Picture Perfect: How to Photograph Cars at Night
Ever wanted some mysterious, cinematic night photos of your ride? Victoria Scott explains how to get started.
If you've ever gotten off of work and wanted to take some solid shots of your pride and joy, but the sun had already gone down, I wouldn't blame you for writing off the day. The beams of the sun, especially within an hour of its rise and set, are absolutely the easiest to work with for any kind of photography. Throw in one of the most difficult subjects in photography—a large, hard-to-artificially light, two-ton hunk of steel and glass—and you'd be forgiven for just heading to bed at twilight.
But with a little creativity and some lighting tips, the long, dark hours of the night can be just as creatively fruitful as any part of the daytime. My night photography got a fair amount of attention during the Vanscontinental Express series last year, and I've gotten even more into this year with my full-time move to the Nevada desert. I'm not a trained professional, but I've been growing my skills as a hobbyist for over a decade now. So, I decided it was well past time to put together a guide for taking nighttime shots of your car like a... well, like a semi-pro at least.
1. B.A.T. (Bring a Tripod)
The first and perhaps easiest way to take night shots, of course, is to break out a tripod.
Gear really does not matter for a tripod, as long as you're persistent. I have a nice Manfrotto nowadays, but I used to stack my Nikon on top of a couple of milk crates or a pile of books; the most important thing to remember is not to touch the camera once the shutter is open. Any wobbling will cause faint areas of the picture to blur and muddy the overall shot. Remote shutter release cables—the kind that allows you to trigger the camera without touching it—or a self-timer help immensely with this.
To get the kind of light shown in this picture, you'll need to have a long exposure. For the above shot, I took a single 6.2-second long exposure at a relatively low ISO sensitivity and timed the shutter so that an oncoming car's headlights would add shadows and depth to the tires and rear of my van. The moon was nearly full in this picture, which helped illuminate the background mountains nicely, and shooting under the moon has helped me consistently in areas where I don't have natural light. The oncoming headlights shining on the van just give that extra oomph, and it was worth waiting for a car to head by to take this photo.
Let's say there's no traffic, like on the empty roads in the most remote stretches of the lonely Nevada desert, which I now call home. With no headlights, streetlamps, or other lights out in the wilderness, you'll need to use a longer exposure time to get the shot you want.
For example, this shot above is the equivalent of 35 seconds long, taken under a waxing gibbous moon (about three-fourths full). However, instead of taking one single 35-second-long shot, I chose instead to take seven five-second exposures and digitally stacked them (using Lightroom, but this can be done with any HDR photo merging software) into a single photo. By doing this, I was able to capture the night sky without having the rotation of the planet turn the stars into blurred streaks.
If I hadn't stacked my photos, the sky would have looked like this:
This shot is a single, 220-second long exposure. Because the shutter was open for so long, the Earth rotated enough to blur the stars into lines. This is a perfectly valid stylistic choice to make, but I tend to like clean points of light for my stars, so my more recent work under starry skies has been stacked exposures, rather than single long shots.
Regardless of the style I use, I always try to make sure there's some sort of light source that will emphasize the vehicle. In shot No. 1, I left the van's headlights on; in shot No. 2, I used the interior van roof light; in shot No. 3, I shined a weak flashlight on the van itself.
No matter which method you use, making sure that some part of the vehicle is lit, even dimly, will help draw viewers' eyes to the subject: your ride.
2. Or, Don't Bring A Tripod
If you want to take night photos in a place where it's impractical to plop down a tripod, though—the middle of a street, let's say—it can still be done!
This shot required me to be fast. The car wasn't parked in an actual parking spot, and I had to stand in the middle of a downtown street to capture it—certainly not a place I'd feel comfortable plunking down a tripod—so I simply hand-held the camera. The illumination is provided by the streetlamps I parked the car between, positioning the rear of the Porsche closer to the streetlight behind so that the iconic fastback silhouette would be lit the most prominently. For hand-held shots, your ISO will need to be much higher and your shutter speed will be much shorter than the tripod-taken photos, or you won't be able to hold the camera still enough to prevent shakiness.
(And remember, if you do decide to shoot photos in the road, ensure that you check both ways, and if any traffic is near, you wait for a safe moment. A good shot isn't worth getting hurt for.)
In this picture, I used ISO 1600, which adds considerably more digital noise to the shot, but with editing in modern denoising software, the end result can still be sharp enough for printing. Or, alternatively, you can leave the noise as an artistic element! Some people like the grainy look it adds.
I can personally hand-hold the camera at about 1/30th of a second fairly easily, but if you are unable to hold it steady enough for a crisp shot, don't worry too much. Speed up the shutter until you can get crisp, sharp photos, and raise the ISO to compensate for the shorter exposure. It's easier to remove digital noise in post-processing than it is to make a blurry shot look good.
Even if a decent streetlight source isn't available, there's still hope. The ambient light for this shot was very low—the nearest streetlights were over 40 feet away from the car—but the repeating patterns and colors of the motel and the randomly parked '90s Mercury made this spot a can't-miss for me. Again, I stood in the middle of a four-lane city street, so I had to hand-hold the camera to take this photo. Despite the lack of illumination, the outlines of the Porsche against the motel, combined with the 912E's corner lights, made it stand out enough that I ended up with a dramatic, interesting scene.
With a poorly lit shot like this, well-planned editing will help significantly. To help the Porsche stand out a bit, I increased the saturation (color) and luminance (light) of yellow in the photo, while intentionally darkening the blue-hued shadows in the photo. This helped the car's silhouette pop from the foreground pavement.
3. Remember: Colors Are a Lie
The last thing I love to keep in mind for night shots is that colors can be deceptive. Your camera sensor will do its best to capture whatever light is around, but rarely will it capture what the scene felt like as you took it, and the shadows of the evening hours are the best place to express creative freedom. The first shot is as-taken (as a RAW photo, to allow me full color-editing freedom). The second shot is after I'd edited it.
The final version has a whole host of color editing applied to it—custom white balance and tint, color grading, individual hue tweaks—but most importantly, it still looks like a scene that feels real, albeit a bit stylized. The beauty of any city at night is that with so many different color tones and competing light sources, nearly any hue or color blend imaginable can be made to look right in the final product. The freedom offered by the artificial glow of the evening is an absolute joy to work with in editing software because you truly have complete control over the final product.
No matter what styles or methods you try, it doesn't mean you have to put the camera away just because the sun sets. Best of luck under the moonlit skies and neon-drenched city streets, and happy shooting!
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