What are light trails? Photography is, at its heart, a way of collecting light to create an image. Most often that means that the picture is a representation of what you can see, but that isn’t always the case. One way of making unrealistic-looking images is to use a long exposure.
Light trail photography is a type of long exposure photography that highlights the movement of light. By keeping the camera shutter open for a long period of time, you can collect more light and show how that light moves across the frame. In fact, the intention is to capture headlights, rear lights, brake lights and emergency lights that, as they move, create a trail in the image.
What equipment do I need?
There is a thought that unusual images need unusual and expensive equipment. That couldn’t be further from the truth with light trail photography. In fact, most photographers will have everything that they need already. You need a camera that has settings that allow you to control the shutter speed, and a method of keeping your camera still – like a tripod.
Other kit could be useful, but isn’t essential. A cable release or wireless remote will allow you to avoid contact with your camera. This reduces the potential for shake; but you could do this by using a two-second (or longer) delay. A lens hood might avoid lens flare from street lights, or you could just move a little. Other kit is about you – comfortable shoes, warm clothes and a torch mean that you’ll be cosy, and be able to see what you’re doing.
When and where to shoot Light Trails
The first imperative is that the vehicles have their lights on, so in the UK the evening is good. There are some things that can make the image better.
Just after sunset means that there is enough light in the sky that it creates some interest, but lights are bright enough to stand out. It also means that there is more traffic.
This means that the location is driven by where there is enough traffic to make a good image. And the other rules of composition need to be observed. Your light trails can be a leading line, but the surrounding environment should obey the rule of thirds, balance and, probably most importantly, some feature of interested.
Camera Settings for Light Trails
Light trail photography needs you to control your shutter, aperture and ISO. So, you must work in manual mode.
There is no “right” shutter speed. But the longer your shutter speed, the more likely that those long light trails will appear, which is what you’re looking for. Lots of photographers find that times around thirty-seconds work. To attain this speed you can close down the aperture or lower the ISO.
If the thirty-second exposure proves to be inadequate, the camera can be put in Bulb mode. Turn the shutter dial until you reach 30secs, then turn again until your camera display says Bulb. If you choose this option then, as long as the shutter button is pressed, the shutter remains open. So, the cable release or wireless remote becomes essential.
Thankfully, the need for long exposures and the desire for the maximum depth of field push in the same direction: to have a small an aperture as possible. So, f/8 or f/16 is good, but at f/22 you may also get some of the streetlights to starburst – a good effect if that’s what you’ll want.
The benefits found in aperture settings are also present for ISO. A low ISO enables and enhances the long shutter speed, but it also means that there is likely to be less noise in the dark shadows – of which there will be plenty as you’re shooting in low light conditions. So, set your camera to an ISO as low as 100 or 200.
Check the histogram
Do check your camera’s histogram. The normal rules apply, don’t allow the data to clip either on the right (overexposed) or the left (underexposed). Do be aware that because of the ambient lighting you can have very dark areas with detail lost in the shadows. Because of the lights though, there will be very bright, or even burned out areas. If this happens, simply adjust your aperture or exposure compensation.
If you have the choice, then shooting images in raw will give you much more control if you need to fix any white balance or exposure issues. It will also make it a lot easier if you need to recover any details lost in any underexposed areas.
What’s left to do?
Well, nothing other than push the shutter. I gave this a go early in my photography journey, and I write about it here. Enjoy your experience!