Picture Perfect: Taking the Best Shot in the Worst Possible Light

Noon means incredibly difficult, harsh light to work with. But you can still get stunning results with the sun directly overhead.

byVictoria ScottJul 27, 2022 11:00 AM
Picture Perfect: Taking the Best Shot in the Worst Possible Light
Victoria Scott
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Given a perfect world, I'd personally schedule every shot of a car I've ever taken within an hour of sunrise or sunset, with light scattered clouds, low wind, and a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, and some photographs must be taken in less-than-ideal conditions.

One of the most challenging situations for me to shoot cars in—next to nighttime, of course—is sunny midday. Unlike evenings and mornings, when the sun has a warm glow and casts dramatic shadows that can work wonderfully with the lines inscribed into the sheet metal of the automobile at hand, noon offers nothing but harsh overhead light that flattens details and usually hides styling cues. Sadly for me, most of the first drives that auto writers go on (yours truly included!) only offer a chance to shoot our test vehicles from the late morning to the early afternoon, when conditions are the worst for interesting photos.

Victoria Scott

As a result, I've had to learn how to take headline-quality photographs even in conditions where I'd rather keep my camera in my backpack. In this installment of Picture Perfect, I'll walk you through the tricks I've learned to take a great shot of your car, even if the timing is all wrong.

Understanding Light

To get light to work with you at any time, first, we have to break down how light itself works, and how to use it for a dramatic shot.

In car photography, I tend towards a simple rule of thumb for all of my (sunlit) shots, irrespective of the time of day they're taken: Part of the car has to be in its shadow, and part of the car must be in direct light. Usually, I try to make this light cast its most direct and high-contrast shadows on interesting contour lines of the car itself, such as the roofline, or the front 3/4s edge. In the early morning or evening, this is an incredibly straightforward proposition, as long shadows and low-positioned sunlight make it easy to park a car for a dramatic angle.

You can see this idea at work well in Shot #1 of the Toyota Supra I reviewed for The Drive, taken within 20 minutes of sunrise, where it was possible to perfectly illuminate the entire side of the car while keeping the roof unlit. The low angle of the sun shows off the haunched fenders and scalloped roof of the Toyota well. This would be an impossible shot to take later in the day.

Shot #1: Supra at 7:06 AM (six and a half hours to solar noon; 15 minutes past sunrise)
Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm f1.4 @ f/2.0 for 1/400 second, ISO 50. Victoria Scott

With the option for a shadowed roof off limits after sunrise, I let the well-lit roof and hood of the car dictate how I line up my photograph later on in the day. Shot #2 of the Civic is a perfect representation of how to take a strong daytime shot with the same principles used in the Supra photo, but with the lit and unlit portions flipped. Since the sun was directly overhead, I angled the car so that the longest part of the shadow was shading the driver's side, and I could get a well-lit hood, roof, and front, and still maintain the sharp division between the car's front and its side quarter panel.

Shot #2: Civic at 11:37 AM (one hour and 25 minutes to solar noon)
Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm f1.4 @ f/3.2 for 1/1600 second, ISO 80. Victoria Scott

This shot was taken barely an hour and a half away from solar noon (also known as "high noon"), where the sun is highest in the sky for the day and the shadows are the smallest. Luckily for us as photographers, even during solar noon there will still be a little bit of shadow to work with, like there is here. The only exception would be if it is the summer equinox at the equator; shadows are cast directly straight down, which would make it more challenging, but the next tip I have provides a workaround for even direct overhead light.

Understanding Car Design

So let's say it's mid-summer, and you just can't find an angle for your car that works with your setting and your lighting that gives a nice 3/4s sunlit contrast, like on the Civic. What to do? For this approach to shooting, we need to analyze car design and how it is intended to be viewed.

Shots #3 and #4 of the Kia Sportages I tested for The Drive are an excellent illustration of how to allow the sun to work with the car's design to make it look vastly more dynamic than it would otherwise. The character lines of the car (its haunches and the sharply drawn door-crease line), rather than the front, rear-3/4s, or roofline, are what I focused on maximizing here. I accomplished this by parking the car roughly parallel (front-to-rear) with the rays of the sun; I say "roughly" because every car's character lines are different, and depending on how deeply they're drawn, you may need to angle it a few degrees off of truly parallel to the sun's rays for maximum effect.

Don't be frustrated if you can't get it immediately right when you park, either—it took me 10 minutes to finally get this Sportage in position for Shot #3, adjusting by what felt like millimeters until the body lines popped. Getting a shot that emphasizes the design of the car is an art, not a science, because every car is different. The best place to start for any car is with the sun directly out your front or rear window, and then slightly adjust left or right from there until you get the look you're dreaming of.

Better Photography Through Chemistry

The final step, of course, is to break out the editing tricks to really make your shot pop.

Shot #5 of the Challenger, straight out of my camera, is a rough one to work with. The Challenger's convex side panels and black paint made getting the natural lines of the car to pop like the Sportage's nearly impossible, and to boot, I was in the Central Valley of California in August, only 40 minutes past high noon. All I could do was line up a 3/4s lit shot (using the rear as the lighted portion, and the passenger side as the shadowed portion) and hope that I could edit it for more visual interest.

As you can see in my edited version, Shot #6, I came a long way towards making the photo more interesting and gave the body creases of the Challenger vastly more depth. I did all of this without stepping out of the basic Light editing in Adobe Lightroom, my preferred photo editor. These tips will work with virtually any photograph-editing program in existence, however (including most smartphone image editing apps).

The workflow is simple. Instead of playing with the Contrast slider directly, which tends to unnaturally increase saturation and flatten out any shadowed details, I instead modify three settings in its place: Highlights, Shadows, and Blacks. First, I lower the Highlights slider to help prevent over-brightness of the sky and the highly reflective dirt, and I raise the Shadows slider to resurrect the detail that would be lost in the black, shadowed side panels of the Challenger. The entire picture will look washed out at this stage, which is when I then take the Blacks slider and lower it until the car's shadows are back to being fully black. That's how we end up with Shot #6. From here, it's a matter of editing colors to get the final product.

Shot #7: The Final Product / Victoria Scott

In shot #7, you can see my finished product, which is a much more interesting, dynamically lit, and evocative photo than what I started with. Unfortunately, the full process for my color editing isn't in the scope of this story, but I will be writing about it in a future installment of Picture Perfect. Suffice it to say, though, is that I enjoy very warm photographs when shooting in the desert at high noon.

I hope this tutorial has helped you reconsider the least-useful hours of any photographer's day and helped assure you that even if you have to shoot at dead noon, you can still get phenomenal shots. Until next time, happy shooting, and don't forget sunblock for all those mid-day desert photos!

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