Seeing the light – learning what you like and where to find it

Phillip Island Classic 2013 - Pits - Lola T700 - refueling - rear three-quarter shot 1(2)

Light is obviously what makes a photographer’s job possible. Natural or artificial, unless there’s something the camera’s sensor or film can pick up, there is no photograph. Indeed, that’s what photography means: painting with light.

But what is it about light that makes a photograph special? After all, unless you’re at the bottom of the deepest sea trench, you’re never without it. Is it the angle? Is it the colour? Is it the atmosphere?

Midday sun. Harsh and casts huge shadows.

Midday sun. Harsh and casts huge shadows.

In reality, it’s all three. The angle of the light will affect both how it hits surfaces in the photo and its softness. An overhead light, such as you get at midday, tends to be harsh and create big shadows (see above). Because it floods all surfaces of the car, you tend to get a flat, uniform light that does not highlight any one area. Thus, any details get lost. And a car is all about the details: Those creases, those curves, those little reflections you get from just one edge. Losing those means you tend to lose any drama or sexiness. Hence why photographers tend to hate shooting at midday. Particularly when it’s sunny and there’s no cloud to diffuse (soften) the light.

Formula Drift Asia - Top eight battle - Michael Prosenik - Turn 2 exit - front three-quarter shot 1

Conversely, an oblique light, such as you get in the early morning or late afternoon, hits cars at a shallow angle and thus picks up just one or two major surfaces, like in the shot above. The rest of the car is in shadow, leaving the eye guessing what’s there and focusing it on the lines the designer has worked so hard to create. Not only that, but being a weaker, more distant light, it’s softer, flowing over the car and caressing it, falling off gently. It’s not hitting it with a sledgehammer.

Australian Drift GP 2013 - Calder Exhibition - Matt Russell - Cream Toyota AE86 - Main hairpin entry - rear three-quarter pan 1

A major bonus is that oblique light tends to have a lovely colour to it as well. Early morning and late afternoon light has to travel a vastly greater distance to earth than midday light, and because it spends more time in the atmosphere, all the wavelengths that create blues are diffused out by the time they hit the planet’s surface. Thus, you’re only left with lovely yellows, oranges and purples. It’s these two reasons above that make photographers treasure what is commonly referred to as ‘golden hour’ so much.

VSCRC 2013 round 1 - Phillip Island - Improved Production - Rhys Howell - Honda Civic hatch - Pits - rear three-quarter shot 7

As for atmosphere, we’ve already discussed what happens up high, but what can make the difference between nice light and gorgeous light is often what happens lower to the ground. Depending on the time of year, your location and the ground temperature, you can find greater or lesser amounts of moisture and aerosol particles in the air. It’s these elements that give you that amazing haziness to the light, creating an almost dream-like vision. To be honest, though, while colour and angle are predictable to a large degree, this kind of phenomenon is not, so you just have to get lucky and make the best of it when you can.

Of course, knowing what light works better and using it effectively are two different things. Each person will have their own preference as to what type of light they like. How they like a car lit. It’s knowing that, and knowing when that type of light exists, and where, that allows you to take photographs you’re consistently happy with. On the whole, this is unfortunately a case of getting to know an area, looking at how the light hits the cars at every moment of the day, and how it changes month to month. Then, moving to match that light with angles that light the cars in a way you like.

TPE print screen 1

However, while much of a photographer’s skills is based on experience, there is a bit of a shortcut you can use to help. It’s called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, and it’s the most useful app you’ll probably ever see as a photographer. It allows you to pick a spot on Google Maps, then pick a date from any time in history, then slide along a scale to see exactly where the light will be hitting that point from at any time that day. It’s amazing. Essentially, if you know what type of light you like, it allows you to plan exactly where to find it on any race circuit or rally stage, on any day of the year. If you’ve never shot a location before, it’s invaluable. Even if you’re familiar with a circuit, it will still help you to plan your locations for the day. The only area it falls down on is not taking into account the weather or local atmospheric conditions, but that’s an easy fix, and if you can’t move around based on changing conditions, you should probably re-evaluate your ideas about photography anyway. 😉

Alright. That’s it for now. One more post tomorrow to round out the week, then it’s VSCRC Round Two from Sandown! Yay!

This entry was posted in Cars, Light, Technique.