Do you want to get more creative with your camera? Light trail photography is one of the best ways to get started. Capturing light streaks is relatively simple to do, and can produce truly striking results.
You don’t need any special gear, and you can even do it on your phone. You just need to know how to set everything up properly. In this article we explain how to take incredible light trail photos in five easy steps.
1. Set Up Your Camera for Long Exposure Photos
Like with any long exposure image, a tripod is essential for photographing light streaks.
Set your tripod up in a stable position and lock your camera down tight. When 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. Some tripods have a hook for a weight, so hang your gear bag from it.
If you don’t have a tripod, find a nearby wall or somewhere else to prop up your camera. You’ll be using a shutter speed in the region of 30 seconds, so holding the camera in your hands is out of the question.
Autofocus doesn’t work well very in low light, so switch your lens to manual focus mode and nail the focus yourself. Also, turn off image stabilization on your camera. While this is great for handheld shooting it can actually cause vibrations when your camera is mounted on a tripod.
For light trail photography, you’ve got a pretty free rein when it comes to composition. You can use a wide angle or telephoto lens, and shoot from high up in a building or low to the ground. Almost anything will work. The only thing is to pick a composition that works with your surroundings. Select your focal length and frame your shot.
2. The Best Settings for Light Trail Photography
The most important step in capturing light streaks is to use the proper camera settings. You need to experiment to get the right settings for each shoot, but your starting points should include:
- A very slow shutter speed, of around 30 seconds
- Your camera’s base ISO setting
- A small aperture, around f8-f11
The Best Shutter Speed and ISO for Light Trail Photos
Light trails work best with a really slow 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. If you need to, you can lower it to 20, or even 15 seconds, later on.
Any time you’re shooting long exposures it’s important to use a low ISO. You don’t need the low light benefits of a higher ISO, and choosing a lower value will help you minimize noise as far as possible. Set your camera to its base ISO setting, which is usually ISO 100.
The Best Aperture for Light Trail Photography
Next, choose a small aperture that will maximize your depth of field. This will ensure everything in your image is tack sharp, and also help you to control the exposure. Essentially, you want the background of your shot to be fairly dark, but still visible, and the streaks of light to be bright, but not blown out.
A larger aperture, like f/2.8, lets more light into the camera and will force you to use a faster shutter speed to expose the shot correctly. A faster shutter speed won’t produce light trails.
An aperture of between f/8 and f/11 works well on most lenses (you can push it f/16 if you’re shooting on a full frame camera). Once you’ve dialled that in you can change the shutter speed to make small tweaks to the exposure.
Finally, this one should go without saying, but set your camera to capture RAW images. This will give you much greater wiggle room when it comes to processing and cleaning up your shots.
3. Press the Shutter Button
With everything ready to go, it’s time to take the shot. When you’re using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, just pressing the shutter button can introduce vibration into your photos.
The best way to avoid this is to use a remote trigger or shutter release cable. Something as simple as the AmazonBasics Wireless Remote Control will do the job for Nikon or Canon cameras, or try the Pixel FSK for Sony.
Otherwise, set the camera’s auto-timer to two 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, although you’ll need some practice to figure out exactly when to press.
4. Repeat the Process
Don’t stop after your first shot. Light trail photography takes experimentation, first to get the settings just right and then to get the image you really want. Check the #lighttrails hashtag on Instagram if you need some inspiration.
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 just mix things up a little. Often, the random things you try towards the end of a shoot can be the ones that work 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.
A Few More Tips for Light Trail Photography
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.
Shoot Light Trails on Your Smartphone
Generally speaking you’ll get the best results with long exposure photos if you use a DSLR or mirrorless camera. But by using the techniques outlined above you can get good night photos with a smartphone.
Most smartphones offer a manual mode that allows you to control the shutter speed and ISO. You can’t change the aperture, but you don’t need to, as smartphone cameras all have a very large depth of field anyway. Make sure you switch off the flash and other software tricks like HDR mode.
Better still, ditch the built-in app and use a more powerful third-party option instead. Our guide to the best camera apps for Android and iOS will help you take great light trail photos.