Struggling with your long exposures? Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how to photograph light trails of cars can be found in this expert tutorial.
Words and images by Mark Hamblin
Night-time may not immediately spring to mind as a good time to go out to take pictures, but there’s bags of potential for shooting after dark. If you haven’t considered it before, here are a couple of ideas to get you started.
In many parts of the world, we’re surrounded by light all night long. And where there’s light, there’s a photo opportunity.
One of the easiest but most effective techniques to try is capturing the light from traffic in the form of long trails.
The results can be spectacular, and all you need is a camera with a wide-angle zoom and a sturdy tripod to produce some really dramatic images.
Light trail photography looks complicated, but it’s actually easy to master with a little practice.
The secret to producing good light trails is to keep the camera’s shutter open long enough to record the vehicle lights as they pass through the frame.
This is usually between 10 seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on the situation and amount of traffic.
The other thing to bear in mind is the ambient light. Some natural light is a good thing and can be used very effectively – but too much and the light trails won’t show up, so timing is important.
To create a light trail, you need a good subject. In theory, any section of road that has a regular flow of traffic at night will do the job but, of course, the better the surroundings and the composition are, the better the end result will be.
Winding roads, busy junctions, traffic islands and motorways all work well. Also consider city centres where you can incorporate other lights from buildings into your shot.
Aim to pre-visualise how the light trail will look by the way the traffic is moving, and pick a place with lots of lights.
Try to choose a spot where you can capture opposite lanes of traffic so you get both red and white light trails for a more colourful result.
It’s a good idea to scout your location while it’s light enough to see the main features in your frame; this will also help with composition and focusing.
Once you’ve got a shot lined up, you need to make sure the camera won’t move during the long exposure, so a good tripod is essential. Keep it a safe distance away from the edge of the road.
Twilight is the ideal time to shoot light trails, as the residual light in the sky will be recorded as a bluish-purple colour, adding atmosphere to your shot. You can also produce spectacular results once it’s totally dark.
Trail and error
A good starting point for gauging the length of exposure is to time how long it takes for a number of cars to pass through the scene, then set your shutter speed to this time.
Shooting in Manual gives greatest control over exposure but you can also work in Shutter Priority.
The important thing is that you set the desired shutter speed rather than letting the camera do this automatically.
You’ll need to experiment a little with the exposure times, but it shouldn’t take long before you start capturing some fantastic light trail images.
77 photography techniques, tips and tricks for taking pictures of anything
Night photography tips: 9 essential steps for beginners
How to photograph the moon: the easy way to shoot moon pictures with stunning detail
Low-light photography fixes: how to reduce noise while preserving image quality