Light trail photography can be aesthetically pleasing on the eyes. It falls under long exposure photography which is about making a photo that shows the effect of passing time. For this reason, long exposure is sometimes called time exposure and even slow exposure photography. As the name suggests, this type of photography involves the shutter on a camera being open for a longer duration than normal to capture an object and blurring it in the process. The blur shows the movement of the object and in the case of light trails with a streaking light effect. It can produce some wonderful results in photography, so here is a quick guide on how to capture light trails from cars.
What is a light trail?
Light trails are simply creative colourful effects that photographers use to capture images by employing a long-exposure shooting technique. It is often used to capture the trail of lights from cars or to make urban photography more pleasing to see. The result is the glowing lines of light which would appear in the photo when a car with its headlights or taillights passes through the scene. This not only adds a dynamic element to the photo but can help bring to life evening or night scenes that might otherwise seem dark and uninteresting.
What kind of camera do I need for light trail photography?
When it comes to light trail photography even a smartphone is capable of pulling it off as long as it has long exposure settings. All you need is a camera or a phone with a tripod then use its self-timer feature to trigger the shutter. This is done by setting the camera shutter speed to be very low. This enables light to get captured by the sensor over a period of time. This may only be a few seconds. By doing so, as the shutter is open, any passing lights are captured until the shutter is closed. Hence the streaking lines that you see.
Your location is important
Places with high traffic or moving vehicles such as urban centres are best. Higher vantage points are also great for capturing light trails. Ensure you find a good spot before you set up your camera. Look for bridges, parking lofts, especially the top or high rise buildings. If you live in the city or you are in a hotel on a higher floor with a view of the streets then you are in luck for a perfect light trail shot. But don’t worry if you can’t find an elevated view. You can also capture great light trail shots at street level. Try to find somewhere where there is a point of interest in the background that can give your photo some context.
What do you need for light trail photography?
Besides a camera, the most important tool you need for light trails is a tripod. You will not be able to capture slow exposure shots without one. The key to this type of photography is that you need to ensure there are perfectly sharp parts of your photo to counter the blurred motion effects of cars and lights. Without this, your whole photo will look blurred. A remote release can also be useful but not a necessity as you can just set your camera on a timer.
What’s the best time to capture light trails?
It is all about timing. The twilight period or at night would give you the best result as the light trails pop out against the dark colours. But you can try it during the day if there are cars with lights on but it won’t have the same effect. To capture light trails during the day you will need to use a neutral density filter to be able to slow your shutter speed.
Recommended camera settings
Take into consideration the lighting and also the speed of the traffic. This will determine the shutter speed to use. These settings do not apply to every situation, however, this should help you get started on light trail photography.
Here are some recommended settings to try out:
- Turn off the flash
- Position your camera on the tripod securely
- If your lens has image stabilization, turn it off
- Set your camera to manual mode
- Select a fairly narrow aperture depending on how much depth of field you need (f/8 – f/16)
- Aim for the shutter speed to be at least a few seconds (if it is too fast select a smaller aperture. If too slow select a wider aperture)
- ISO should be as low as possible (ideally ISO 100)
- “Lock up” the mirror in your settings or choose “Live view” mode
- For best results select manual focus and focus on exactly where you want to
- Set your camera on a 2-second timer or use a shutter release cable.
Remember to find a good location to get a good image of the traffic with an interesting background. You can also play around your shutter speed until you are happy with the result you get. Remember that if you are using a timer, the camera will take 2 seconds before it starts taking the photo. So take the shot before the vehicles get to where you want them to be.
Light trails can provide wonderful photos and they are also great fun. It will take a little bit of trial and error in any scene to get the perfect timing. But a nice photo of light trails can really help bring to life a city or even a road. Try it out next time you are out photographing and you might end up with some great photos.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.