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Light Trail Photography Tips

Did you wonder how people get car lights to streak through their images? Well here's your answer.

| Landscape and Travel

Light Trail Photography Tips: New York
Photo by David Clapp

A fun aspect of night photography is capturing light trails with longer exposure times which are created by cars and other vehicles as they continue on their journey along busy roads. 

As you do need longer exposure times or even Bulb mode, a DSLR or an advanced smaller camera such as the Olympus OM-D EM-1 will probably be the camera you reach for. However, that's not to say you can't use a compact as many now offer longer shutter speed ranges. The Olympus XZ-10, for example, has a shutter speed range from 1/2000 - 30s. 

With longer shutter speeds comes the risk of camera shake when working hand-held so a tripod is essential. You'll also find a remote control / remote shutter cable handy but it's not essential as you can use the camera's self-timer to stop you shaking the shot at the start. A lens hood can be useful for shielding the lens from ambient light and don't forget your warm clothing as temperatures are starting to drop lower as we head towards winter. 

When heading out, you'll need to find a spot at night where vehicles will pass under/by you with their lights on. The most obvious is a bridge but any high vantage point will work. Get up high and shoot a wide shot that includes buildings as their lights switch on and the traffic moves by or out of the city, 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. 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. Roundabouts will give you circular patterns of light while crossroads will create lines that criss-cross and move around each other in various directions.

With a location in-mind, you then need to pick an aperture, try around f/8 or f/11, then it's just about using longer exposure times to turn lights into long streaks of colour. 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) but if your camera doesn't have this feature, just experiment until you find a shutter speed that gives you the results you're looking for. A handy feature on the Olympus OM-D EM-1 is that you can control Live Bulb from a Smart Phone. What this means is that not only do you not have to touch the camera, you'll also be able to see the traffic trails appear on screen and can end the exposure when you're happy with the number of trails you've captured in your shot.

If you're not using Bulb and are just varying your shutter speeds do remember that the speed at which the traffic is moving will effect what shutter speed works and doesn't. It's also worth taking a piece of black card out with you so you can keep the exposure going but cover the lens when there's a break in traffic. This means you're not messing with controls all of the time, starting and stopping exposures, and as a result, you'll increase your chances of capturing a decent shot. 

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. Keep an eye out for spots of light such as street lamps overexposing too. If you find your lens searches when using auto focus, just switch to manual and you'll be fine. 

Just before the sun has set is a good time to experiment with light trails as there's more traffic which means more chances to get the shot right and there will be plenty of ambient light around which will add more interest to your images. 

Olympus OM-D E-M1 - The whole package. In a perfectly-sized package. Click here for more information on the most advanced compact system camera ever produced. The E-M1 comes packed with technologies such as the enhanced Live MOS sensor, TruePic VII image processor, Dual Fast AF and extended WIFI controls. 

Light Trail Photography Tips: Light Trail Photography Tips:

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