Night photography: Dodge Charger light painting step-by-step

During the Paul’s Junkyard Night Photography workshop, I worked with photographer Michael Bertrand on light painting a cool old Dodge Charger. Having someone stand at the camera position while you test your light painting is a big time saver. Instead of waiting 2-3 minutes to see the results of each lighting experiment, I was able to give Mike feedback right away on the angle and intensity of the light. He did all of the hard work, I just stood behind the camera and watched. Let’s take a step-by-step look at Mike’s shot.

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 1 – Headlights and interior

Mike wanted to light the interior of the car with a red-gelled flash. If the camera position is low or high, sometimes a flash can be placed directly on the back window of the car. This only works if you can hide the light source from the camera. Stick your face where the flash is going to go and check to see if your camera can see the light. In this shot, the camera position dictated another technique — Mike simply opened the passenger side door, did a few flash pops inside the car to bounce the light around evenly, and then closed the door. The car may move slightly during this process, but it’s such a short amount of time in the overall exposure that it doesn’t compromise sharpness.

Mike walked to the front grill and lit the headlights using a flashlight and cardboard snoot. The key to this technique is to figure out how far away to stand in order for the circular beam of the snoot to fall in the right place. This ended up being about 4 feet away for a few seconds on each headlight.

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 2 – Grill experiment

The shot looked good on the back of the camera, but the face of the car was still mostly a big black hole. The grill on this Charger is really deep, and I suggested that Mike try lighting just the front of the grill, but leave the inside dark so the headlights will pop. This take was lit from camera left at a shallow angle along the front of the grill with a snooted and gelled flashlight. The amount of light is right, but looking at the results on the back of the camera, we realized that the grill needs light from both sides.

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 3 – Almost there

To get even light on the front of the grill, Mike counted his paces from the front of the car to make sure he was the same distance away. Paying attention to the height of the flashlight, and counting the amount of time the light is on are also helpful. The backlight was added by going around the rear of the car and sweeping a flashlight a few inches above the ground to pull out texture. The shot was really coming together now, but there’s too much light on the inside of the left front wheel.

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 4 – The final shot

Mike really nailed the light painting on this final shot. Instead of sweeping the flashlight on the ground, he held the beam steady for a few seconds to add texture to the ground but maintain the integrity of the curvy shadows. This also solved the problem of not overlighting the inside front wheel. The red interior light has a nice glow, and the natural bleed of the pink/magenta headlights on the areas of the yellow grill looks great. Mike worked quickly and methodically, and was able to nail all of the light painting in the camera. Those of you who’ve tried these techniques know that this isn’t easy!

Technical details and a note about exposure

This image is a 90 second exposure at f/8, ISO 200 using a Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens at 12mm (18mm equivalent). A technically correct expose-to-the-right shot for the light of the full moon would have been 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. An exposure time of 90 seconds underexposes the background by 2 stops, which keeps the sky and the background dark. Using the exposure time to control the tonality of the background really helps the light painting stand out.

I’d like to thank Mike for letting me share his light painting setup. To see more of his work, visit:

8 thoughts on “Night photography: Dodge Charger light painting step-by-step”

  1. Nice work – I like the asymmetry of the light and shadow coming from under the car in the final shot.

    1. Hi Lisa – Great to hear from you. Paul’s Junkyard is a really fun place to experiment with lighting. I’ll put you on the notification email list for the fall. Based on all of the inquiries we’ve had so far, the next workshop could fill up quickly. Expect an announcement in June.

  2. Hi Joe & Michael,

    Thank you for sharing the how-to, if you can show the final image at first for us to do some guess works on the light painting, that will be fun. I always studied Troy’s image before reading his post to practice myself. The final image is so 3D, love it!

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