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A Guide to Light Trail Photography

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

Now that it gets dark so early we are often forced to shoot at night, especially if you are going out after work. For some styles of photography, this can be annoying, you’ll miss most sunsets, it's harder to get sharp images of moving subjects and you're often forced to use higher ISOs which can make your images noisy. The silver lining is that you have much more opportunity to capture things like light trails! These long exposure shots are a fun and creative way to capture city scenes at night and are really easy to do once you get the hang of them. In this article I will talk about some of the gear you will need, the settings to use and some general tips and tricks to get you started with this style of photography.

What are light trails?

Light trailers are caused by cars, buses or other light sources moving through the scene. With your camera set to a long exposure, the final image will show the light from these things moving but not the object itself. So you will end up with an image of the brake lights moving through your image without really being able to see the car. Capturing these images is really fun and the lights are a great way to add leading lines, colour and interest to your images at night.

What you need

To start with you'll obviously need a camera, most modern smartphones are capable of shooting long exposures nowadays but if you have access to a DSLR or mirrorless camera this will work best. Lens wise most things will work and it is up to you depending on the type of shot you're capturing. Using a wider angle lens will capture more of the scene, a telephoto lens will give more focus on the subject, your aperture can change depending on how bright your scene is and how long your shutter is open. If you want more information about how different lenses work then check out my post explaining them here. Finally, you’re going to need a tripod, this is very important! You can rest your camera on the floor or a bin or something but ideally, you want a nice sturdy tripod. Also since it’s winter and you’ll be standing around for a while I'd recommend wrapping up warm or you might not find this experience very enjoyable.

How to capture light trails

The first thing you should do with any type of photography is to compose your shot, this is especially important for light trails as you also have to account for moving objects in the scene. The lights will create leading lines in your shot so ideally, you want them heading towards your subject or into the distance of your image to draw the viewer's eye. If you are wanting to get the red lights on the back of a car then make sure you are standing on the correct side of the road where the cars will be driving away from you. If you are standing near a junction you will get cars turning which can not only create trails heading in the wrong direction but also if the cars have to wait to turn they will just appear sat in your shot with no trails. These are all things you need to bear in mind when composing your shot to avoid wasting your time.

Once your shot is composed it's time to shoot! Get your camera set up on your tripod and set the shutter speed, the slower the speed, the longer your trails will be. Quicker shutter speeds will give shorter trails and more detail in the vehicle that is moving. Also how long the shutter is open will change how bright your image is so the aperture and ISO may also need to be adjusted to correctly expose your image. I’d recommend starting with a shutter speed of 5-10 seconds and seeing how it looks, this will produce nice trails that work well with normal flowing traffic. If the traffic is moving very slowly this may not give you much movement in your scene so a shutter speed of maybe 30 seconds or a minute might be better. Equally, if the traffic is moving quickly then just a couple of seconds may be enough to get the look you want. This is the element of this style of photography where you can really play around and experiment to find the look you want, sometimes you just want the cars to be blurred a bit, and sometimes you want them to vanish and leave long trails of lights, it is up to you!

A quick note here, you will want to either use a remote shutter or the delay on your camera to avoid shake in your images. This is especially important when shooting in bulb mode to get really long exposures as without a remote this would require you to keep your finger on the button the whole time which even on a tripod will make your images very shaky. Lots of modern cameras can be controlled from an app on your phone, this is the method I use and it works pretty well.

Final tips

  • Firstly, always shoot in raw if possible, your camera can do this and most phones can too nowadays, this will give you much better editing capabilities later.

  • Higher f numbers will give you sharper images and keep more of your scene in focus, this is normally what I go for with these images but equally experimenting with shallow depth of field is fun too.

  • Keep your ISO as low as possible, this will help reduce the noise in your image. Equally, don’t under expose your image as when you brighten it up in editing this will also add noise.

  • See how different things look in your image, cars produce light close to the ground, buses give a much bigger panel of light, bends in the road will make the trails snake through the image etc. Use different locations and always experiment to see what you like best.

  • Finally, have fun! This is the most important aspect of photography so always enjoy what you do!

I hope this guide has given you some useful information to get you started shooting light trails. If you have any more questions about this technique then let me know in the comments. With these basics covered you can experiment and find your own style that you can use to produce some amazing images. Just because it’s dark all the time doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for photography so get out there and have fun, make sure you wrap up warm and stay safe as you shoot.


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