Best Time of Day and Locations for Automotive Photos

If you want to realize the best results from any photography, lighting must be taken into consideration as the most important component to the process.

The accepted periods when the lighting is most conducive to high quality imagery is as follows:

Golden Hour Morning. This is a period of between 40 and 60 minutes just as the sun rises in the morning. The light is soft and warm, which produces great depth of color and soft shadows. You can also use the 20 to 30 minutes before the sun is visible for some images, such as auto interiors, along with supplemental lighting to fill and create drama lost by too little light.

However, this is followed by a time when the sun is low, the shadows are long, and the sun is hard to escape, so the period just after the golden hour presents challenges best avoided when possible.

Golden Hour Evening. This is the same as the morning period, but in the last 40 to 60 minutes of the day as the sun sets. You can often extend this to the 20 to 30 minutes after the sun sets, for interior images and other details, using supplemental lighting to add drama lost from too diffuse low light.

However, just before sunset, when the sun is low, but above the horizon, the shadows are long, and the sun is hard to escape, so the period just after the golden hour presents challenges best avoided by waiting a few moments longer.

Diffuse Cloudy Days. While the results can be drab and drama-less, diffuse cloudy days provide the most useable time overall for capturing images. However, it is still best to avoid the brightest period of the day, usually between 11AM and 2PM, as the intensity of light from the sky can be difficult to work with. In the morning and afternoon periods, supplemental light or use of reflectors can be used to improve shape modeling and detail capture.

Night Time. There are more than a few instances when shooting a vehicle at night is a great option. However, finding a suitable location that is not filled with the noise of background house, parking lot and street lighting can be a challenge. Night time image capture requires significant use of artificial light sources, with constant or flash, to set up and build the image desired.

Shade. When all else fails, a good option for capturing quality images is to find a shaded location. Ideally the shade will be continuous, like that from a building wall, or a dense tree canopy. Consideration that the source of the shade will likely be visible in the images at some angles, and that the area outside the shade may present brightness issues is important to factor into site location here.

Keep It Simple. The simpler the background, the better. Too many trees, buildings, fences, and other details that fight for attention with the subject being photographed need to be avoided. Further, shooting a car against any background that is of a similar color has to be avoided (white car against a white building, for example). Black cars are notoriously troublesome in reflecting complex splattering of light in ways that are unflattering.

Indoors is Generally Bad, but not Necessarily. Shooting cars inside a building presents challenges. First, to capture the proper angles using lenses that do not distort the vehicle requires distance around the car. Generally an area of at least 12 feet from the car in the direction the photo is being taken is needed. Highly reflective cars are going to reflect what’s in the building as well, so other cars, yellow safety posts, windows, doors, skylights, overhead lighting, people moving around, and general stuff around the car, even at some distance, is going to show up in the images. Overhead lighting is often poor for photoghraphy,m as are skylights, as they will be reflected as bright patterns in all horizontal surfaces. Further, dirty floors, grease stains, tire marks, etc… and wall details or signage are ugly and distracting. On the other hand, a very large open and empty space with no light, no windows, and no significant wall detailing, and a clean floor is a great place to shoot cars indoors.

Shooting continuous walk around video inside a building without proper working space around a vehicle will result in poor results. Conversely a large area with a smooth floor and plenty of clearance can produce some of the best vehicle walk around videos.

Scout the Area. The best approach is to spend a little time scouting the area around the vehicle’s location well before hand. Note the compass directions of the areas feature, where the sun rises and sets, and the composition of the background. Keep in mind that you cannot just stop on a street and shoot a car, as the photographer will need to be between 8 and 20 feet away from the car, which obviously cannot be in an active street. Parking lots, top deck of parking garages, open paved areas in parks and conservation areas, abandoned roads, unfinished developments, industrial spaces, and corporate airport ramps and hanger areas are a start. One advantage of targeting the early morning and late afternoon golden periods, is that the site will only need to be clear and available when occupancy is unlikely to be an issue.

The Car Will Need to Be Moved… A Lot. Even if the light is perfect and the background ideal, the car will need to be moved around to place the light on it most ideally for each of the viewing angles. This will require the car be moved, often many times during a photo session. Make sure the battery is charged, and the car is in good running order, or that there area other means for moving the vehicle (like car skates, which will require a smooth surface to move around on.)

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