Reader Question Answered

In our post the other day about shooting Mid-Day, Reader David Ames…who is also a good friend and a great photographer and also one of those people  you just always say “What a great guy” when they walk away after seeing them. Asked this question:

I’ve been shooting quite a few custom cars lately using HDR. Getting these car owners out during the golden hour is pretty much impossible. Talking about specular highlights, these cars are more than shinny. What adverse effects if any would using a circular polarizer and HDR have. Probably going to test it out tomorrow at a car show but wanted you take on the subject.

Which is a great question.

Shooting cars is a very difficult thing to do and do right especially Mid-Day particularly because they are so shiny. Reflections cause a multitude of problems. From causing metering to be off from specular highlights, Reflections of unsightly objects into the cars, Balance of lighting in different areas of the cars and probably a few more I can’t think of at the moment.

Sometimes you can use these reflections to your advantage, such as getting a cool Gleam of the sun off of a chrome piece. and sometimes they just ruin the shot completely.


So let’s adress David’s question about the polarizer first.

The quick answer is Maybe; We have to know one fact about polarizer first. THEY HAVE NO  EFFECT ON REFLECTIONS ON METAL OBJECTS. You can Google why not but they just don’t. So with a lot of Custom Cars especially from Days Gone By. Those cars have a lot of chromed or plated areas. The polarizer will have no effect on reflections on that part of the car. Metallic finishes that have a large amount of metal flake in them also may not be as affected as straight paint color may. And lastly polarizer work in relation to angles or planes. Mostly at 90 degrees to the reflective source at maximum and tailing off from there. And if we look at a car, we can see there are MANY different planes and angles to them.

So let’s look at a quickie shot I did today to see some of the effects.

The first image was shot with a polarizer at maximum in relation to the side of the vehicle (My Blue Stead)

Looking at the green arrows, They show that reflections in the window glass and the side of the vehicle have pretty much been eliminated.

Looking at the red arrows, you see that it had no effect on the hood because that is at a plane that is 90 degrees from the plane of the door. Also you can see that the specular highlight in the chrome of the headlight had zero effect from the polarizer.

The orange arrow shows  the real problem area. The hot spot on the fender cause by a specular highlight from a point source light ( The sun) Because of the angle I shot at, that angle relates exactly to the opposite angle that the sun was to the car to me. Angle of incidence – Angle of reflection



















And that was not an angle that was affected by the polarizer

Now if we look at this second shot, same shot but the polarizer set at the minimum for the side reflections or 180 degrees from the first shot.

Looks what happens to the side, how the reflections now appear, but then look at the hood, how the reflections have disappeared.

And finally notice, that the specular in the headlight and then the fender remain unchanged

So the bottom line is, polarizers can help but you need to understand them and then JUST USE YOUR EYES.  OK, I have a reflection here I don’t like, can I eliminate it this way or that way? Look and see.

Use of HDR Mid-Day

Yes it can help your mid-day image. If you look at the above images you notice a lot of harsh shadows and if you can use HDR to even out some of those shadows you may get a better final image. BUT HDR will NOT help tame reflection, in fact it may make them worse because it brings out detail. I’m sure you’ve seen some of those highly processed HDR’s of say totally chromed out motorcycles. Well you can see the detail in every tiny reflection there is. So there are some advantages to using HDR for the Mid-Day or any time of day automotive shoot. But you still need to be totally aware of reflections.

Here is an example of how a reflection can ruin a great shot…and I love this shot…but there is a reflection of another car in the side of the Spyder that makes me Cringe every time I look at it. But I couldn’t control where the car was and where the car reflected into it was.



So what’s the real bottom line here when it comes to shooting Automotive shots and reflections, specular highlights, Polarizers and HDR.

Because you are dealing with such a highly reflective object you have to be aware of all light sources and you have to be aware of everything that reflects into the object. This is just like doing highly reflective  Product photography except you can’t fit it into a table top light box. And doing that type of photography it teaches us that we CAN NOT have point source lighting. It just doesn’t work unless we want a glint or gleam in certain areas

So what do you? if you look at a lot of great automotive photography, you will see two things. They shoot at dusk when we have eliminated the point source light of the sun. In the studio they use HUGE diffuser panels above in front of the lighting. They may be as big as and some time 2 to 3 times the size of what they are shooting.  Then they add smaller diffused source light to put highlight where they want them. So you get nice even light without the hot spots that are a problem shooting during the day from specular light and point source light.

Check out a couple great examples of automotive lighting, These guys rock. Study what they do and try to apply it

Easton Chang

Tim Wallace

Also check out Porsche’s Website under each vehicle they have images and wallpaper downloads. they have some great automotive photography there and if you study it you learn a lot

I also want to say, I am not an automotive photgrapher nor do I pretend to be. The above is just some common photography tips. Study and learn from the people that do it great.

As a final word to David. I totally get you don’t always have the option of shooting in the perfcet place at  the perfect time with a $10,000 light bank above the car.

So look, use the tools you have whether that is a polarizer, HDR or just moving 10 feet to the left to tame as best you can the reflection and put them where YOU want as best you can. It is possible to shoot during the day. BUT you have to LOOK


Hope that helps,



One Comment

  1. David Ames July 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks Peter, that was some great information. I did try the polarizer at a car show Sunday with limited sucess. Like you mentioned I found things worked best just changing the angle I was shooting from, so it was a good test, and I managed to book a couple of session to boot. Thanks again for the great information.

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