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Lighting car interiors at night

Sequences recorded inside vehicles at night will only look convincing if they are under-lit. 

Setups that look fake, are usually the result of using too many lights, or by placing them in the wrong position –  less is more. Lighting vehicle interiors should be approached with a low key look in mind and these has to be a balance of artificial and ambient light to get realistic results.

What will you learn? 

This tutorial will show you the type of light fixtures to use, where to put them, and the mechanics of light placement in an on vehicles. It will additionally give you the tips and the techniques to get that lighting balance right so you can shoot a convincing night driving sequence or in-car interview.

A quick way to shoot the sequence but with no over-the-top expenses. In particular, let us take a scenario, where you have to record an interview with the driver of the vehicle at night. The interior of a vehicle is a dark place at night, and without some lighting you will not get an image. So, how do you get the illumination that you need?

Firstly, finding a shooting position. The position from where you put your camera is going to help you find the position of your lights. Handholding the camera while sitting beside the driver is not going to give you the best result, and here is why.

  1. the camera will shake and sway as you roll with the movement of the vehicle
  2. it will be an unflattering side view
  3. the lens will be too close to the driver
  4. you will be seeing straight out of the driver’s side window into the blackness of the night

you position yourself in the front passengers seat next to the driver, you should be able to sit the camera on a CineSaddle (or something similar) and hold it onto the dash. This will give you a far nicer angle.

On many video cameras, it is possible to twist the LCD panel so that you can see the image, and keep check on framing and exposure as you go along. This dashboard camera position is at approximate thirty degrees (the four o’clock position) to the driver. This is a good position because it is not a full profile view, and the area immediately behind the driver is not the blackness of the night. Helpful, especially when there is very little street light.

A slightly front-on angle works nicely for a number of other reasons.

  1. the camera is not too close to the driver
  2. the camera is locked to the movement of the vehicle
  3. the driver is not in full profile
  4. you can see some of the vehicle interior

What natural light sources are there? 

There are a few light sources already at play both inside and outside, but they are subtle and not usually outputting enough level to get a usable image. 

What are these sources?

  1. the glow from the instrument cluster directly in front of the driver
  2. street lighting
  3. the lights of other vehicles
  4. general night exterior ambience

These are the light sources that we will use, however they need to be re-created with your own lights. Essentially, you have to boost these levels.

A quick rewind

  • there has to be a balance of artificial and ambient light to get realistic results 
  • the camera positioned on the dashboard is best 
  • turn the LCD panel so that you can see the image
  • Lighting source #1 – the instrument lights

Instrument lights at night

There is always some illumination from the vehicle’s speedometer area illuminating the driver’s face, however, it is not usually bright enough to give you the ”base“ light level needed. You will have to recreate that, and here is how to do it.

Simulate the light from the instrument cluster to ensure that the light level is the minimum required to get a decent exposure. It should have enough output to sustain the scene, regardless of the exterior brightness; brightness levels that are sure to vary as you travel.

Here are a few ways to simulate the effect of that subtle instrument glow. 

Bounce the light from a battery light into a bounce board. Cut to size, then fit a small rectangle of white card into the instrument area. Place a battery light low and out of shot, but in a position where it is shining directly into the white bounce card. 

A low-wattage 12 volt battery light will be too bright for this purpose, so to reduce the output: 

  1. take a sheet of Blackwrap Photofoil and roll it into a cone shape 
  2. tape it to the front of the lamp head
  3. squeeze the Blackwrap to allow just a small amount of light to shine through

Position the battery light. The light bounced from the white bounce card should suggest the subtle soft glow onto the face of the driver from the instrument area – similar to what might normally be happening. Providing that it is not too bright, it will be convincing.

Warm up or cool down the output. A sheet of CTO gel (Colour Temperature Orange) will add a warm quality to your light. You could even consider going for a blue CTB gel (Colour Temperature Blue) for a modern high-tech look. 

If lack of space around the instruments is a consideration, then wrap the white bounce card with the gel and leave the battery light gel-free. The result will be the same. You may need to devise a way of attaching the battery light in a position where it is not in your shot. One suggestion, is to use gaffer tape to secure the light to the top of the steering column.

Rosco’s LitePads are ideal for these set-ups. They use safe LED technology to output bright ultra-soft daylight. They are lightweight with an unusually slim form factor. Installing them is straight forward, not only because they are a compact all-in-one fixture, but because they occupy very little space.

