Capturing Light Trails

photography lighting, light trails in photography

Learning a new camera technique is one of the most fun and rewarding things about being a photographer. When I was first getting started, one technique that caught my eye was photographing light trails at night. It’s a relatively easy skill to learn, the challenge comes from creating interesting compositions and finding good locations. One way to practice this technique is by photographing the light trails from cars on the road.

What you’ll need:

  • Camera – You’ll need a digital camera that has the ability to shoot manual, shutter priority, or in bulb mode for long exposures.
  • Tripod – While you can also use a flat surface to rest your camera on, a tripod will give you more freedom to choose where to shoot and help keep in more steady/secure during longer exposures.
  • Shutter release cable/remote (optional) – This isn’t a necessary item, but this will allow you to open the shutter with a cable or remote versus pressing the shutter button with your finger which can cause the camera to shake. Another option would be to use the timer option on your camera, so that it will wait a second to open the shutter after you press the shutter release button.

Your first step is to find a spot where you’ll be able to see the lights of cars at night and your camera will be secure for long exposures. The next step is to be ready to experiment. Each setting is different and will take some trial and error to figure out an exposure that is just right.

Here are a few tips for setting up the shot:

  • Location – Obviously, find a spot near a road. Try to find a spot that adds some interest to the frame. It could be one that is downtown and well lit by ambient lights from building. A road that has interesting curves and bends to it. Find a spot that gives you a different vantage point as well, whether that’s higher or lower than the normal height of a person. It gives an interesting perspective.
  • Timing – Play around with the time of day you shoot. I suggest waiting until it’s a little darker, but you could try right before or after sunset to catch the ambient light in the sky. If you shoot earlier, you might have more cars to play with. Later in the day, you’ll have less.
  • Shutter Speed – This is where the experimentation comes into play. Ambient light and the speed of cars will vary, so keep in mind the longer your shutter speed the more traffic you are going to capture. I usually set my shutter speed somewhere between 6-30 seconds depending on how dark it is.
  • Aperature – A higher aperature range will give you better light trails and a deeper depth of field. I usually like to set mine between f8 to f16. Once you set your shutter speed, you can open or close your aperature to get the correct exposure. (Note: I typically leave my ISO lower to keep the noise low.)
  • Manual Focus – If it’s pretty dark out and your camera is having trouble focusing, try switching to manual focus.
  • Once you’re ready to take your photo, set your camera on a tripod and use the cable release, remote or timer to release your shutter.

This is a jumping off point! Don’t be afraid to experiment. Set the camera on a dashboard of your car (if you’re the passenger) and play with long exposures. If you don’t want to use cars, you can set a tripod and use glow sticks, sparklers, or flash lights to create your own light trials as you move in front of the camera. Stay tuned for part two where we’ll be talking about how to incorporate this technique with portraits and weddings!

Have you captured light trails before? Tell us about your experiments with them!



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