George Wilson: Lighting a Car with the New OctoDome White

Gw Car

Photography is about sending a message. I often say to my students that 99.9% of the time they will, most likely, not be standing next to someone viewing their work. That being said, their image must stand on its own merits, send a message, impart a feeling or stir an emotion. Photography is more than just a pretty picture hanging on a wall. Photography can be a powerful force for reform, for social justice, for wilderness preservation or for advertising. As photographers, we must rely on our skill to use visual clues and create an impactful experience for the viewer.

This self-assignment was to photograph a car, but to also make the viewer think, make the viewer have an experience, make the viewer come up with an adjective without asking them to. That meant, at least in my vision, just showing part of a car.

Now, think of what our first cars meant to each of us. Our first vehicle is a unique experience and we all remember our first one. Mine was a 1973 Ford Mustang I had in high school. What did the car mean to me? Freedom of course. I really liked the sleek lines of the fenders and the custom rims I bought for the wheels. The photograph I wanted in my mind began to take shape. Fast forward to today. I have two vehicles; a practical one for lugging around photography equipment and a not so practical red convertible. Riding with the top down, the same feeling of freedom felt with my first car can still be experienced.

Parking my convertible in the driveway at my home, I looked at the fender. I could see clouds reflected in it. They gave a bit more feature and contour to the shape as it transitioned into the hood. The silver of the rims were the same tone as the highlights on the fender and silver of the headlights.

I ran out a stinger (photospeak for an extension cord) and set up my Photoflex Flexflash 200W strobe on an articulating stand. My window mount (sand bag) was used as a weight to stabilize the light stand so I could hang the flash and a Photoflex OctoDome® White: Medium above the front end of the vehicle. A Photoflex Rock Steady Sand Bag was the counterweight on the articulating arm for balance of the upper half. The 5’ diameter of the OctoDome® White: Medium would be used to light the car from above to reproduce a cloud pattern while supplying a soft light to enhance contour and shape in a low key feel and style of the photograph.

With most of the work I do, I prefer to build the shot I have in my mind. For this image, that meant first working only with the light provided by the flash and the soft box. In order to complete this image I must first set an exposure that does not show anything being lit by ambient light (around the car). I was working in the late afternoon in my driveway (I wonder how many strange looks I received as my neighbors drove by). Knowing I would be using flash, I set my ISO to 100. The flash sync speed on my camera is 1/250, but I like working a bit slower than that, so I set the shutter speed to 1/160. Now, in manual mode, I deliberately underexposed the image until I saw only a completely black image on my LCD.

A completely black image means that ambient light is NOT present in the photograph. My exposure equation was ISO 100, f25 at 1/160 of a second. This now provided me the information I needed for proper flash settings.

I have always used my flash manually with either a flash meter or an exposure calculation. I feel it offers more control than what is programmed into the camera for TTL work. For this image I was using an exposure circle to assist in my calculation (see below).

Previously I had established that the Photoflex Flexflash 200W strobe has a Guide Number of 100 (see LiteBlog: Determining the Guide Number for FlexFlash 200W). The Flash Circle is designed to help the photographer determine each of three settings for working with a flash. In this case, I have determined the desired aperture to be f25 based on my ambient light under exposures. I already know the Guide Number is 100. So next I need to determine the distance from the flash to my convertible. If I were to block the word distance in the circle, it would show Guide Number over aperture (f). Mathematically this is Guide Number divided by aperture equals distance. So, 100/25 = 4 ft.

Working with the OctoDome® White: Medium, it has a 16” (1.33 ft) depth. This gives a very nice even spread of the light, but also aids the photographer working in smaller spaces. Subtracting the 1.33’ depth from the 4’ needed based on my flash calculation, the diffuser panel of the OctoDome® White: Medium should be 2.67’ or 32” above the fender of my vehicle.

By positioning the flash and OctoDome® White: Medium, over the fender of my convertible, I was allowing light to spill downward lighting the fender and wheel as well as picking up some light in the silver of the headlights. The shape of the OctoDome® White: Medium, was reflected in the finish of the car and represents the clouds pattern I sometimes see on a sunny afternoon here in Florida. The background remained black in color as no ambient light was allowed to creep into the exposure. The car was lit by 100% of the flash. I tweaked the image slightly in post processing for cropping, exposure balance and sharpening.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George’s work, visit

Leave Your Comment