How To Photograph Light Trails

Photographing  light trails is a fun way to shoot dramatic images of moving lights from the taillights or headlights of various vehicles. It’s also a great way to sharpen your skills in taking long exposure shots.

You Don’t Need Expensive Equipment to Shoot Light Trails

Fancy camera equipment isn’t necessary to shoot fantastic light trail photos. However, you do need a camera with adjustable exposure settings. Most digital cameras these days have a manual mode, where the shutter speed can be significantly decreased to adequately catch the light trails. You’ll also need a tripod to keep the light trails looking smooth and not squiggly due to camera shake. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you can set your camera on a flat and stable surface such as a rock or a bench.

Light trails by Waka Jawaka

Find the Perfect Spot to Shoot Light Trails

Find a location where you can see many cars passing by on the road. Remember that the road marks the direction and curve of the light trails. Compose the shot by framing the road at an interesting angle. Use the various composition techniques such as perspective, the Rule of Thirds, and leading lines to make your light trail images all the more interesting. For instance, experiment with the camera angle and how it affects the resulting image. A low viewpoint will have a different impact compared to a bird’s eye view. Use bridges, overpasses, or buildings for elevation. You can also play with the orientation of the shot.

Focus your attention on the background as well as the road. The sky, buildings, people, light posts, or distant mountains can enhance the overall light trail image by providing context and added details. Just make sure they don’t distract the viewer from fully appreciating the light trails.

Gloucester Road Light Trails by rmlowe

Set the ‘Right’ Exposure to Capture Light Trails

There is no standard exposure setting to follow when shooting car light trails, it all boils down to trial and error, and personal taste. You’ll most probably need to take some test shots until you settle on your desired settings.  Long exposure shots and low light scenarios will need a slow shutter speed. It’s also necessary if you want to catch the movement of the car light trails in your image. A large aperture will let in more light but keep in mind that it will also give a shallower depth of field. As for the ISO, a high number such as 800 or higher will capture more light, but can also capture digital image noise.

To shoot great light trails, try a very slow shutter speed such as 20 seconds, a relatively small aperture to keep those distant buildings or trees looking focused, and the lowest ISO possible to avoid image noise.  It is imperative that your camera remains as steady as possible to keep all stationary objects clear and defined while capturing smooth lines of car light trails.

Light trails by atomicpuppy68

You Can Shoot Light Trails at Twilight

Light trails are most defined at night because the darkness provides great contrast with the blazing lines of light. However, a dark night will also hide the surroundings. If you want to show the nearby scenery as added interest, try shooting at twilight instead. At this time of day, ambient light from the setting sun can illuminate the surroundings, but will not overpower the car light trails. There could also be more vehicles passing the road during this hour, which will add to even more light trails.

Light trails by sergis blog


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