Spy Photo Camera Camo Explained: What’s With the Swirlies?

Spy Photo Camera Camo Explained: What’s With the Swirlies?

Ever see the cars in our spy photos page and wonder why they look like that? New paint job trends emerge all the time, like gloss-less matte paint finishes, which are becoming more and more popular in recent years. Some companies like to dial it up to 11 with chrome finishes on their entire cars. But there is one look that is always intriguing: car camouflage. No, not the desert or arctic warfare kind, we’re talking about camera-camo. 

If you’ve spent even a smidgen of time on our Auto News page then you’ve probably seen one of our spy photo stories. A recurring trend in these stories is the bizarre magic-eye look on the prototype vehicles that our spies track down.

The truth is that car companies deliberately make their cars look that way so that when and if these prototype cars get snapped by a photographer, certain incriminating details are not visible.

SEE ALSO: Check out the latest spy photos

Also, it’s worth noting that the look isn’t even a paintjob at all, but a vinyl application. The pattern on the application is perfect at tricking even the most advanced auto focus system on a camera. That’s because a camera’s auto focus system uses a subject’s colors to figure out its focus.

Dan Suszko from Graphik Concepts sells these vinyl wraps and confirms that it really works wonders to hide body work in photographs. “Car companies want to put an end to one person exposing their product to the world” Suszko said. “It really hides the way things look in low-res images,” he added.

Some cameras auto focus by using something like SONAR, but instead of sound, using infrared light. The infrared bounces back to the camera and the camera’s computers calculate the difference in time, and focus accordingly. However, if the subject is painted black, it could absorb the infrared light that the camera uses, and makes it harder for the camera to calculate the autofocus.

Cars in testing are often spotted in zebra-like looks that would make an active autofocus system struggle. Other cameras like SLRs have another form of autofocus which looks at contrast in the subject, to make its focus adjustment.

Again all the black and white swirls and lines on a prototype car make it nearly impossible for even some of the better autofocus systems to work. Add in the fact that cars in testing are usually on the move and you’ll see it’s not that easy getting those spy photos.

Opinions vary about the different designs of car camo. Brenda Priddy is a legendary automotive spy photographer, her photos appearing in almost every major auto magazine, paper and website. She tells us, “Frankly, I find the new breed of camo (swirly lines and sometimes colorful patterns) very photogenic!” Priddy questions the function of the camo too. “They haven’t interfered with my camera’s focusing abilities, and they help make the photo even more interesting,” she said. Further mocking those she stalks for a living, Priddy adds, “It seems the camouflage changes every year. I can’t wait to see what they come up with this year.”

When asked how popular Graphik Concept’s wrap is with automakers Suszko said, “I see it all the time. We’re right in the heart of Big Three country (Ford, GM and Chrysler) and I see my product all the time on the road.” He mentioned Nissan and GM specifically are recurring customers, but that the wrap isn’t isolated to just cars. Other vehicles like ATVs and Hovercrafts use the wrap as well when testing.

In fact, it’s quite likely you’ve seen Susko’s wraps. If not on AutoGuide or some other automotive publication, then during this year’s Super Bowl. The wrap appeared prominently on the new Cadillac ATS, during a commercial for the car right at the two minute warning.

Dan mentioned that car manufacturers like the wrap because it doesn’t affect the normal operation of the vehicle. It’s light-weight and doesn’t create aerodynamic drag. If you’ve spent a lot of time on the AutoGuide Spy Photos page you might have seen some of the bulkier equipment that some cars are dressed up in to hide new body work. Those are clearly more restrictive than these wraps.

David Caldwell from Cadillac’s Communications team talked to us a bit about these different types of camo. “You’ll see it occasionally, they put large and cumbersome parts to hide the design, but later when a car is closer to production, you’ll see that shrink wrapped vinyl.” Caldwell mentioned that the wrap is less cumbersome, and stays on the car easier. “We use [it] because it’s less restrictive. In the ATS-Nurburgring footage you’ll see the ATS in the car camo, because… it doesn’t limit air flow to the brakes”.

SEE ALSO: How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

The fun part is that anyone can buy these wraps. They’re not just for prototype vehicles. Susko tells us that he gets orders from around the world, so there’s a real possibility that some are on passenger vehicles.

We’ve yet to see a non-prototype car strolling around the streets wrapped up, but then again maybe it’s best if spy photo camo wraps are left to the professionals.

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  • It sure makes it hard to visually pick-out the new body design features anyway!
    This certainly isn’t the first time the technique has been used. Been around at least as long as the First World War http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dazzle_camouflage

  • I’d like to know where it can be purchased. Would love to cover my car in it, think it looks really cool.

  • Junkyard never

    I like how the article about camo fooling auto-focus is illustrated with several perfectly focused pictures of cards in camo, and followed by links to several other articles with perfectly focused pictures of cars in camo.

  • Manticore

    Manual focus is still a thing.

  • David L

    It’s almost as if they used manual focus!

  • Junkyard never

    You don’t say. It’s almost as though the decals are pointless.

  • colorado rancher

    Thank you for the article. Yesterday we were behind a convoy of these camo cars and their support vehicles for over an hour between Montrose and Gunnison Colorado. We thought they may be new prototype cars testing in high altitude since all of the support vehicles had Michigan plates. I hope they don’t hit an elk.

  • I just wished they offered this paint as an option.

  • Sami Haj-Assaad

    It might be hard as a paint job, but can probably done as a vinyl wrap. Plus doing so would also protect your car’s original paint from any damage!

  • Tim

    I am no expert and maybe they know something that I don’t but it would seem to me that black and white swirls would be ideal for fast, contrast-based focus. When I want to focus on something (and I’m not using manual) I look for something that is black on white (or black on light at least) and I get perfect focus in a snap. How could this cause cameras not to focus properly?

  • Tark Jones

    It’s actually less about messing with the focus of the camera as it is about making it hard to see the lines and details of the car. Regardless of whether the shot is in focus, it’s hard to get a true feel for the lines in the car when it’s covered in camo. Which is the whole point of camouflage — to break up identifiable lines to make it harder for the eye to figure out what it’s seeing.

  • Frank

    the only thing camo accomplishes is to somewhat take the focus away from the more subtle body work changes in a given model. it’d be just as well if they covered it in a black vinyl material that didn’t precisely follow the contours of the sheet metal. seems a lot of effort is put in for not much gain.

  • Ryan Darling

    The worst are the douchebags who put this on their car purposely… because they think its cool… DOUCHE

  • Andrew Ross

    What I don’t understand is why don’t they just not drive them on the road and hide them in a truck or under a cover on a trailer.