How To: Illuminate Portraits with Headlights

I really enjoy lighting subjects with non-traditional lighting. After years of playing with off-camera lighting in the traditional ways, I began to think a little outside the box. What's more non-traditional than using car headlights for portraits? I had seen examples from other photographers doing this in the past and began playing around with several subjects. The headlights give some unique challenges that aren't the easiest to avoid, so here are some tips I have gathered over the past few months.

Headlight Portraits
Headlight Portraits
  • Location - you need to pick spots that you can get your car to, obviously. But the not-so-obvious piece is having a location where you can also properly aim your headlights, which can take some maneuvering You can't very well have your subject uphill if your headlights won't point that high.  For the image of the beautiful Mary Heim above, we had an uneven gravel parking lot to work with; full of rises and falls in elevation.  It was a little back-and-forth until the lights ended up at the proper height to illuminate the dock. 
  • Distance from Subject - You basically have two settings with this light source.  Hi-beam and lo-beam.  Not a lot of variation.  The only way you can adjust brightness (and hardness/softness of the light) is driving forward and backward.  For the above image, I was about 30 yards back, high-beams on.  The low-beams were not hitting high enough.  This distance gave the proper illumination against the night sky.  A darker sky would have meant backing up further, if the location allowed.  A brighter sky would have meant pulling forward.
  • Position of Headlights, Model and Photographer - This isn't the easiest of tasks as you end up moving a car around, rather than a light-stand.  Like I said above, you can adjust the up/down by playing with uneven ground - and you can adjust the left/right positioning your car or model appropriately.  I tend to use the headlights straight on - which poses a problem: where to stand.  Remember, this light source is coming from directly behind, so you will be casting a shadow.  You can solve it by having the light coming in from an angle, but that wasn't the look I wanted.  So, I had to get myself out of the light and for this one, it meant being a little off-center to the right on the dock, and Mary posing to camera left.  You can catch a glimpse of my shoulder on the last pier post on the right.
  • White Balance - I keep the white balance set to auto and adjust as needed in post.  It differs from car to car.  If shooting with my headlights, I get a very warm setting (5700 or so) as opposed to my fog lights which are much cooler at around 3500.  I like the warmer look of the headlights and tend to keep the WB in the 5700 range.
  • ISO - If I am hand-holding the camera, I like to shoot above 1/60 speeds and need to adjust the ISO properly.  For this image, I was luck enough to have 1/60 hand-held and kept the ISO at 1/60.  In darker situations, I jump up to ISO 320 and usually pop the camera on a tripod.  I shoot between f/1.4 and f/2 99% of the time, so I can keep the ISO relatively low.

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