Driving-night-car-light-trails-highway

How to Photograph Light Trails

The concept of taking photographs with light trails may seem a little tricky but actually is much more straightforward than you may think. In this article I will give you some tips to help capture more light trails in your images.

Tower-Bridge-London-Light-trails
 
Light trails are captured with long exposure photographs – where the shutter speed is very slow to let in a lot of light. This is very similar to most night and low light photography. The most important thing therefore is that the camera remains very still while the shutter remains open to keep blur to a minimum. It is vital to use a tripod and not hand-hold these type of shots.
 
I recommend often set up your camera on a tripod and take a few test shots of the background – this will help you ensure that you have a base image with the correct exposure and framing/composition that you like. Then it will make capturing the light trails much easier.
 
Sunset-freeway-highway-I95-car-light-trails

Equipment

Tripod 
As you will be using very slow shutter speeds, It is vital to use a tripod or other stable surface for your camera and not to hand-hold these type of shots. This will ensure that your images are sharp.
 
Remote Release
Useful to reduce camera shake and vibrations. It is also a great tool to assist if you choose to use Bulb mode – see below. Remember you can use the camera’s remote timer if you don’t have a release to hand.
 
Lens Hood
The Lens hood can help reduce camera flare and block surrounding lights from entering the frame.
 
Lens
Obviously you need the correctly focal length for your scene – I would recommend a wider angle lens to include more of the light trails and the background.

 London-Bridge-Shard-light-trails

Camera Settings

Use the Lowest ISO
This just helps to keep image noise to a minimum. As your camera will be on a tripod then you do not need to increase the ISO.
 
Manual Focus
As you will be working in low light – I would recommend to use manual focus and switch off auto-focus mode. The camera may struggle to focus in the low light and you will naturally want to ensure that your images are sharply in focus.
 
Use Manual Mode
I know that both of these modes trigger fear in the minds of many but actually this type of photography is a great introduction into the manual mode. It really is very straightforward – you will be controlling the shutter speed – the duration that the shutter stays open and the aperture – how much light enters the camera. You can click here to read my earlier guide on shutter speed and here to read my earlier article on aperture.
 
Whilst there are no universal settings that apply to each and every situation – I recommend starting with an aperture of F8 and between 5-10 seconds and check and see how your image turns out. Obviously you can adjust to let in more light by increasing the shutter speed or reducing the aperture too.
 
You will also see if you need to increase the amount of time the shutter remains open to record enough trails to pass through the frame that you want.
 
If you images are over-exposed try to either reduce the shutter speed or close down the shutter (increase the f-stop number).
 
Just also remember that aperture still controls depth of field – even in low light – so if you want more of your image in focus from front to back then you will want to use a larger f-number.
 
Bulb Mode
An alternative to Manual Mode is Bulb Mode. The difference here is that you dial in the aperture that you want and then with a remote control, you can control precisely how long the shutter speed is by pressing and holding the remote switch. So in essence it is very similar to manual mode in that you are controlling both the aperture and the shutter speed – you are just not dialing in a set amount of time for the shutter to remain open. How long you leave it open is up to you. Just remember not to leave it open too long or you will let in too much light and everything will overexpose and become white.
 
Image Stabilisation or Vibration Reduction
As your camera should be on a tripod or other stable surface, remember to turn off any image stabilization mode on your lens (also know as Vibration Reduction) as it is not needed and may actually confuse your camera is left on.
 
 London-Eye-Ferris-moon-light

Timing – When to Press the Shutter Button

Once again this part may sound tricky but I think with some trial and error you will find that you can pick this up very quickly.
 
If you are using a remote release then you will have a lot more control on when to release and close the shutter. Alternatively if you are using the timer-mode then you will have to try a little harder to anticipate when to press so that it triggers the shutter at the correct moment.
 
Bear in mind that if you want the trails to be a smooth line through your frame then you will want to have the shutter open before the light source enters the frame and remain open until after it leaves. However this may not be the type of image that you are looking for and you can get different effects from when you start recording the image. I would suggest playing with different timings and check the results to see what you prefer.
 
 Brickell-Key-Miami-Night-Trails

 

Other Tips and Tricks

Shoot in RAW format so that you can have more flexibility with your post-production.
 
Using a smaller aperture (such as f16) will give you a fantastic star-burst effect on stationary lights (such as street lamps) but will reduce the amount of light recorded for the moving trails. Click here to read my earlier article on star-bursts. Alternatively using a larger aperture will record more light but you won’t have such a pronounced star burst.
 
Try to take your images just after the sun goes down when the sky is still blue as this leads to more compelling images than just a dark or black sky.
 
I would recommend removing any filters you may have on your lens. If you use UV or protection filters, you may end up having unnecessary reflections from the lights bouncing onto the lens and onto the filter.
 
Remember that whilst car lights provide fantastic light triails – may other moving light sources will also leave beautiful trails – including boats or trains, stars, ferris wheels etc.
 
I also recommend that you take a few images at the same place without moving the camera so that you have double the amount of light trails that you can add to your image in post production very easily – I will explain this technique in a forthcoming tutorial.
 
London-skyline-night-light-trails
 
 I hope this tutorial helps to explain how to effective photograph light trails.

Once again please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about this post (or anything else on my website), and to pass this tutorial onto any photographer friends you think may benefit from it.

Until next time!

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