Place the LitePad in the instrument area facing the driver

Rosco’s LitePads are safe and easy to manage in the cramped interior spaces of vehicles. They use narrow gauge 12 volt cable, useful in this situation, as it can be easily gaffer taped to surfaces in the vehicle and connected to a 12 volt accessory outlet. 

It is easy to over-light inside a vehicle and remember, you are trying to simulate the muted soft light of the instrument panel. Two sheets of Blackwrap Photofoil wrapped around the LitePad will cover the surface of the light and provide a way to decrease the light level.

Fit a sleeve of Blackwrap at both ends of the pad, leaving just a narrow slit of light in the centre. Slide both sleeves away from the centre to allow the right amount of light to sneak through. Sliding the Blackwrap in or out becomes your light dimmer.

In some ways this is a better solution to using a dimmer or ND gel. LitePads throw a wide, hard-to-contain spread of illumination, and it is hard to limit the light from spilling and bouncing all around the interior of the vehicle. This narrow slit of light is more centred on the subject, and it enhances what we are trying to achieve. 


  • fix a small rectangular white bounce card into the instrument area
  • a sheet of CTO gel will add a warm feel to the light
  • sheets of Blackwrap provide a way of reducing the brightness 

Lighting source #2 The door/rim light. Another fixture can be used to lift the overall interior level, without the prospect of over-lighting. This second light can be mounted to the exterior of the vehicle, in this case on the roof. 

The purpose of this second light, is to simulate the characteristics of illumination that comes from street lamps or just general suburban street ambience. But it does more than that, and has the potential to be a constant and motivating source. 

Filling it out. The soft light coming from the instrument panel, creates a slightly spooky feel, because the angle of the light is low. This second light is used to provide contrast and a little fill-light at the same time. Importantly though, it injects the spikes of high contrast associated with lighting at night. 

It is best located at a high angle, where it can throw light onto the inside of the door, spilling onto the drivers lap. Some light will also fall onto part of the face and shoulders. Falling as back-light in the scene, it will have minimal effect on the exposure level on the face of the driver. 

Catching the light. One situation where it does have an effect, is when the driver turns and looks out of the window. The exterior mounted light will catch and rim-light the side of the face. This is just the way it happens in reality. It is a good reason to ask your subject to turn occasionally and play to that light. 

Turn it off. The door/rim light will not be so convincing when the vehicle is passing through locations where there is little if any outside street light. You could switch it off in this situation, and let the instrument lighting carry the scene. This rim and door light, can be left switched on, or it can be triggered remotely, turning it on and off, or dimming it up and down to give the effect of passing by the street lamps as you move through the street light.

Can I simulate the odd colours of the street lights? 

You can use a small battery light or another LitePad. It could be tungsten or daylight balanced – it depends on the colour that looks best in the particular location.

Rosco Cinegel 3152 Urban Vapour can be used to simulate Sodium Vapour street lamps. To mimic the blue appearance of street lighting, typically Metal halide or Fluorescent, you can add Rosco Cinegel 3204 1/2 CTB or 3202 Full CTB to the light source being used. You will hear the gel rattle in the wind as you drive, so make sure the gel is taped tightly.

Attaching this light is simpler than it seems. 

  1. You will need two Manfrotto Magic Arms, two Super Clamps and two Manfrotto Pump Cups.
  2. Attach one of the Pump Cups to a flat area on the roof of the vehicle preferably just above the driver’s side window
  3. Connect a Magic Arm and secure the light to the opposite end
  4. Lock the arm in a position where the light is not seen the shot, but skirts the door interior and the shoulders of the driver
  5. Locate an attachment point for the second Pump Cup. It is often most secure when it is sucked onto a glass surface – car windows are perfect
  6. Attach the second Pump Cup – in this case, to the rear driver’s side window
  7. Attach another Magic Arm and fit a Super Clamp to the opposite end
  8. Brace the first Magic Arm close to the light attachment point with the Super Clamp and lock the Magic Arm
  9. Make sure that the Magic Arms and light are not extending too far from the side of the vehicle (150mm at most)

Use gaffer tape to run the cable from the light to a point where you can switch it off or on. It will be useful to have this control.

Finally, driving sequences at night look better if there is a reasonable amount of suburban or city light in the streets. It helps to justify this simple lighting setup.

© 2016 Pieter de Vries ACS