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.
Any time you’re doing long exposures 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 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.
This one should go without saying, 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 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.