Light Trail Photography Tutorial

Share this Article 

Friday article flashback -┬áTaking photo’s of light trails may seem difficult, but it’s rather easier than expected, and is based on a lot of trial and error. Light trail photos are most common found with car headlights and tail lights, but you can also make light trails with stars (star trails) or any other light source in motion during low light hours of sunset or night.

light trail photography

Photo captured by maxime nadeau croteau (Click Image to See More From maxime nadeau croteau)

Light trails are basically long exposure shots that take place around moving sources of light. There isn’t much you will need to be able to take these shots, but a proper camera, and additional equipment can help, even though some is not needed. I will start to explain the basics.

Equipment

For a long exposure shot (the basis of this tutorial), you will need a camera that has some control over the exposure settings, such as changing the shutter speeds. Some cameras may allow you to slow the shutter speeds down, while others (such as DSLR’s) will allow you to leave the shutter open for an infinite amount of time until you manually decide to close it, which allows as much light into the camera as you deem necessary.

You will also need a tripod for this, as having a camera handheld with long shutter speeds will make it near impossible to compose a good looking shot, without everything being blurry. I have done long exposures on rests before, such as a bridge overlook, and it worked well. You just have to make sure the camera has minimal movement during the exposure.

Two more things that can really help, but are not needed, are a remote shutter release, and also a lens hood, which can help block surrounding ambient light (such as if you’re around a surrounding city, or with street lights). The remote helps so there is no camera shake when pressing the shutter button. Also, using mirror lock-up (feature on most DSLR’s) will also minimize camera shake. My last tip, which is good for any long exposure, is to use the noise reduction function if your camera has it.

tutorial on light trail photos

“long exposure” captured by maxime nadeau croteau (Click Image to See More From maxime nadeau croteau)

But only do this once you know the correct shutter time you will be using. Noise reduction takes the first exposure, which is the shot, then it will close the shutter, and take an equally timed shot, with pitch black, and blends the two shots together to reduce noise. And the reason you want to wait (until you know your proper exposure time) until you enable this feature, is because if you take a long exposure of two minutes or so, then that means you will be waiting four minutes until the shot is entirely complete. Take my word for it, it’s like watching paint dry.

Setting Up Your Shot

For our examples, let’s assume we want to take long exposure light trails of car lights. You will want to find somewhere where there is a lot of fast-moving traffic, and not much ambient light. Although, I must add, having neon signs or other lighting on the side CAN add for cool effect of the photo.Now, find a good perspective that will catch the car lights passing by, and setup your tripod, camera, and get ready!

Camera Settings

This is where trial and error come into play. There are no exact “perfect” camera settings. It all depends on the ambient light around you, how fast traffic is moving, etc.

  • First of all, set your camera to a low ISO (film speed) setting. This will reduce the amount of noise in the shot.
  • Next, set your aperture (increase your f-stop number) and take test shots and see how they turn out. This is where the trial and error comes in. I usually set my f-stop around 10 or higher, when I do have it set. But then again, I always use bulb mode.
  • If your shot comes out too dark, increase your aperture size (lower your f-stop number). And if your shot is too overexposed, decrease your aperture size (raise your f-stop). Aperture will affect your depth of field also. Keep in mind, you don’t have to stick to ISO 100 or 200. Try all different mix match settings and see what works best for you. What I do is use bulb mode, which leaves the shutter open for as long as you want it to be open, in which you hit the shutter button for the second time to close the shutter. On a DSLR, this is usually on the mode dial, marked “B”. I usually set my ISO to 100 or 200, use a remote, hit the shutter button, and wait about ten seconds, then close the shutter. I then look at my shot, and figure out if my shot is too dark, too bright, etc.

Getting Your Shot Timing Correct

The last part is getting your timing correct. You will want to look through your camera and know where the photo will actually begin. This is because you want to start your shot before any cars enter the shot. If you don’t, then you will have some light streaks start midway through the shot, coming out of nowhere. Sometimes this can’t be avoided though, and also sometimes it can turn out to be cool. But most times you want to expose the shot before any car enters the shot.

how to take light trail photos

“Vincent Thomas Bridge” captured by Thomas Bigger (Click Image to See More From Thomas Bigger)

Last Tips

I only have a few more tips, and you’re ready to shoot! First, always shoot in RAW mode (as you always should anyway) so most adjustments will be easily corrected later on. Next, you may need to use manual focus, as it can sometimes be hard to focus in the pitch black dark. Last, keep in mind what the difference in f-stops do. For instance, you take a shot at f-5.6 at a street light, and it comes out normal. If you take the same shot with an f-stop of 16, you will have a star effect on the light. Just something to keep in mind if you have any signs or other lighting subjects in your shot.

I hope this tutorial has helped you out, answered all your questions, and that you come up with some great light trail shots!

About the Author
This article was written by Ty Sharp (blog). More details can be found on his blog.

Don't Miss The Next New Article!

Join over 100,000 subscribers who receive free photography tips and in-depth articles from PictureCorrect and stay up-to-date. Subscribe Now!

5 Comments

  1. bycostello says:

    NIce tips… something i’ve always meant to try, and yet to get round to it….

  2. Hi

    Great article and tips – I tried to follow some of this guidance and came up with these shots of San Diego

    Uptown from Downtown: http://t.co/WpR66fB

    Gas Lamp Quarter: http://t.co/8qMRfcy

    regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  3. I believe that your directions for adjusting the aperture are a bit twisted around. If your image is too dark, you would want to increase the aperture size, but that would actually be done by choosing a lower number on your f-stop. The relationship between the number and the size of the aperture is inverted. Based on your explanation, I think you know that but just got tripped up on the wording.

  4. Hi

    Here is an article I wrote about this topic – check it out!

    http://improvephotography.com/544/how-to-shoot-light-trails/

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  5. Ty Sharp says:

    If you guys like my tutorial, check out my website!
    http://www.tysharpphotography.com/

    And my blog!
    http://tysharpphotography.wordpress.com/

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from Gravatar.com!

New! Want more photography tips? We offer a free newsletter for photographers:

Don't show this again.