Light trails: what you didn’t know about this night photography favourite

Light trails: all you need to know for this night photography favourite. Tips on where and when to shoot them, best camera settings and more.

How to expose for light trails


How to expose for light trails: everything you need to know

Image by Mark Hamblin

Exposure time is critical for photographing light trails. The shutter needs to be open for sufficient time to register enough lights passing through the frame to create a pleasing image (learn some of the common mistakes at every shutter speed – and the best settings to use). Typical exposure times are in the range of 15 to 60 seconds.

To get started, you need to time how long it takes for a number of cars to pass through the scene, then set your shutter speed to this time.

However, it’s worth experimenting with different exposure times to find what works best. Each exposure will vary depending on the levels of traffic and the effect you want to capture.

You can choose to set the exposure using Shutter Priority (T/Tv), Aperture Priority (A/Av) or Manual (M) mode as long as you arrive at the desired shutter speed (learn more about the exposure modes on your top dial).

A corresponding aperture of around f/8 to f/16 will provide sufficient depth of field in most situations if you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens. You may have to adjust the ISO to achieve these settings, but try to shoot between ISO100 and 400 if possible to avoid introducing noise (find out how to reduce noise at high ISO settings).

The maximum exposure time possible on most cameras is 30 seconds, so for longer exposures you’ll need to use the Bulb (B) setting, which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want (check out this handy guide for calculating the perfect exposure for light trails).

A remote release will allow you to hold the shutter open without causing camera shake. Use a watch with a second hand to time the exposure accurately.

A tripod is essential for ensuring pin-sharp images at long exposures, but it’s also possible to create interesting abstract effects by shooting handheld (try using one of these 3 ways to hold a camera steady without a tripod).

This is a fun technique, so experiment with panning and zooming while shooting to produce some weird and wonderful effects – you’re sure to capture some really original images!

PAGE 1: Where to shoot light trails
PAGE 2: How to expose for light trails
PAGE 3: 3 ways to ensure you get light trails right
PAGE 4: How to shoot light trails at dusk
PAGE 5: 5 tips for getting creative with your light trails


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