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Automotive Lighting 9: Studio techniques


John Jovic

What is a car studio and why use one?

A studio designed for photographing cars, bikes, or trucks can take several forms but most of them are a form of cyclorama. A cyclorama, or 'cyc', is a studio where the room, or part of it, has had the normal 90 degree corners removed and has gentle curves instead. These curved corners become invisible when they are behind the car or in the shot. They are also invisible when they are reflected in the car itself which is the main reason to use such a studio when photographing a car. Some car studios might only have a floor and a curved rear wall whilst some cyc's are fully enclosed (full cyc's) with only an opening for the car to enter. A full cyc is essentially a large empty room with no overhanging lights or anything that can reflect in the car.

Most car studios are white which allows them to be lit efficiently but studios can often be painted any colour including grey, black or even with elaborate painted backgrounds or sets.

Some car studios have a cyclorama with no ceiling and with overhead grids for lighting to be fitted. These types of studios are typically used for film or video but can also be used for cars. If used as a car studio they often have a very large over head soft box fitted which acts as the primary light source, or, they might have a very large reflector which can be lit to suite.

This is one kind of car studio, a full cyclorama or 'cyc'.  

The curves in the walls, which are typical in a cyc, can be seen in the lower right hand side of this image which shows the edge of the entrance into a cyc. The curves in the walls hide the edges where the walls meet making them invisible.

The reason studios are often used is because they allow the photographer the maximum possible control over lighting and angles so the end result is often better than might be possible on location. The weather is also irrelevant when you are indoors. There are other considerations too such as security and privacy which can be important factors.

Ultimately an image of a car in a studio is potentially uninteresting, especially if simply shot on a white background, so the final image is very often the result of considerable post processing and compositing to create an image where the car looks as good as it can but in an interesting background.

The downside of using studios is that they can be quite expensive to hire or maintain and the resulting images can be quite boring straight out of the camera, although this of course depends very much on the studio itself.


Cars don't change when you put them in a studio. You light them the same way in a studio as you would outdoors or on location. The difference is that the outdoors gives you various kinds of lighting for little effort on your part, such as at sunrise or set, yet you have to actually create these lighting effects yourself in a studio. This often means that you have to create a false or artificial horizon with blacks (pieces of material, usually black), possibly feather your lighting and generally be pretty careful where you point your lights in the first place.

The lighting on this car is similar to the lighting you would get at sunrise or sunset outdoors in certain kinds of locations and in clear weather however it may require considerable effort to create the same effect in a studio.  

A considerable number of strobes have been used to create a feather lighting effect in the side of the car and a false horizon has been created with material (blacks) draped on poles. Several more strobes, than those visible in the image, have been used to selectively light the studio walls which reflect in the roof and other parts of the car. No strobes are pointing directly at the car aside from some strobes inside the car lighting the interior itself. A polarising filter has also been used to temper the reflections in the windscreen.

There is no single rule for how to light a car in a studio, there are lots of different methods you can use. The lighting techniques used will vary with what's at hand, ie the kind of studio, the colour of the studio, the lighting equipment available and the colour or kind of car being shot.

Small strobes can come in handy in the studio too. In this case it's simply being used to light the engine bay but they can be used for highlights in wheels, interiors or other parts of the car that need a lift.  

This car was lit with soft strobe lighting reflected from the walls of a full cyc but the side of the car had a small strobe pointed directly at it so that the chameleon paint would 'pop'. The same technique can be used with any metallic paint, just as you might outside the studio.

Lighting cars in a studio usually, but not always, means that you are lighting the walls around the car, rather than pointing the lights at the car itself but this can be useful too. Of course this depends on the kind of studio being used so if the studio has a large overhanging soft box then this will be the primary light source.

These 2 images make an interesting comparison of 'normal' studio lighting and light painting. In this image the car was lit with strobes which where aimed at the ceiling, not at the car itself. The lighting is even but not very interesting.  

This image was entirely light painted with an LED light source. Strobes where not used at all.

