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How to light paint a black BMW M850i

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These BMW M850i Gran Coupes were made available by Circle BMW in Eatontown, NJ. I purchased my X3 from them, and it was one of the best car-buying experiences I’ve had. And I’ve had a lot.

Good vs Evil

When Circle said I could have my pick of cars on the lot to shoot, I wanted something a bit different from the standard BMW fair I normally see. The BMW M850i Gran Coupe is, in my opinion, the best-looking car BMW currently makes, so I grabbed an Alpine White and Carbon Black Metallic one. Then I took them…absolutely no where.

With the weather being what it is during a typical New Jersey winter, I asked for the cars to be prepped in the delivery bay. However, the lighting for the dealership was controlled by a single switch, and I did not want to interrupt normal business flow. So I took them to the service bay welcome area.

If you’re familiar with any modern BMW V-8, they might be accused of being to quiet. Not the M850i. It has a beefy roar at idle that honestly reminds me of the vaunted S65.

Light Saint

The reason for picking both a white and black car is simple; to see the difference in how light reflects. I’ve shown how to light paint before, but doing it with a black car requires more patience. Let’s look at the Alpine White M850i first.

A typical light painting exposure for this car was 1.6 seconds, with an ISO of 64, and an aperture of f/4. For those wondering, I’m mostly on the Nikon 24-70mm Z lens.

BMW M850i
Here’s a typical light painting exposure for the Alpine M850i, and you can see my ghost on the left side.

Background matters

Moving to that Carbon Black Metallic BMW M850i, I was able to fire off one shot on the Delivery Bay. With just one exposure to work with, you’ll need some post production work to make sure the background isn’t blown out. Also try to maintain the light reflections on the edges of the car to help define the surface. You don’t want it to seem like it’s one flat black slab.

BMW M850i
The car itself needs a much longer exposure than the background when you’re in a well-lit area.

Light Painting with a dark background

So now let’s look at a shot of the Carbon Black BMW M850i.

BMW M850i
Looks dark, but the information you need is there.

Same ISO and aperture, but now the exposure is longer, at 3 seconds. Even with a light wand, you can still overexpose the background, so don’t hold it to long.

The background in light painting shots is typically dark, so you need just enough light to separate the car from the background.

BMW M850i
The final composed shot.

Use the lights of the BMW M850i

Headlights and brake lights not only look cool, they add another source of light for a black car. This head on shot shows the additional definition that comes from hitting the brakes for an exposure.

If you’d like to get that star burst on your headlights, make sure to raise your aperture. Here, f/16 was enough to bring out the shape. Remember to adjust your exposure time, given the headlights are brighter, but aperture is higher.

BMW M850i
This head on shot shows how dramatic brake lights can be.
BMW M850i
Aperture of f/16 to give you that lens star burst.
BMW M850i
The street light outside added some drama here.
BMW M850i Interior
Had to get those purple accent lights, so I used two exposures.
BMW M850i
Shooting both together in the confines of the garage was a fun challenge.

As always, play around and try new things for different results.

Special thanks to Circle BMW! Both of these BMW M850is are currently available for purchase.

Commissions may be received for product links on this site, so help out if you can. I only write about products I use and believe in.

I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Email me at with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls


Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, I cannot guarantee against improper use or unauthorized modifications of this information. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio assumes no liability for property damage or injury incurred as a result of any of the information contained in this post. Use this information at your own risk. Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio recommends safe practices when working on vehicles and or with tools seen or implied in this post.

Due to factors beyond the control of Machines With Souls LLC and Mike D’Ambrosio, no information contained in this post shall create any expressed or implied warranty or guarantee of any particular result. Any injury, damage, or loss that may result from improper use of these tools, equipment, or from the information contained in this post is the sole responsibility of the user and not Machines With Souls LLC or Mike D’Ambrosio.

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