Seeing, Viewing...... Lighting!

One of the first, and most important skills you should develop is the ability to see what is on and in your paint. Under most conditions, a thin layer of dust, for example, can be completely invisible. Rubbing your hand (or anything else) across the paint in this condition will induce scratches. Under "typical" lighting conditions, a paint job may appear nearly flawless. Under more severe (better or worse, depending upon your perspective) lighting conditions, you may see dust, water spots, and fine scratches commonly referred to as "swirl marks", and even finer ones (usually made by some compound designed to improve things, like a swirl mark remover or "cleaner") that appear as haze. Learning to really "see" your paint is an important skill to develop. When you can "see" and get the surface looking good under those conditions, it will look positively amazing in natural light.

The importance of good lighting in this regard cannot be stressed enough. I have found that the angle of the light source to the surface, and the relationship of your viewing angle to the same surface, are very important. Overhead light, such as the fluorescent lights of a gas station at night, or the high skylights of a warehouse - tend to do a good job of illuminating flaws on the horizontal surfaces of your car, as long as there is not much light coming from any other direction. A very bright light aimed directly at the car in a darkened area works well, particularly when your viewing angle is toward the light. Viewing the same surface from a position where your sight line is 90 degrees to the "light line" is not as effective. But this is easily discovered - get some good lights, and experiment!

Please note that the color of your paint, as well as whether it is metallic or not, has a large impact on how easily you (and others) can and will see flaws. My car is non-metallic black. The worst. It shows everything. By contrast, metallic silver reflects and scatters most of the light that falls upon it, effectively hiding its flaws. Choose the color car you like. Non-metallic dark colors show the most; metallic light colors show the least. The principles here apply to every paint job. You can learn to "see" flaws on any paint, and lighting is the single most important variable.

Here is the lighting setup I used for this sequence:

The area we are concerned with is the left side of the spoiler surface. To view (and photograph) the surface, I stood to the right of the car's center and leaned over until I was almost vertically above the surface, looking back toward the light. To keep the reflection of the light itself from blinding me and the camera, I moved my head forward or back just enough to place the light out of the field of view. The further away it is, however, the less well you can see.

Before we look at this surface under ideal conditions, let's look at it outside on a sunny day from this same angle:

Here you see a surface that looks pretty darn good. You can see a few white spots, which are either dust I missed, adhered contaminants, or tiny pits in the clear coat that are now filled with wax. The out-of-focus reflection of my house to the left, but certainly you don't see any scratches. In fact the car has a beautiful, deep, clean, glossy appearance. Note that the closer to a "mirror" the surface becomes, the more important it is to consciously focus your eyes or the camera on the surface, and not on the reflection. If I were to focus on the reflection of the house, a distance many feet away, the surface itself would blur and flaws would never show. The same is true when you look in the mirror - you focus on your reflection, obscuring the dirt on the mirror itself. Look again, focus on the mirror surface, and you'll see the dirt.

Now, let's bring the car into the garage, and look again:

The surface is lit with indirect, diffuse light. Once again, a few dust bits are visible. The reflection on the right side is the garage door track overhead. But again - still looking like it doesn't need any attention.

Now let's switch the lights on. In this picture the garage door is still open:

Holy cow! Scratches! They pop right out at you. They look bad. The fact is, these are very, very minor scratches. They only show up in good lighting conditions. But we see even better, by closing the garage door and getting rid of the stray light:
Whoa! Now it looks positively atrocious. This picture is a little blurry because, without the outside light, the exposure was longer and I was hand-holding the camera. But as you can see, not only are there some "moderate" swirls, but some lighter ones as well - and a lot more spots that are adhered dust bits, wax residue in minute pits, etc. This is what you're trying to achieve - lighting that shows absolutely everything. I know these scratches probably look terrifying. Fact is, I was watching when they happened, which was when I was dusting the surface with some detail spray and a micro-fiber towel. I obviously picked up/knocked loose a piece of abrasive dust with the wipe, and rubbed back and forth 3 times. But I did see it happen. The damage was confined to a tiny area. Imagine if I had used that same wipe outdoors? These scratches are so minor that, as you can see from the pictures above, they do not show outdoors. (I actually saw the scratches first as I was detailing. I decided to stop and shoot the photo sequence, which ended up with my rolling the car out into the sunlight - so what you see on this page is actually presented in the reverse order in which it was shot.) A polish, glaze or other filling product will hide them nicely (although not completely in this light.) If I want to remove them, a swirl mark remover will be adequate.

There are a few important lessons to take away from this:

  1. Lighting really matters.
  2. Without proper lighting you risk introducing scratches, even doing something "harmless" like running your hand over that gorgeously smooth, freshly clay-barred and waxed surface.
  3. Without proper lighting you cannot see the results of your work, or instantly see when you make a mistake.
  4. If you can get the surface looking good under these lighting conditions, it will look absolutely incredible in any kind of "normal" light.

I bought those lights for under $30.00. Later I saw the same basic set-up on sale at a hardware store for $18.00! They are a wise investment.

In the future I intend to expand this page with diagrams and explanations of viewing and lighting angles optimized for seeing certain types of flaws. For now, suffice it to say that low viewing and lighting angles from the same direction (nearly parallel to the surface) are best for seeing 'above surface" contaminants like dust and adhered stuff like sap and bug poop. Higher angles are superior for below-surface defects.

All material copyright (C) 2002 Greg Heumann