How to photograph a car using flash

It’s one of the most common questions I get as a professional car photographer: How do you use flash when photographing a car?

Orange Mercedes AMG GTR Black Edition photographed using flash in a dark farm barn

And quite frankly, it should be a common question! It’s one of the most powerful tools to use, when the conditions aren’t great, or to simply give some extra punch, highlight something about the subject. Flash gives you this power. And learning the skill of flash will put you ahead of those who can’t. Simple. 

For this tutorial I’ll be explaining my process for shooting this Mercedes AMG GTR Black Edition. I’ll show you my raw images, where the flash was positioned and what camera settings and the flash power. 

Here is the gear I used on this shoot;

Nikon Z7

Nikkor Z 24-70mmf/2.8 S lens

Pixapro CITI600 flash head

Pixapro PRO ST-IV 2.4GHz Flash Trigger

7” Reflector Dish

16” Beauty Dish Reflector with diffuser (optional)

Gitzo 5543XLS Tripod

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom Classic

Now, before you jump on the internet and start  buying everything on the list, please remember thats just the kit I use, any camera that can shoot in manual mode, and has a hot shoe will do the job. The flash I use is rated at 600 watts, this is powerful enough to punch light into shadows on the brightest of sunny days, but I didn’t need the full 600 watts inside this dark farmyard barn. A tripod is essential for this type of image, but any one that nice and sturdy will do the job. On this shoot, I had the help of an assistant, but its all possible without help, by using a wireless remote trigger, and triggering the camera with that in one hand, and the flash in the other!

With the camera mounted and composition chosen, the camera is set to manual mode, this is vital to avoid any changes in settings whilst shooting. You start by setting your ambient exposure, taking into consideration the brightness of your background, or areas of the image that you won’t be filling with flash.  The settings I landed on were - 1/100 second at f/9.0 with ISO 320. The shutter speed is the least important here, as we are shooting a tripod, there shouldn’t be any movement. My aperture at f/9.0 gives me a nice depth of field, with the whole car in focus. And lastly the ISO near its base at 320, this will avoid any noise in the image.

Here is what the shot looks like at this point.

From here it’s time to test the strength of flash power you need. This will depend on multiple factors, the power rating of flash you’re using, the distance between the flash and subject, and how strong the ambient light is. The good news is we’re shooting digital, you get it wrong, you take another! No harm done. My flash was set to 1/32. This is middle of the road in terms of its power output, and providing we keep the flash distance the same, we can leave the settings there. 

So let’s start lighting the car! 

NOTE - This next part may require some real trial and error!

Every car is different. The overall shape of its body, the lines and details. All these factors affect how the light will look, and where the flash wants to be positioned. In my opinion, you want to work WITH the design of the car, highlighting body lines that the designers have built into the shape. Flash is great for this, as you can force light and darker areas into the image, accentuating the cars design. 

I started with the front of the car, and taking note of the lines on the bonnet, I positioned my assistant with the flash around the nearside front of the car.

Orange Mercedes AMG GTR Black Edition photographed using flash in a dark farm barn

You can see the effect of the lights position, not only lighting the front bumper but also emphasising the power lines on the bonnet. The designer will love you for this. 

Whilst in this area, a few extra shots with the flash in different positions will give you more options to blend in when editing. We got another shot with the flash nearer the car, lighting the back of the bonnet and A pillar, then another to put some light on the interior to show the seats and roll cage. 

We then head to the drivers side and start from the rear, working our way forwards. Always keeping the flash the same distance and angle to the car.

With all the body panel areas shot, I wanted to give some other areas an extra hit of light, especially the wheels, given they are black, they can sink into the shadows if you’re not careful. To help with the wheels, I used a larger 16” dish with a diffuser attached. This makes the flash area larger and also has the effect of softening the light, meaning the wheels and tyres have a more even coverage of light, rather than small hotspots of flash. 

Finally, I wanted to do something with that monster of a rear spoiler, as it’s black, it was being lost into the dark background. After a couple of attempts, we got a frame that highlights the end plates of the wing, and brings its shape out from the background. 

Next comes the fun job of blending all your images in Photoshop. I won’t go into heavy detail here, as thats another blog in itself, plus there is plenty of tutorials on YouTube about how to blend layers using masks. 

The general idea is to layer all the images on top of one another, then expose the parts of each shot that you want, so that you end up with the whole car lit in one image. Here is what my layers panel looked like. 

With the layers blended, the car will look something like the next image. You’ll notice the white hotspots, where the flash is reflecting back to the camera.

So we now need to clean up the paintwork, removing the hotspots, and any unwanted reflections. This can be tricky at first, but using a mix of cloning, spot healing and painting and you’ll find what works. Once I’m done with cleaning, I make my final tweaks in Lightroom, adjusting exposure in different areas and grading colours. 

The final result

If this has been helpful, drop me a message and share your results!

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