How to Light a Muscle Car

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Commercial photography

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9.Final shot with some minor PS tweeks to contrast and tone | ©Tim Wallace

©Tim Wallace

We often talk about life changing moments. But if a photograph is a snapshot of a moment, should it not also be possible for a photograph to change our lives? Tim Wallace certainly thinks so.

“I distinctly remember one photograph that changed my life,” says Tim. “I was working as a press photographer at the time. The Prime Minister was giving a press conference, and all of us press guys were in front of him, as you would expect. But I couldn’t get a clear shot, so I ended up going behind the pulpit instead. I then noticed that he had his shoes and socks off and his hand was sort of shaking. He was obviously very agitated and hot! So above the pulpit, the guy looked as if he was composed and in control, but underneath, you could see he was very nervous. I took his picture like that, and it ended up in all kinds of places all over the world. That made me realize how important it is to look at things from a different point of view.”

Is this something you brought with you when you started shooting cars?

“Yes, I think so. When I first started a lot of people said I wouldn’t succeed because my car photography was too much like art. But I continued to do what I believed in and, as it turned out, it worked just fine! The thing is that most cars I shoot are pretty expensive, and the people who consider buying them already know what they look like. What they want to know is what the cars feel like. And that’s what I try show: the personality of the car.”

Today, Tim is one of the most renowned and sought-after car photographers in the UK. In addition to being hired by the likes of Aston Martin, Morgan and Land Rover, he also teaches light shaping. In fact, the images in this article were shot during a video course he did on behalf of Kelby Training earlier this year on.

So you shot a brand new Mustang in a dusty, old warehouse. Why?

“Because it was a quite difficult environment. It was dark but we had this bright window above. In addition, we had a silver car, which is always a bit tricky. It would obviously have been a lot easier to just take the car outside, but you’re not going to learn anything from that. Anyone can light a car outside at sundown! I also wanted to show what you can do with professional lighting equipment – in this case Pro-B3 battery generators, Softbox StripLights and Zoom Reflectors. To show what these are capable of, I needed a challenge. Finally, the Mustang is a muscle car and a bit of working class hero car, so I think the warehouse fits.”

1. Ambient light | ©Tim Wallace

Would you mind giving us a quick recap of the shoot?

“Well, the first thing you have to do on a shoot like this is to decide where you are going to shoot the car from. The car obviously has a very reflective surface, and if you move your camera, even just a few centimeters, it will give off a completely different reflection – even more so with a silver car. Therefore, you need to commit to a certain point of view and then you build up your lights – one by one.

2. Light 1 | ©Tim Wallace

“The first light we added was a Pro-B3 with a Softbox 1×6’ RF. I tend to use Softbox StripLights quite a lot, actually, since they’re very convenient for throwing light along the side of the car.

3. Light 2 | ©Tim Wallace

“After we had the first light in place, we actually turned it off and forgot about it. We then started looking at the front of the car. Again, we were using a Pro-B3 with a Softbox 1×6’ RF. However, this time we put the light source closer to the car. People tend to forget how important distance is. They obsess over the angle or the direction but they forget about the distance. In this case, by moving the softbox closer, we got a softer yet punchy pool of light, which I believe is very, very pleasing to the eye.

4. Lights 1 & 2 | ©Tim Wallace

“We then tried with Light 1 & 2 simultaneously. This is important. When you shoot with one light at a time, everything is usually just fine. But when you try with two lights at once, the lights blend and things can go wrong. You have to accommodate for the mixing of the two lights.

5. Light 3 | ©Tim Wallace

“As soon as we had made sure that the lights worked together, we took a closer look at the fact that the wheels needed a light of their own. For that we used a zoomed Zoom Reflector with a grid, which gave us a narrow, highly controllable source of light that was just perfect for this purpose. This is also something that people tend to forget: how the actual position of the Light Shaping Tool on the head affects the light spread.

6. Lights 1, 2 & 3 | ©Tim Wallace

“With Lights 1, 2 & 3 in place, we once again tried shooting with all of them simultaneously to double-check that the balance was correct.

