How to do Striking Composite Photography of Classic Cars

Images of cars are everywhere, in advertisements, film, TV, even fine art. An alluring photograph of a car can represent wealth, freedom, speed, America, or all of the above. Photographer Lee Morris gave himself the challenge of photographing a 1968 Camaro, his father’s dream car, before surprising his father with the car itself!

Though giving someone a car as a gift may not be an option for everyone, a creative image of a classic car could be a great gift for the car nut in your life.  In this video, Morris shows us how he created his flawless images of the Camaro using creative shooting techniques and Photoshop:

A few key pointers from Morris’ lesson:

  • The camera must remain absolutely still, so use a tripod and a Pocket Wizard wireless transceiver for all your exposures.
  • Bracket, bracket, bracket! Take exposures for natural light at every time of day (even night time), with the car’s lights on and off. The goal is to properly expose every part of the image.
  • Use a large Octabank softbox to light the car from every conceivable angle. Light the grill, the sides, the interior, the wheels, etc.
  • Don’t forget to do the same for your background. Make sure you diffuse your flash– a bare bulb will create harsh shadows and specular highlights.

When finished shooting, be prepared to spend hours editing in Photoshop.  Morris breaks down the dozens of layers in his PSD file for us, showing us that creating the composite is primarily a process of trial and error, finding the exposure that makes each component of the image look its best and using layer masks to combine them all.

car composite

The resulting image is “almost not even photography,” says Morris, “it’s more about digital art.”

Morris also shows us a simpler method for photographing a car. Professional car photographers, he explains, often use 30-foot softboxes to light the entire vehicle from overhead, which can cost thousands, even to rent. For a more affordable way to achieve the same effect, Morris recommends finding an abandoned gas station (or even one that’s closed for the night) and using the white ceiling as your softbox.  Here are some tips for using this method:

  • Eliminate as much ambient light as possible, so that the strobe is the only source of light.  Use a fast shutter speed like 1/250th of a second.
  • Be sure to stand behind the car, not in front of it. You can photoshop yourself out, but your shadow will be more difficult!
  • Experiment with holding your strobe at different angles– angle it more towards the camera for more allover light, or point it straight up for a dramatic, “moody” effect.
  • Use a speedlight (Morris uses the Nikon SB800) to illuminate the wheels. If you skip this step, they will be too dark.

When using this gas station trick, editing is a much simpler job. You can combine all layers by using the “Lighten” blend mode in Photoshop, then cut out the car and the shadow beneath it and place it on whatever background you choose. It may even end up looking more realistic than the first composite shot!

car composite simple

The second image, despite having a completely new background, has a less manipulated feel than the first.

If you insist on doing as much in-camera editing as possible, Morris says, try a camera with multiple exposure mode– the camera will combine a selected number of exposures for you. Regardless of how you do it, though, getting an attractive photograph of a car need not be expensive or inaccessible.

“It’s really not about all the time you spend on location or shooting, you can get great shots with whatever gear you’ve currently got.” – Lee Morris

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