Top 5 tips for shooting headlights

Headlights. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. How do you keep them from being over exposed? Are LEDs different from regular bulbs? Here are my top 5 tips for shooting headlights.

Tip 1: Don’t shoot directly into the light

If you ever wonder if your camera will be able to capture an image, or if it’s too bright, trust your eyes. If you look at an object and squint, chances are your camera will have a hard time as well. Headlights aim downward, so watch out when composing your shot if you’re pointing up at the car – even a high aperture won’t really protect you from the light overwhelming the image if you’re aimed right at it.

Porsche 911 headlights
This isn’t a good shot – see the corona effect on the lens, and the over exposure of the headlight. I adjusted my angle slightly and got better results.

Tip 2: Use multiple exposures

Shooting a headlight is sort of the reverse of light painting – you want to capture all the shadows and details of the area around the headlight, so shoot a few exposures at a lower speed and/or higher aperture, and shoot a few with the headlights off. You can combine these shots into one seamless look in post production.

BMW M4 headlights
For this shot, I did an exposure with just the angel eyes on, then painted them in – if the headlights had been on and I took just one shot, all the intricate detail of the headlights would have been missed.

Tip 3: Get the small lights too

Fog lights, parking lights, daytime lights – automotive body lighting has such variation for each model, so make sure to familiarize yourself with what you’re shooting. BMWs usually have “angel eyes”, but now Porsche has its own unique daytime light design. A Dodge Challenger’s iconic orange circular parking lamps are details you don’t want to miss. If you can’t turn all the lights on at once, then shoot an exposure for each and combine in post. Even if it isn’t 100% realistic, your final shot will look much more dramatic with all the lights on.

Porsche 911 parking lights
Another exposure to capture the daytime running lights.
Porsche 911 fog lights
An exposure to capture the fog and parking lights.

Tip 4: Use special effects and lens filters

You can use photography haze to bring out the triangle-like pattern the headlights put out for a nice effect. Use a neutral density filter to help hold your exposure open longer for some motion effects and to bring out details you might otherwise miss. You can also use a multi-point filter on your lens to create a star burst. However, make sure to shoot an exposure without this particular lens as well, since this effect is obvious and permanent. You may decide you don’t like it in the final image.

Tip 5: Hit the brakes

Even if shooting the front of the car, step on the brakes for an exposure and light up the rear end – the red looks great reflecting on a wall or even the floor.

AMMO Audi R8 brake lights
Getting an exposure of just the brake lights will help add another dimension to your shot.

Bonus: How to get a star burst

Getting a star burst in your image is easy – just move up your aperture to somewhere in the f/16 range. The smaller the aperture, the tighter the star burst. It’s rare you’d ever shoot this high normally, so if you’re looking for that burst effect, keep it in mind during your shoot.

Porsche 911 GT3
The star burst from the headlights here was edited down so it did not overwhelm the car. An opacity of 50% should make it apparent but not obvious.

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

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