If the camera roll on your phone is anything like mine, it’s a comprehensive archive of every interesting car you’ve seen in the past few years. Many of us are constantly striving to take better car pictures, and I’m all for sharing general tips and tricks to improve the way we set up, shoot, and edit our photos. One of my favorite things to do is shoot at night without a flash.
The first time I experimented with after-dark photography, I started with shots of the palm trees, shoreline, and trains in Del Mar, California. One couple walked past and commented that it was a little dark for taking pictures. It’s too bad they didn’t stick around to see the result because they might have picked up a new hobby.
Cars look fantastic when photographed in the dark. There are a lot of opportunities to be creative and learn new skills with a DSLR, too. Sometimes it’s fun to leave the details to the imagination like I did with this shot of my wife’s old Tiguan in a parking garage.
Here, the exposure is set to the exterior lighting, leaving the garage dark and mysterious.
Other times, it’s fun to light up the night with a long exposure. Camera sensors work by absorbing light. To get a properly exposed photo, you can either let in a lot of light for a tiny fraction of a second or let dim light slowly saturate the sensor over several seconds. That’s the approach I took a while back when shooting GF Motorsports’ impossibly wonderful Lancia Delta Integrale Evo 2.
This style of photography is all about patience. You’ll need more time to set up and take your photos. Your camera will take several seconds to process each one before you can see it. The extra time between opening and closing the shutter increases the chances of something messing up your shot.
First, shooting freehand is a no-go. Using a tripod or some kind of improvised rest is mandatory. I go so far as to set my shutter on a delay to prevent movement caused by my finger pressing the button from degrading the image’s sharpness.
Odds are, your first attempt will always look a little like this one: terrible.
Aside from the white balance being off, it’s way out of focus. Automatic and manual focus are both difficult to use with inadequate light. I always bring a flashlight to light my subject while I set the focus on my camera.
Furthermore, there are some visible blemishes to the right of the subject car caused by light reflecting off a passing vehicle’s windows. That’s distracting, but I do like the headlight streaks. This starting point has a lot of potential.
Correcting the focus comes first. Once that’s dialed in and the composition is set, follow-on adjustments are simple and easy. In this attempt, I overcompensated for exposure, resulting in a dark image. There’s always room for improvement in editing, but the less you say “I’ll fix that in post,” the better.
Here’s where the environment starts to come into play. Two cars created a broken streak of light from their headlights, which looks odd. That same window reflection is present here, too. The only way to fix this is to be patient and keep rolling the dice. Those reflections are more likely to happen with chrome trim, so different cars may be less problematic.
In this image, focus and exposure are right where I want them. Too bad there were no passing cars. It’s much less interesting to me without the action of headlights whizzing by.
On a side note, you’ll notice a starburst effect around the streetlights. That’s a result of using a very small aperture––f/11 in this case. Using a smaller aperture darkens the image and allows you to run a longer exposure. If this starburst effect bothers you, you can place a filter on your lens to decrease the amount of light that passes through it, allowing you to open your aperture more. I tend to use a fairly tight aperture at night because of the time advantage and because it gives me more depth of field, meaning more of the photo will appear in focus.
Patience pays off, and you’ll eventually get what you’re looking for.
This photo combined everything I was looking for and gave me plenty to work with during the editing process. I made the usual tweaks to colors and levels. I even cleaned up a few distractions in Photoshop. The result was a photo that required many attempts, about 30 minutes of shooting, and several more in editing. All that makes each successful long exposure that much more rewarding.
Night photography is a great way to build your skills as a photographer. It’s very challenging, but that just makes the reward that much sweeter. Since most people never shoot after dark, it also helps to make your photos stand out from the crowd.
If you have a DSLR, take a word of advice from Bob Seger and work on your night moves. Grab a tripod, slow that shutter speed way, way down, and enjoy the show.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.