How to Photograph Light Trails

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You’re going to practice creating light trails by photographing passing vehicles. You will need a tripod for this technique (or some other way to stabilize your camera) as you will be opening up your shutter for a few seconds or more at a time, and you need your camera to stay perfectly still. Otherwise, you will get camera shake, and your photos will be blurry. You will also need a camera that lets you control the shutter speed. And, you will need to be doing this technique during or after twilight, on a night that has little or no wind (to avoid camera shake). Here a few settings to get you started–you will need to experiment, as not every situation is the same. The lighting, the time of night, and the speed of traffic will all influence the shutter speed you need to use. To start off, I’d advise that you use the recommended settings and experiment from there.

shutter priority mode

“Cruising Chicago” captured by Tony Lau. (Click image to see more from Tony Lau.)

Recommended Settings

  • Shutter Priority mode
  • Shutter speed of 6 seconds (or use bulb mode–more on this below)
  • ISO 100, or as low as you can get it
  • Tripod (turn your image stabiliser off if using a tripod)
  • Shutter release cable or the camera’s two-second timer
  • You won’t be using a flash!
  • Optional: warm clothing, a torch to see what you are doing, extra person for security

Find yourself a safe place to stand off the road that lets you get a good image of the traffic. Position yourself so you have something of interest in the background (so you can get a photo of the lights of the car going past your point of interest). This technique will also create a striking image from up high on a bridge, looking down and capturing the light trails of cars below you, or from the vantage point of a curve or corner in the road so you can create lights that bend.

Once your camera is set up at your ideal vantage point, remember you will have to play around with your shutter speed a bit until you are happy with the results. Start with six seconds and go from there. Use a shutter release cable or the two second timer on your camera so you don’t risk bumping your camera during the photo. Wait until the cars (or even better, buses, due to their distinctive colouring!) are about to go past (if you are using your 2 second timer you will need to press this 2 seconds earlier to allow for the timer) and then press the shutter button. The following video demonstrates this general light trail technique:

If you still see the vehicles in your photo you need a longer shutter time, unless that is the picture you are going for. If you are shooting a long stretch of road you will need a longer shutter speed to capture a long light trail. If there are gaps in your trail, try a longer shutter speed. As alluded to earlier, you can use ‘bulb mode’ if your camera has the function to. Bulb mode lets you control how long your shutter is open. You press your shutter down when the subject enters the frame and release it when the subject leaves the frame. This way you don’t have to guess how long to leave the shutter open.

If you are having problems with overexposure, decrease your aperture size (by going up to a larger f-stop number), and if your images are underexposed, do the opposite and increase your aperture size (by going down to a smaller f-stop number). But most of all, just practice and enjoy!

About the Author:
Giovanna lives in London, England and is originally from Christchurch, New Zealand (www.exploretravelphotography.com). “Examine every possibility… Search and travel for the purpose of discovery… Explore.”

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One Comment

  1. Greg says:

    Here’s a series of post on long exposure photography I also found useful.

    http://shutterexperiments.com/category/long-exposure/

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