A - Z Of Light Trail Photography Tips

26 photography tips on capturing creative shots with light trails, from A for Aperture, to Z for Zooming and Panning, there will be something here for you to try, to get some creative and stylish looking shots.

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A – Aperture

When it comes to picking an aperture, you don't want to go too wide as this will shorten your shutter speeds so choose an aperture around f/8 or f/11 to start and go from there.

 

Aperture

 

B – Bulb

Using the BULB setting will keep the shutter open until you take your finger off the shutter button (this is when a release is handy as you can keep the shutter open without having to touch the camera). This can be useful for light trails as you'll be able to take more control over the length of the exposure, stopping and starting it more precisely.

 

C – Compact Camera

If you're an owner of a newer compact camera you may be thinking you won't be able to try this technique but you could be wrong as many modern compacts now offer longer shutter speed ranges.

 

D – DSLR

Even though you can use a compact you're probably still better using a DSLR or an advanced smaller camera that has the power of a DSLR without the body size. This way you can guarantee you'll have the longer shutter speeds needed, plus the option of using Bulb mode (model depending).

 

E – Exposure times

There's no exposure time that's set in stone for this technique so you'll need to experiment until you find a shutter speed that gives you the results you're looking for. Although, a 10-30-second exposure should capture light trails perfectly.

 

F – Find A Location

It's often worth scouting for locations in the daytime so you're not wasting time when the sun's setting searching for ideal spots.

 

Photo by David Pritchard

 

G – Guide The Eye

Compositional rules still apply here so don't forget the power of using lead-in lines in your shots. The light trails can be used as a line to lead the eye through the image to a point of interest which could be a town, city or building glowing in the background.

 

H – Height

Find a spot, after the sun begins to set, where vehicles will pass under/by you with their lights on. The most obvious is a bridge but any high vantage point will work. You could also find a spot that looks over a road that winds down the side of a hill so car lights are turned into sweeping s shapes. 

 

Dubai

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

I – In The Car

Give the light trail technique an extra twist by shooting from a moving car. Obviously, you can't drive and control the camera at the same time so you'll need a willing friend to help you with this technique. For more tips on this form of light trail photography, have a read of this: Photographing Light Trails From A Car

 

J – Juxtaposition

To really create a sense of movement and pace, shoot your light trails in a built-up area where you can juxtapose still buildings, trees and other objects with the light trails created by traffic.

 

Dubai

Photo by Joshua Waller

 

K – Keep Checking The LCD

As you'll be experimenting with shutter speeds you should view your images on the LCD screen after capture to see if the shutter speed you used was long enough. For example, you may find the light trail ends half way through the image rather than carrying on until the car has exited the frame which means you need a slightly longer exposure time to capture the full length of the light trails.

 

L – Low ISO

Keep your ISO as low as possible (100 if you can) so noise doesn't cause you too many problems.

 

M – Mount Your Camera On A Support

Due to the length of the shutter speeds you need to use some kind of support. A Tripod's best but you can use a monopod if you prefer.

 

N – Night

You may think that well after the sun has set is a good time for capturing images of light trails and there's nothing wrong with capturing shots at this time, however twilight and just after the sun has set can produce some rather cracking results. Not only will there be more ambient light but there will also be more traffic around which means more chances to get the shot right.

Light Trail 

Photo by David Pritchard

 

O – Overexposed

Keep an eye out for spots of light such as street lamps overexposing as these bright dots of light spoil your images.

 

P – Patience

You can't expect to set-up, press the shutter and have the perfect shot so patience is very important for this technique. You could find yourself waiting a while for traffic to actually pass through your frame or for the ambient light to be just right, plus with the trail and error approach you could be outside a while.

 

Macro | 0.8 sec | f/16.0 | 135.0 mm | ISO 200
 

Q – Traffic Queues

Find points in your town where you can guarantee large amounts of traffic will flow through. Crossroads can be perfect as they will create lines that criss-cross and move around each other in various directions.

 

R – Roundabouts

Instead of straight lines, why not set-up near or above a roundabout which will give you the opportunity to capture circular patterns of light in your shots.

 

S – Street Level

To give your light trail shots a different twist, don't head for a high vantage point. Instead, take a stroll around the streets, looking for locations where you'll be able to capture light trails from lower angles.

