Brooks Pro Tip: How Car Color Impacts Lighting Preferences in Automotive Photography

April 23, 2013

Generally speaking, there are two categories of lighting that can be discussed when deciding on how to light your vehicle:

   1) Soft Light or “Sweet Light”  and

   2) Hard Light

Soft Light refers to lighting that occurs either just before, during and after the sun rises or sets. Hard Light is the lighting that occurs when the sun has already risen and travels throughout the daytime sky.

Car color characteristics are most important when determining whether to shoot during Sweet Light or Hard Light.

Most metallic cars light rather well during Hard Light conditions. The darker the color, the less it will respond favorably to Hard Lighting.

Car colors that do well in Hard Light situations are Silver Metallic, Beige Metallic, Light Blue or Light Green Metallic, and also any light opaque colors such as White or Yellow.

automotive photography tips

Now that you have determined what basic time of day you would like to use, it is time to consider where you want your key light (sun position) to be relative to your vehicle at shoot time. There are many apps that you can get for your smartphone that will chart the sun’s path at your specific position that can be very helpful. I use SunSeeker and have always been very satisfied.

Generally speaking, if you have chosen to light your vehicle in Hard Light, it is best to shoot when the sun is overhead, or midday. If you look at the images above, you will note that they are all shot during midday, except the shot on the left (and that  photograph used some augmented lighting to boost detail in the rear).

However, if you choose to light your vehicle during “Sweet Light,” many more options are at your disposal. You may choose to backlight your car, side light or use incident lighting.

For years, incident lighting was really the only way photographers used to light vehicles. You would position your car and background in a way that when the sun rose or set, the main portion of the car was reflecting the area of the sky that was where the sun was rising or setting. With experimentation, other ways of lighting took shape. Backlighting was used more with light colors or high angle shots. With dark colors, soft lighting became the preference.

automotive photography tips

To fully understand how cars respond to different lighting situations in relation to the particular car color, experimentation is invaluable.

As you can see in the images above, the different lighting configurations yield very different results. Experimenting with different lighting scenarios using different vehicle colors is essential for photographers who wish to specialize in automotive imagery, whether using a camera or a computer. Understanding how vehicles react to light is what distinguishes the amateur from the professional.

Harry Vamos is an instructor in the Professional Photography program at Brooks Institute. See more of his work at