7. Background Light | ©Tim Wallace

“We then got to the issue with the background. People often focus too much on what they’re shooting and forget the environment they’re in. I think that’s a mistake. Details like that make a huge difference. The same goes for the foreground, the tarmac, the concrete or whatever it may be. I want to light that too. It might seem stupid, but by lighting the foreground and punching out the contrasts you can achieve a far more pleasing texture. Again, use everything you’ve got! In this case we kept it pretty simple and ended up using just one light with a Zoom Reflector for the background. The purpose was of course to separate the car from the background and get a more dimensional feel of the car.

8. Final shot in camera with NO photoshop | ©Tim Wallace

“That’s it. All in all, it’s a fairly simple set up, really. It’s just a case of slowly building it up, step by step.”

Thanks, Tim. Is there anything you would like to add?

 “Well, you have to try this yourself, obviously. Lighting is a very personal thing. It’s a bit like riding a bike. You can spend months and months reading about it, but when you get on the bike, you’re going to fall off. It’s the same with light. The only way to learn about light shaping is by doing it.”

9.Final shot with some minor PS tweeks to contrast and tone | ©Tim Wallace

See more of Tim’s images at his website.

Also, for those who want to dive deeper into the subject, Tim’s course is still available at Kelby Training.

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Comments (15)

  • Russel


    I was looking sweet until you put the most dutch tilt ive ever seen in my life on the final image, now i have a sore neck


    • CallumW


      @Russel – I think that was him falling off the bike 😉


  • chris


    Il ne faut pas faire d’amalgame entre photo rédactionnelle et photo commerciale ou publicitaire. Cet article illustre uniquement une approche rédactionnelle de la photo de voiture. Lorsque le narrateur dit qu’il est important de ne pas mettre les sources de lumière trop loin du véhicule, il a raison, mais force est de constater qu’il n’applique pas cette règle dans ce tutorial. On est loin de l’expérience de “boulevard studios” qui faisait référence dans le milieu de la photo automobile anglaise.
    Profoto fabrique du très bon matériel, mais rien ne remplace la lumière fresnel pour obtenir de beaux rendus de carrosserie et de jantes métal.


    • Fredrik Franzén


      Google translate:

      “Do not make confusion between editorial and commercial photography photograph or advertising. This article illustrates only one approach to drafting of the photo car. When the narrator says it’s important not to put too light sources away from the vehicle, he is right, but it is clear that this rule does not apply in this tutorial. A far cry from the experience of “Boulevard studios” which referred the middle of the photo automobile English. Profoto makes a very good material, but nothing can replace the fresnel light for beautiful body made ??of metal and wheels.”




    ….Si vous avez fini avec la voiture je veux bien vous en débarrasser, vous avez mon adresse ci dessus….Merci d’avance.


  • Jeff Krutsinger


    I would love to see a little HDR work added to the background to make that brick work “pop” a little. Shooting cars can be difficult to get soft even light without to much specularity from the lights but this is an great shot! Thank you for sharing.


  • John Li


    I didn’t know so many light needed for this kind of shot…..


  • The Month in Review: June | Profoto Blog


    […] Other highlights include our interview with Dutch photographer René Kramers, who stressed the importance of planning your shoot; our piece on Spanish documentary photographer Ramón Vaamonde, who brought strobes to the Sahara, and Angelo Antelmi’s portraits of Italian antique dealers. Also, we published a interview Tim Wallace, who gave a detailed description of how to light a muscle car. […]


  • classic car classifieds


    I could cherish to see a little HDR work added to the underpinning to make that block work “pop” a little. Shooting cars might be challenging to get delicate even light without to much specularity from the lights but this is a significant shot! Much thanks to you for imparting.


  • Nicolas Roger


    Super boulot ! ça donne envie de travailler sur de la voiture !


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  • Christopher


    whoah this blog is excellent i like studying your posts.
    Keep up the good work! You recognize, lots of people are
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