Are you getting a bit bored of shooting the same old landscapes and portraits? If you’re looking for a new photographic challenge, consider doing some light trail photography.
Light trails are those cool lines of light on roads or in urban environments at night, made by photographing passing traffic with a very slow shutter speed. The vehicles become mere ghosts of themselves, but the light trails they leave are strong and dramatic.
Photo by Patrick Fore
Other photographers specialize in creating their own light trails using torches or other moving light sources to create pictures, which are then immortalized in a photo. For this article, we’re going to be looking at creating light trails using traffic, as that’s the easiest place to start.
Equipment and Accessories
The main piece of equipment you’ll need is a tripod, because you’ll be shooting at very slow shutter speeds, far below the limit at which you can successfully hand-hold a camera.
You may pay more for a sturdy tripod, but in the long run it’s going to be worth it as it will last for decades with careful use. Cheap, flimsy tripods will move in the wind, and they tip over all too easily – usually with an expensive camera on top of them.
A DSLR or camera that you can change the shutter speed on is also essential. If you already shoot using manual mode then great; if you don’t, try using Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon). Shutter Priority will let you decide what shutter speed you want, and the camera will take care of the aperture and ISO settings.
Because most light trail photography is done after dark, you’ll also need some warm clothes, a hot drink and plenty of patience!
General Settings Advice
As lighting situations are different wherever you go, use these settings as a general guideline, not infallible instructions.
As a starting point, try setting your shutter speed to between 10 and 20 seconds to start with, as this gives the cars time to move through the frame. If you’re using fully manual, set your aperture in the mid-range, from f/8 upwards.
Take some test shots with these settings, and look at the results. You’ll know if you’re under or overexposed just by looking. If your shots are overexposed (too bright) then increase your shutter speed and do more test shots. If you’re using manual mode, increase your f/stop, say from f/8 to f/11 or similar.
If you’re underexposed (too dark) then decrease your shutter speed or lower your f/stop, perhaps from f/8 to f/6.3. Bear in mind that opening up your aperture will make your depth of field shallower, so more of your shot will be out of focus.
You don’t want too-bright light sources ruining your image, so turn on your camera’s highlight warning. This will make the too-bright areas flashing red on the image on your camera screen, so you can’t miss it!
Go with the lowest possible ISO setting – this will give you images with as little noise as possible.
Shoot in RAW if you can, as you keep all the image data which helps a lot when you go to edit your images in post-processing. JPEG images contain only a fraction of the data of a RAW file, and you cannot change the white balance on a JPEG after shooting, while you can with a RAW file. With Raw you can fix some exposure issues in photo editing software – there is a range of them at different prices, and even free ones. Use your editing program to straighten slanting horizon lines, to address any exposure issues, and adjust color and contrast.
In low light situations cameras can struggle to get the focus locked correctly. The last thing you want is for your camera to be in and out of focus when you decide to press the shutter, so switch to manual focus and make sure you focus is upon a part of your image that is visually strong.
Best Time to Shoot
You don’t need full darkness to get effective light trails, you can capture great images just before and after the sun goes down. If you shoot at this time, you’ll get the light trails from the traffic, and the ambient light in the sky which can add another dimension to your images.
The ‘blue hour’, which is the hour after sunset when the sky is a beautiful indigo, is also a wonderful time to capture light trails.
Best Places to Shoot
Obviously, you’ll need to be near a road that has plenty of traffic on it, but there’s more to a light trail shot than just the lights. Pick a location that adds an interesting dimension to the shots, such as lit buildings along the road, a location where roads merge together or near a roundabout to catch circular light trails.
You can also set up on a traffic island in between two carriageways, so you get light trails going both ways, but be considerate of others who want to use the traffic island to cross – don’t block it with your tripod. Also, be aware of the traffic around you at all times.
Photo by Kyler Boone
Try adding points of interest into your image, and keep the rule of thirds in mind when you frame. Lines can draw the viewer’s eye into the image, so use them with some thought. Your foreground and background should add to the image, not distract from it.
Light trail photography really makes you slow down and consider your images, and it will help you understand more about both exposure and the need to be patient. The only way to get good at something is to practice, so why not grab a friend or partner for the company, and head out around sunset with your camera gear for some light trail shooting?