We’ve all had the experience of trying to get something done in the middle of the night with only a pair of headlights to light up the scene. Whether you’re setting up a tent or changing a tire, your vehicle’s built-in headlights or auxiliary lights just won’t cut it.
They may not be bright enough to illuminate the entire area, and you can’t easily point them in a different direction without moving the whole car.
That’s where high-quality scene lights come in. They can turn the area from a dark pit filled with hazards into a workspace that’s as bright as day.
What are scene lights?
Scene lights are designed for emergency vehicles and are used by first responders to light up the area they’ll be working in. You’ll find them on fire engines, rescue vehicles, ambulances, police cars, and more.
They’re especially useful for lighting up an area where multiple people will be working, without having to rely on individual headlamps or work lights for each person.
Scene lights typically use a flood beam pattern, which means they produce an evenly distributed beam of light over a large area -- in contrast to spotlights, which provide a narrow beam over a longer range.
You can use them to light up a work site, the scene of a fire or another emergency, or simply a remote camping area. Scene lights make it easier to see what you’re doing, and reduce the risk of accidents or injuries due to poor lighting conditions.
Plus, they’re more energy efficient and won’t drain your battery, so you don’t have to leave your car running just to keep the headlights on.
Are scene lights street legal?
Since scene lights are primarily made for emergency vehicles, you may be wondering if it’s legal to install them on your car. In short, yes: anyone can install scene lights.
Scene lights are distinct from warning lights and other kinds of auxiliary lights, so they aren’t restricted to use by emergency vehicles. You can install them on your off-road vehicle, campervan, or construction vehicle without any issues.
However, you won’t want to use them while you’re driving. The scene light beam pattern should only be used when the car is stationary, not while it’s on the road.
You should use the appropriate beams for on-road or off-road driving, then turn on your scene lights once you’ve reached your destination.
Scene lights vs. work lights
Scene lights may be referred to by different terms depending on the industry that they’re being marketed to. Emergency responders typically refer to them as scene lights, but on construction teams, they may be called “site lights”.
They can be mounted on the side of the vehicle, or on a pole that’s attached to the truck that can be raised or lowered as needed.
The primary distinction is that scene or site lights have a higher output and illuminate a larger area than work lights. If the light produces 10,000 lumens or less, and only lights up 200 square feet or less, then it’s probably a work light or a task light.
The appeal of a scene light is that you can light up a large area in which multiple people can move around without having to adjust the lighting.
For the most effective result, it should be mounted as high as possible, which is why it’s usually mounted on top of the cab or body of the vehicle.
One reason for this is to reduce glare. Because scene lights are so strong, it’s important not to aim them directly into the sightline of the people on the scene.
When they shine down from above, they mimic the position of the sun overhead, which is the kind of lighting conditions that humans evolved to work under. The eyebrow ridge naturally protects the eyes from glare at this angle.
Likewise, you’ll want to avoid placing objects between your lighting source and the work or campsite. Mounting other accessories on the body of your vehicle that are in the way of the light can produce shadows, defeating the purpose of the scene light.
A well-positioned scene light should illuminate the base of the vehicle too, so that you have full visibility when stepping close to your vehicle to get tools or supplies.
LED vs. halogen
There are two main types of scene lights: LED and halogen. Most of the lights you’ll find on the market these days will be LED lights. Still, it’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of each type and why the market has moved away from halogen bulbs.
The main area in which LED lights are an improvement over halogen lights is in output. Before LED lights, it was easier to measure bulbs by their input, or wattage. A 500-watt halogen bulb produces more light than a 240-watt bulb, for example.
But with LED lights, it’s the output that matters. A 220-watt LED light can produce up to 20,000 lumens -- twice as much as a 500-watt halogen bulb.
So in terms of efficiency, there’s simply no contest: LED lights are the winner. You can run them on battery power without requiring an external generator.
Color temperature and beam pattern
What about lighting color and pattern? LED lights have a color temperature of 4000k to 5500k, which produces a white or blueish color. Halogen bulbs are closer to 3000k and produce more of a yellow-tinted color.
As for pattern, you’ll have a little more flexibility with LED lights. Although you can find both spot and flood patterns with either type of light, only LED lights allow you to use a combination beam. That’s because instead of a single bulb, LED lights are made of a collection of diodes that can all be controlled individually
Another benefit to LED lights is how long they last compared to halogen bulbs. Some LEDs have a life expectancy of 50,000 hours, which is over 6 years of constant use.
Halogen bulbs need to be replaced more frequently, and are also at risk of breaking if they’re not handled properly.
So if LED lights are superior in every way, why would anyone want to purchase halogen scene lights? In short, the cost. Halogen lights are cheaper, and if you’re installing lights on a whole fleet of emergency vehicles, it can be the more cost-effective option.
But if you’re installing a handful of scene lights on a personal off-road vehicle, it makes more sense to invest in LEDs. They may cost a bit more, but they’ll last longer, provide better illumination, and use less energy than halogen scene lights.
How do you install scene lights?
Every scene light is a little different, so it’s important to follow the instructions that come with your lighting kit and make adjustments for the type of vehicle that you have. In most cases, you’ll install scene lights in one of three ways:
1. Permanent mount
This type of installation follows the same steps that you would use for a pod light or any other auxiliary light. In short, you mount a plate or bracket to your vehicle that the light attaches to, giving you a stable and secure mounting point.
Use this type of mount if you want to install your light in a permanent location and don’t plan to move it around. Simply pick a spot on the front, side, or roof of your vehicle and drill screw holes in the spot where you want to attach the mount.
Then, attach the light to the mount and thread the wiring through. Use a wiring harness to connect the light to the controls, and mount the controls in the dashboard. Some LED scene lines have a remote that you can use instead.
2. Pole mount
A pole mount is useful for situations when the roof of the vehicle isn’t high enough on its own, or you want to be able to adjust the height of your scene light. A pole mount offers you additional height to illuminate a larger area.
Some pole mounts attach to the side of the vehicle, but one of the most practical ways to attach a scene light is with a hitch mount.
This type of light can plug in to the trailer light connector and run on vehicle power. The pole itself extends above the roof of the vehicle to nearly double its height.
3. Magnetic mount
Finally, there’s the magnetic mount, which offers you the most portability. You won’t get as much height as you will with a pole mount, but you’ll be able to easily move the light from one part of the vehicle to another depending on what you want to light.
The magnetic mount can be attached anywhere on the vehicle, as long as the surface is flat and clean. You can simply thread the power cable through a door or window, instead of drilling a hole through the roof.
This is the fastest type of installation, but it isn’t as secure as a permanent mount. You’ll want to take the light off while driving or in situations with high wind.
What are the best scene lights for your vehicle?
The best scene lights for your vehicle depend on what you'll be doing and where you’ll be going. Do you need a removable scene light or a permanent one? Are you lighting up a construction site or a camping area?
This post should give you some idea of your options and what to look for when buying scene lights. Browse the selection at Inspired Engineering and let us know if you have any questions. We’ll help you find the best scene lights for your off-road vehicle!