Nothing brings an urban landscape to life more than traffic trails
When you walk through a city or town at night with your camera it’s easy to take the surroundings for granted – especially your hometown. The urban landscape is a marvellous backdrop and with the rush of evening traffic, a fantastic piece of art waiting to happen. All it needs is your eye for imagination, a little patience and, of course, a camera and tripod. If you have a remote release and lens hood, don’t forget to bring them a long for the ride.
The right location
Choosing the right location to shoot is important at night.
Roundabouts create sweeping light-trail curves, straight roads use the lead-in lines of the light trails, while the sky and interesting structures help spice up the backdrop.
Tall buildings that are well lit and colourful become a perfect backdrop to long, drawn-out light trails.
Find somewhere safe to set up. Walls make for high shots, whereas wide traffic islands are perfect for getting low.
Consider the traffic flow – intense headlights will wash out the image and colourful tail-lights will be lost. Compose for maximum impact and hit the shutter when traffic enters the viewfinder. Keep the shutter open using a remote release, closing it when the flow has passed the entire frame length.
Use natural street furniture to rest your tripod and get the shot with most impact. Use a piece of card held above the lens to hide glare, especially in well-lit areas.
Keep low to include lots of sky and give the shot plenty of dramatic light trails.
Shooting wide and symmetrical from a low perspective places the viewer in the centre and draws them in using the leading lines from the frame‘s edge
The curve of the road and bright headlight trail balances out the heavy silhouetted structures.
Light and exposure
With a massive array of ambient and direct light hitting your lens from every conceivable angle it’s best to use a lens hood to help block it out.
Strong overhead street lighting creates flare, but can be avoided by composing downwards. Black skies don‘t make buildings stand out or define strong edges. Shoot half an hour after the sun has set and the sky is dusky to balance the artificial building lights with the colour in the sky.
Use a lens hood to shield from street light flare and shoot at dusk rather than night-time to prevent a dull, black sky.
Avoid overexposure from bright lights by checking the exposure and histogram on your LCD. Washed out highlights will ruin a picture. If in doubt, turn on your camera‘s ‘highlight‘ feature and watch for areas that flash, indicating ‘clipped‘ or ‘blown‘ highlights.
If you do suffer from clipped highlights adjust the exposure to allow less light in by reducing the aperture to around f/22 or using shorter shutter speeds.
Buildings blend into completely black skies, while street lights can cause distracting flare.