Friday, February 7, 2014

How to Shoot Black Cars – The Basics

When you start to shoot various cars other than your own, you quickly discover that different colors photograph in different ways, and the automatic metering on your camera is easily fooled by different colors and types of finishes.  It can also be fooled by show lighting, resulting in a widely varying degree of success when shooting overall.

Generally speaking, the darker the car, the harder it is to photograph properly.  By far the most challenging common color is gloss black.  The reason for this is simple; your eye literally cannot see black, and neither can the camera.  Black is the absence of light and the absence of color.  You can’t use a flash directly on a black car, as it simply sucks up all the light, or if you try to reflect the flash off the car, you’ll see a small blob of light wherever the flash is reflected.

If we keep in mind that we can’t actually see black, then what is it we’re seeing when we look at the car?  Reflections.  A black object is defined by the way the reflections of the surroundings behave on its surface.  Those reflections tell us how glossy the surface is and what the shape of the object is, which is how we’re able to discern the fender lines and body curves.

Combine this with the desire of many photographers to eliminate or reduce reflections, and you get a recipe for rotten shots of black cars, with no vehicle definition and blown-out backgrounds.

So keep these steps in mind as a starter:

  1. Embrace the reflections.  Find a decent location that will be interesting when reflected off the car.  The black will reflect color, like the blue of the sky, and that might be desirable.  It might even be desirable to catch the roof full of lights reflecting off the roof of the car at the car show.  But seeing the dumpster in the alley reflected on the door will not be good for a black car, whereas it wouldn’t have been a factor on a silver car.
  2. Take your polarizer off!    It can be a magical tool for most cars, but for black it’s a much more subtle tool.  Remove it until you’re ready for more work (see the post How to Shoot Black Cars – The Advanced Shooter later on).
  3. Let your camera expose for the car to start, then compensate by clicking your Exposure Compensation knob to -1 or -2.  That’s because the camera’s auto exposure tries to make the prevailing brightness “average,” or grey; so it will make a black car too bright, and a white car too dim if left to its own devices.  Better yet, put the camera in Manual and start experimenting with the exposure until you get it right.  You should be doing that anyway!
  4. Put the flash away.  In addition to just seeing a dot of light on the car, you’ll also find in the final shot that the front of the car looks normal (or grey, depending on your metering), and the back is dim.  That’s because your flash cannot cover the entire car with an even light, causing the more distant portion to not be covered by the flash.  You’ll also see that the back of the car and anything behind it looks amber.  That’s because your flash is a different color than the lights during the show, giving you two different white balances.  Combine those two problems, and you can see why the flash is worse than useless.   So, you have a fancy Gary Fong softbox for your onboard flash?  Use it on a model, not at a car show.  It won’t do anything for your shots, except perhaps for interior shots.

Certainly these aren’t the only tips for shooting black cars, but I guarantee that you’ll end up with better shots if you use them.  Practice with them for a few shows, and you’ll find that your shooting will dramatically improve.  Then you can move on to How to Shoot Black Cars – The Advanced Shooter.

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