Whenever you photograph still life or product, using a soft backlight is a good place to start and car interiors are simply well-composed still-life arrangements. Try this technique for a simple one light setup that can kick-start your car interior shoot. This works with any camera and practically any lens (you’ll need to consider your composition and distance from the subject depending on the lens you use).

All you need additionally is a small softbox, like this indirect umbrella-style box from Phottix, and a speedlight you can trigger off-camera. I recommend shooting with a friend who will help you hold the softbox, otherwise, you’ll also need a light stand and probably a boom arm to get the light into exactly the right position.

This works with any lens; I used the Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 for these photographs.

Basic setup for car interior

The basic setup is simply to put the light on the opposite side of the subject from the camera. It can come from above, or from the side. For this series, I was focused primarily on the steering wheel, so the light was placed so it shone through the windshield. In the first shot, the light was too far back, and it didn’t shine down on the front of the wheel enough, so we brought the light shining higher through the windshield. Depending on the car, the wheel may be tipped, or the roof may be removed, and remember that doors can be opened to get your camera in just the right spot.

Once the exposure was looking good, I changed my position and composition and tried a few more shots. As long as the light doesn’t move, the exposure will stay the same no matter where I put the camera.

Why it works

The reason this picture works is that the softbox makes the small speedlight into a large soft light which puts a gentle and supple highlight on all the surfaces facing it. The bigger the light is in relation to the subject the bigger, so you should bring it as close as possible. For these, the softbox is almost resting on the windshield. By the way, my friend owns the car I was shooting, so asking him to hold the softbox is ideal because he knows exactly how close he can put it and be comfortable that it won’t scratch the paint job.

Gary owns the car, so letting him hold the light ensures I'm not to blame if her touches the car with it. For some reason, the car was only available on a really cold morning before dawn.
Gary owns the car, so letting him hold the light ensures I’m not to blame if he touches the car with it. For some reason, the car was only available on a really cold morning before dawn.

Now that you’ve shot with the light coming from above and behind, try from the side and behind. And then switch sides and try it again. Just put the light about the same distance from the subject and you won’t have to make any exposure adjustments.

Not just lighting for cars

Using a soft light from behind is a great place to start with any product, still life, or car shoot. Coming from behind, the light and shadows reveal exactly how deep all the details are and the big light ensures that all the highlights are the same brightness and continuous. Remember to work it: once the light is in position, move the camera all around and make different compositions highlighting various aspects. All you need now is a friend with a sexy car to photograph.

For in-depth instruction on how to use your speedlight off-camera, see Levi’s classes for Canon and Nikon speedlights on Lynda.com.