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Light trails happen when a bright light moves through a long exposure image. You see them most often in nighttime street scenes. All the cars are reduced to streaks of red and white light.

But how do you capture them properly? While they are easy to photograph, you do have to set your camera up correctly and think about the shot. Let’s take a look at how to take photos with incredible light trails.

1. Dial in the Camera Settings

The most important step in capturing light trails is to set up your camera properly.

Light trails work best with a really long shutter speed — somewhere around 20 or 30 seconds. Any shorter, and some details from the objects causing the light trails might get recorded. Start with a shutter speed of 30 seconds and, if you want to, you can lower it to 20, or even 15, seconds later on.

Car Light Trails on Road
Image Credit: Thomas Wensing via Flickr

Any time you’re doing long exposures An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Read More it’s important to use a low ISO. You don’t want any extra digital noise in your images. A low ISO also helps keep your shutter speed long enough for light trails to look good. Set your ISO to 100.

Aperture is the least critical component of the exposure triangle The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners Fueled by a desire to take better photos, last year I got myself a nice DSLR for Christmas. I'm certainly no photography expert - but I did take the time learn a few tips I... Read More for light trail photography. Values ranging from f/5.6 all the way up to f/22 can work depending on the circumstances. The key is to pick an aperture that exposes for the background while keeping a long shutter speed and low ISO. You don’t normally want the light trails to be abstract lines in a sea of black; the aperture is what’s going to keep the surroundings visible. Take a few test shots and dial in an aperture that works. If in doubt, try something between f/8 and f/16. You can always change it.

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This one should go without saying RAW Files: Why You Should Be Using Them for Your Photos RAW Files: Why You Should Be Using Them for Your Photos Almost every article featuring advice for people just learning photography stresses one thing: shoot RAW images. Here's why that's good advice. Read More , but set your camera to capture RAW images. You’ll need all the extra wiggle room you can get.

2. Set Up the Shot

Like with any long exposure image, a tripod is essential The Camera Tripod Buying Guide For Beginners The Camera Tripod Buying Guide For Beginners Tired of camera shake ruining your photos? Want to take time-lapse shots or long exposure photos? Tripods allow for all of these, so if you don't have one, why not? Read More for light trail photos. You aren’t going to be able to hold your camera perfectly steady for 30 seconds!

Set your tripod up in a stable position and lock your camera down tight. If you’re shooting near a road, bear in mind that fast moving cars could cause it to shake if you don’t have it well positioned. If your tripod has a hook for a weight, hang your gear bag from it.

Night Light Trails Cityscape
Image Credit: Luke Hayfield via Flickr

For light trail photography, you’ve got a pretty free rein when it comes to composition. You can use a wide angle or telephoto. Shoot from high up in a building or low to the ground. Almost anything can work. The only thing is to pick a composition that works with your surroundings. Select your focal length and frame your shot.

Autofocus tends to have a hissy fit when you try to use it in low light. The techniques your camera uses to work out what you want to focus on just don’t work that well when there’s not a lot of light around. Switch your lens to manual focus mode and nail the focus yourself.

3. Press the Shutter Button

With everything ready to go, it’s time to press the shutter button. If you’ve got a remote trigger, it’s a good idea to use it. Touching a camera on a tripod can add some shake or move a carefully composed shot.

Red and Orange Light Trails at Night
Image Credit: Bravo_Zulu_ via Flickr

If you don’t have a remote trigger, set the camera’s auto-timer to 2 seconds. This is the same mode you use for taking family portraits. It gives you time to press the shutter button without disturbing the shot.

4. Repeat the Process

Don’t stop after your first shot. It can be tempting to pack it in if it’s night, you’re cold, and each photo takes as long as a minute to capture, but keep shooting. Change the angle, try different focal lengths, use a longer or slower shutter speed, and otherwise just mix it up. Often, the random things you try towards the end of a shoot can be the ones that work out best.

5. Post Process the Image

Editing your images is super important Serious About Photography? You Should be Editing Your Images Serious About Photography? You Should be Editing Your Images Editing your digital images is an important step in any good photo workflow. Taking pictures doesn't end when you press the shutter button; it ends when the final image is printed. Read More . For creative and abstract photography like light trails, it’s critical. The images will never look their best straight out of camera.

Some edits you might like to make are:

  • Increase the saturation of the light trails to make them more intense.
  • Increase the contrast of the image to make the light trails stand out more.
  • Convert the image to black and white to give it a more abstract feel.
  • Remove distracting background elements.
  • Blend multiple light trail exposures to increase the effects.
Night Light Trail by Lighthouse
Image Credit: matthewwu88 via Flickr

Extra Tips

That’s the straight how-to of shooting light trails but there’s a lot more you can experiment with.

Before setting up a shot, think about how the light trails are going to appear. Watch the lights move and visualize the lines. Bear them in mind when you’re composing the image.

Play around with compositional ideas like leading lines and symmetry How to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to Follow How to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to Follow If you want to get really good at photography, there are some vital rules around image composition that you should consider. Here are five of the most important. Read More . Light trails can be a great way to lead a viewer’s eyes and a lot of situations where you can shoot them lend themselves to perfectly symmetrical framings.

Just because you’re shooting light trails, don’t forget about the rest of the image. Compose for the background too. Crop out any distracting elements.

Whirling Light Trails
Image Credit: Tim Simpson via Flickr

You don’t have to shoot at night. You can also shoot light trails in the hours around dusk or dawn. Try shooting them at different times; you’ll get very different images.

Cars are the traditional subject for light trails but play around with different subjects. Head to an airport and shoot planes, photograph runners using head torches, or any other situation where you can find moving lights.

Lights Off

Light trails are one of the simplest kinds of long exposure photography to get to look good. Any moving lights are going to look dramatic in a long enough image. They’re a great chance to get creative.

If you’ve followed this how-to, we’d love to see your results. Share your light trails in the comments below.

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