How to take better car photos in the dark – an idiot's guide

41w ago


Being a resident of Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's incredibly rare I ever see much of our green and pleasant land given its propensity for being shrouded in darkness the entire bloody time.

Such perpetual misery isn't great for taking photos of anything. But this year I've made it a bit of a personal mission to take some car photos in the dark.

Here, then, is a very untechnical and absolutely amateur explanation of how you don't need to let the lack of light stopping your creative juices flowing. I'll even share some of my crapper attempts from over the years, just to convince you I'm very much a rank amateur.

Things you will need to take photos of a car in the dark

• A camera with manual exposure controls (eg. adjustable shutter speed, ISO, aperture)

• A tripod (a full size one preferably, it just needs to be able to hold the camera between waist and shoulder level)

• {Optional} A smartphone with a torch function, or an actual torch. Or an LED light of some description

Step one: composition

Not a great first effort, but in my defence I'd got pretty drunk in the Chateau behind the BMW. I had driven it to Normandy all the way from Gibraltar with only Michelin-star food lining my stomach. Life is hard at times

Even though you're shooting in the dark you'll want to consider your background. Is it interesting? Can you compose the photo well? A night photo still needs to be well composed, with a nice non-distracting (but pleasing) background. Park the car at your desired angle. I'm boring and not very good at this so tend to dump it at a 45 degree angle facing towards the camera, so you can see the front and the side. Some people call this 'front three quarters'.

Step two: camera setup

An even worse attempt by yours truly. In my defence I'd got pretty drunk in my friend's house behind the Focus

Now, wander around with your camera and work out where it needs to be to get the shot you want. Now bung the camera on your tripod and adjust your tripod's head/legs/arms/abdomen to suit.

Put your camera in full manual mode, set the aperture to somewhere in the middle of your lens' aperture range (somewhere around f/9 is probably fine), put the ISO nearly as low as it'll go (ISO 200-800 is probably fine on most DSLRs and mirrorless) and then slow your shutter speed down until your camera's telling you that it's a nicely balanced exposure (ie the EV readout goes to 0, as opposed to -2, +2 etc.). You may want to darken the exposure a little bit (-1 perhaps) if you want to get a moody shot and ensure it doesn't like daytime.

Be sure to set your camera's self-timer – pressing the shutter button and having the photo take immediately will cause your camera to wobble slightly, leading to a blurry, soft photo. The timer mode will help avoid this – this is the function you'd normally use to start a photo and run quickly into frame so you can be included in your perfectly awkward family portrait.

Step three: get creative

You can use these tips in dark places as well as outside, obvs. This one's alright, but in my defence I had got very drunk in the hospital whose car park this was.

This is where the fun starts. You've got a shot – how does it look? Adjust your composition and shutter speed/ISO/aperture to brighten or darken the picture.

If you're in a very dark area the photo then chances are the picture will look a bit flat. Here's where your smartphone comes in.

I this lit with my iPhone's torch, and used a separate shot for the sky before blending them badly in Photoshop. In my defence, I'd got pretty drunk in the creepy abandoned portacabin behind the Mustang

If you're using a nice long shutter speed (say, 10-60 seconds), then you can use a bright light to 'paint' the surface of the car during the exposure to really make it pop. This takes a lot of experimenting, but just quickly light up the curves, wheels and so on with your smartphone torch (or LED light… or any portable light source). Then check the shot… and do it again if it doesn't look quite right.

Step four (optional): get complicated

If you've got your camera rock solid on a tripod you can blend lit and unlit shots in Photoshop. I did this with the Mustang shot above – I took an unlit shot to capture the starry sky, then lit up the 'Stang with my iPhone torch in a separate shot. I used Photoshop's system of layers and blending modes to achieve decent results quite quickly.

Got night shots you're proud of? Drop them below!

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