 

Lisbon

Photo by David Clapp

 

T – Trigger – Remote Or Cable

To reduce camera shake, trigger your camera without actually touching it via a remote / cable release. If you don't have one, you can use your camera's self-timer on its shortest setting.

 

U – Underexposed

If you find the shot's underexposed open up the aperture and just make it smaller if it's too bright. Try not to go too wide with your apertures, though, as this will result in more of the shot appearing out of focus. If you find the light trails to be too short you'll need to use a longer shutter speed to extend them through your shot.

 

V – Very Warm Clothing

Don't forget your warm clothing as temperatures are starting to drop lower as we head towards winter.
 

W – Wide-Angle Lens

If you're working from a car, you need to fix the camera, with a wide-angle lens on a tripod into the passenger seat well or back seat of the car. This will mean you'll be able to see the whole windscreen through the viewfinder. When using wider lenses out in the field for this technique, a lens hood will be useful for shielding the lens from ambient light.

 

X – X-Factor

Light trail photography is a great way to add drama and punch to your night-time urban shots and with a little practice, it's rather simple to master.

 

New York

Photo by David Clapp

 

Y – You Should Consider Using Manual Focus

Due to the low light level and lack of contrast, your camera lens may end up continuously searching if you try to use auto focus so switch to manual for more control.

 

Z – Zooming & Panning

Get creative and experiment with zoom or try panning after pressing the shutter to introduce different effects. After all, this is a fun technique, plus you want to capture something original.  

 

   

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Comments


Ian-Jones 18 133 2 United Kingdom
25 Oct 2020 3:22PM
Low light photography in general, and traffic trails in particular, can be spectacular. In 2001, I read Lee Frost's Night and Low Light Photography and decided to give it a go. After a few underexposed/overexposed and blurry shots, it occured to me that low light images were esentially wide-angled landscape pictures taken under extreme conditions.

Apertures for wide-angle landscapes start at F11, and apetures are commonly F14 or more. The narrower the apeture, the higher the depth of field, and the greater the chance you'll have everything sharp front to back over long distances (it's typically miles from the foreground to the horizon). Happily, the narrower the apeture, the longer the exposure time.

Traffic trail shots are also similar to taking long exposures of waterfalls. The lower the flow, the longer the exposure you'll need. You could need a 90s exposure to get good traffic trails on major roads or motorways because traffic flow is often less than you'd think. During rush hour suburban/urban traffic volumes are higher, so a 30s exposure will do. However, the lights of stationary vehicles will be overexposed at junctions. If you take the picture from long distance this might not be an issue, but the closer you are to the road, the bigger the problem could be.

When you're taking long exposures turn off any lens/camera image stabilisation. IS compensates for operator shake by making small movements of the lens/camera so that on average the image sensor will be static. If the camera is still, IS will blur the image during a long exposure. Using a tripod is the best way to make sure the camera is still. Monopods are designed to cut down movement when taking high shutter speed images e.g. sports/action shots, and they're tricky to keep still when taking longer exposures. If you don't have a pod with you, put your camera on a wall and/or your camera bag. You can level your camera by using coins, credit cards, or anything else you've got handy Wink

After a tripod, the most useful piece of kit for taking long exposures is a remote release cable. If you use an RRC, you don't press the shutter button, so you don't introduce camera shake. If you haven't got an RRC, you can use the camera self-timer, but use the longest self-timer setting. The longer the time between pressing the shutter button and the shutter being opened, the more likely it is that your camera will have stopped shaking.

You absolutely need an RRC if you take a picture with the bulb setting (it's a manual function and pressing the shutter button twice to open and close the shutter would shake the camera too much), but you only need the bulb setting for exposures longer than 30s (the longest auto-exposure setting on almost all cameras). However, manually exposing digital cameras for more than 30s has one big disadvantage. After between 60 and 90s, any dead pixels on the camera sensor will show up on the final image as red, blue, or green splodges. You can photoshop these out, but you could also avoid this by merging a sequence of 30s exposures. Many really long exposure digital images such as those including star trails, are multiple 30s exposures merged into one.

These points apply to DSLR's, so if your prosumer camera/smart phone take images your happy with without all that faff, use them Smile If you aren't happy with the results, then you get/do what you need to, to get the shot. However, you don't have to buy the best to get pleasing results.

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