Studios are ideal for light painting cars.  

Larger or wider light sources can be used, as in this case, to achieve a softer lighting effect.

Light painting is a commonly used technique for lighting a car in a studio because the dark studio environment lends itself to such techniques. The light painting techniques used in a studio are the same as those you might use on location. The only practical difference is that mains power is available so high quality fluorescent lighting can be used quite easily.

Tungsten vs Strobes

Although strobes are ideal for most photographic purposes they are not always the best choice of lighting in a car studio where tungsten lights can be quite useful and may even have some advantages over strobes. Strobes are certainly the easiest to use and can be mixed and matched with small battery powered units which can be hidden in all kinds of nooks and crannies.

Strobes are certainly ideal where people will need to be shot with the car as this allows high shutter speeds (and F stops) to be used so the camera can be hand held. One of the main problems with strobes is that they need to be fairly powerful to light a large studio, or you might need plenty of them, however they can be popped multiple times if needed. Strobes also tend to spread their light over large areas and may be difficult to focus and control. Snoots or fresnel lenses can be used to focus strobes where needed however snoots can weaken a strobes output whilst fresnel lens attachments are uncommon and expensive. A high power strobe with an adjustable fresnel lens is potentially an ideal light source for shooting cars in a studio.

Tungsten or 'hot' lights have been used for photographing cars for decades and they are still very useful and in some cases a better choice than strobes. Their main advantage is that they are commonly available with adjustable fresnel lenses so that they can be focused as finely as needed. This allows you to shine a relatively fine spot onto a part of the wall so that the light that is reflected in the car is relatively small. This makes it much easier to highlight specific parts of the car, such as a curve in a panel or window or the light can be feathered as much or as little as desired. Tungsten lights that don't have adjustable fresnel lenses are not nearly as useful as those that do have them but are great for lighting large areas just as you might with a strobe fitted with a standard reflector.

The disadvantage of tungsten lights, aside from possibly burning yourself on them, is that the exposures are often quite long, often around 15-60 seconds depending on various factors. However tungsten lights are quite well suited to using large F stops as it's a simple matter of extending the exposure as needed compared to using strobes where you would have to pop the strobes multiple times if you need to use an F stop larger than the strobes are capable of at full power.

Tungsten lights that are useful for car photography are typically in the 250W to 2KW range where the most commonly used lights would be 1K and 2K lights. Lights which are weaker than 1K are usually not very useful except for highlighting parts of the car such as wheels. The colour temperature of lights can vary so needs to be checked and any lights which don't match need to be jelled to correct them.

Creating horizon lines with blacks

Blacks are just large pieces of material, usually black, hence the name 'blacks'. They are positioned so that they reflect in various parts of the car, usually the side, but can be setup to reflect in any part of the car including the roof or bonnet. The correct position for the material will depend on the shape of the cars panels, the desired effect and the position of the camera.

One of the main reasons for using blacks is because they can help to highlight a cars shape and can add depth to the lighting by creating a false horizon in a cars reflection. Overhead soft boxes or reflectors have a similar effect by creating a very large highlight in the top of the car so there may be no need to use blacks with such lighting.

These 2 images are not from the exact same angle but are close enough for the purposes of this comparison. This image was shot without using any blacks so the shape of the car is harder to see.  

Blacks are typically used to create greater depth in the lighting and to show the contours of the car.

Blacks are often fitted to lengths of aluminium poles which are in turn supported on light stands, apple boxes or even on the floor. The exact height and angle of the poles will always have to be determined from the camera itself.

Notice the curved reflection of the blacks in the car. The blacks have been fitted to a rigid and straight pole but their reflection is curved because of the shape of the panel.  

Blacks can be used to add depth in any part of the car, not just the sides. They can even be supported above or behind the car with poles.

It's not unusual to use blacks on location however if used in windy conditions they have the potential to be dangerous to people and property. Blacks are best left for studio use or in safe environments where wind is not an issue.

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