio is arguably the most difficult lighting skill there is. Starting here will give superior light shaping skills that transfer to other lighting realms with confidence against the reflective refracting empire.

1. Additive or Subtractive Lighting Method

Additive light is directing the light source at the subject. Pointing a light directly at sheet metal has the advantage of bringing out rich color, beautiful metal flake sparkles, and enhanced contours and shapes that define the unique designs of a car. reflective car photography lighting tipsThe disadvantage of additive car photography lighting is this law of light – *the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection* – in most cases this means you’ll see your light source reflected in the car.

Subtractive Lighting – is lighting the complete studio environment and using large light sucking black objects to subtract the light reflecting on the car surfaces. The advantage of manipulating the dark side (subtractive lighting) in automotive photography is speed. The whole car is evenly lit and you just have to place black material where you want the shadows. This is literally light shaping. The disadvantage can be the large soft nature of the highlights doesn’t bring out the juicy rich color, beautiful metal flake sparkles, and enhanced contours that additive lighting does. Subtractive lighting aka augmented lighting for car photography is normally done with Duvatyne and 4X8 flat black foam core.

automotive photography lighting tips

2. Quality of Light for Car Photography

Diffuse Light

Large glossy opaque to translucent highlights that cover the car surface with soft shadow line falloff. Diffuse light on a reflective surface makes the paint sheet metal, and chrome look sexy and smooth. The Subtractive Lighting method is diffuse light. Other ways of creating car-photography-lighting-diffusediffuse light are what we call a flying flat or a soft box. Both need to be large enough to cover the length of the car plus a little more. 10X30′ (3X9m) or 15X40′ (4.5X12m) are common sizes. A overhead track system to move the light source is needed. Flying flats are more useful in positioning the light accurately, and achieving different car photography styles. With a flying flat the light is bounced off the surface or transmitted through it. A soft-box or light bank is transmitted (additive) light only.

Hard Light

Small specular highlights with hard shadow line falloff. Car photography lighting tip - hard lightUsing hard light on reflective surfaces is the Additive light method. The visuals advantage is paint color saturation, enhanced subject shape, and hard light can result in a more natural look. Just like sunshine. This is a more advance technique that requires shooting the car in pieces to eliminate the law of reflection discussed above. The pieces are then put together in post-production.

Tube Light

Large florescent tubes produce highlights similar to Hard Light and softer shadow falloff like Diffused Light. Some say tube lights are the best of both hard and diffuse car photography lighting. Car photography lighting with tubesI say it’s a lighting quality that is a must have in your Jedi mastery of light struggle. Kino Flo makes beautiful Kenobi Flo eight foot lights, and if your budget doesn’t permit Home Depot has T5 florescent strip light fixtures that can be mounted together.

Car’s are giant curved mirrors that reflect everything.

These are the Jedi car photographer lighting shaping skills. Mastery of automotive photography lighting is an hero’s journey on the path to the illustrious automotive luminous flux alliance.

Tell us how we can help with your struggles among the evil reflective refracting car photography empire.


  • Hi Steven,

    These are great examples. Back in the late 80s, I assisted in Los Angeles for Seventh Wave Photographic, which was mainly Robert Traniello from Boulevard, and once for the latter. They were mainly into flying flats at the time. So I didn’t have much experience with the other methods you described. Can you elaborate on this? “This is a more advance technique that requires shooting the car in pieces to eliminate the law of reflection discussed above. The pieces are then put together in post-production.”


    • John, shooting in pieces means blocking the light on different components of the car to get the desired highlight and horizon line. For example, the windshield is reflecting a different part of the cyclo than the side mirror. I treat and capture each one individually on set and reassemble in post-production. In high volume commercial automotive this technique is faster and costs less. I don’t miss the days when we had to get everything right on one sheet of film, but there’s still nothing like the look of perfect 8X10 transparency.

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