Light painting 101: How to light paint a vintage vehicle in four steps

Light painting 101: How to light paint a vintage vehicle in four steps

There are few things in night photography more enjoyable than light painting vintage vehicles. I will describe how I light-painted this old Buick automobile so you can join in the fun.

A quick word about light painting

Light painting is a term that is often used loosely to describe any addition of light to a night photograph. Really, though, light painting is a technique that uses a handheld light source to illuminate a scene or subject during a long exposure. You are quite literally painting the scene with light. Night photographers have used this technique for many decades.

I used a handheld white LED light from an RGB Critter 2.0 (see a review of this light here) to light paint the Buick. I photographed this car on a misty, foggy December evening in a forest in rural Georgia at a place called Old Car City USA.

Creating the mood

I wanted to keep this dark and eerie, in keeping with the mysterious nature of 4000 vehicles tucked inside a forest in Old Car City, Georgia. For this particular photo, I thought I’d take advantage of the RGB Critter‘s intensely blue light for the headlights and interior. This would make it look especially weird. I wanted to make it look like a strangely haunted Darth Vader helmet. I’ll get specific about how I created this.

Light painting a vintage Buick in four steps

Step one: Illuminating the grille and hood

From camera right, I used a warm white light. To bring out the detail, I “skimmed” the light from an almost 90-degree angle to the grille. This is far more effective in bringing out detail than blasting the grille from behind the camera. That sort of light looks flat and unflattering.

I also illuminated the top of the hood in the same manner. Again, notice how it brings out detail and creates shadow.

Step two: Illuminating the ground

The ground was piled with pine needles all over. To bring out the texture, I got down really low at about 45 degrees to the front of the car. Holding the flashlight at less than a foot from the ground really helped accentuate the texture of the pine needles. I also illuminated the tree to the left of the car. I used the same warm white light for this as well.

Step three: Creating glowing headlights

When people who don’t know anything about light painting first see photos like this, they are sometimes confused. I’ve had people say photos of abandoned cars at night with their headlights glowing are “fake photos” because there’s no way the battery could still be intact. And of course, they are correct. The battery is not intact. In fact, there is no battery in the car. 

However, there’s a fun way to give the car some glowing headlights. And of course, they can be any color, but I chose to be a little weird and hit it with some blue light. But to direct the light directly at the headlights with minimal spill elsewhere, I used the Illuminator Flex attachment, which allows you to shape the light and direct it to where you want it to shine. This, of course, is a light modifier, which we’ve discussed previously, creating DIY screw-on snoots or DIY cardboard modifiers.

Step four: Creating a glowing interior and steering wheel shadow

The driver’s side window was partially open because it was shattered. Using the same intense blue light, I reached inside, being very careful not to scrape my arm against the broken glass, and held the light behind the steering wheel. This created the shadow on the windshield. I then waved the light back and forth to create the glow more uniformly inside. This has to be done evenly so one part of the car windshield doesn’t look significantly brighter than the other. And it has to be done carefully if you have sharp glass nearby.

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Using only warm white light for light painting vintage vehicles

Of course, you can use a natural white light as well. It depends on your mood, the subject, and purpose. You are the artist, and you decide what is illuminated, what is in shadow and what color it is.

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Three nights at a night photography workshop

Tim and I are holding a three-day night photography workshop here at Old Car City USA.

The Old Car City USA night photography workshop will include one day and three nights (with a fourth night add-on at a location photographing abandoned school buses, vans, trucks, and more). It will be from Oct. 25-28, 2023. We will be staying just 10 minutes away at a nice hotel.

Old Car City USA Night Photography Workshop Adventure

And we’ve figured out a way to make sure no one gets lost. Actually, several ways.

For a variety of reasons, this will be the only time we ever offer this night photography workshop. And to the best of our knowledge, no other workshop has granted this much access and lessons ever. If this sounds enticing to you, I would encourage you to find out more about the Old Car City night photography workshop here.

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Where’s Waldo? Well, he certainly didn’t get lost in the forest during our night photography workshop!