Light trails: enhance your night shots with this really simple photo editing tutorial

Light trails 20

One way to capture a dramatic-looking night shot is to pop the camera on a tripod and use a slow shutter speed to turn passing cars into colourful streaks of light. These vibrant light trails add contrasting colours and tones to a cold dull background, as well as evoking a great sense of movement in your still image.

In this tutorial’s end result, the light trails also help enhance the composition by linking the car on the left with the blurry figures on the right. Capturing light trails in-camera is a hit-and-miss affair. You have to experiment with different shutter speeds to get the streaks to register and also to make them look long enough.

You also have to deal with variables such as changing lighting conditions and car speeds. Thanks to Photoshop Elements, though, you can whip up some digital light trails by modifying brush tips to produce a streaky texture.

Here we’ll demonstrate how to transform the 2D streaks and give them a sense of depth and direction. We’ll show you how to use layers and blending modes to make the trails mix realistically with the background. By creating the trails digitally, you can make them as long or short as you like, without having to experiment with your exposure settings.

Post production

In this light trail tutorial we’ll use the Liquify filter to add subtle effects, such as making the light trails undulate due to the car passing along uneven ground. We’ll also demonstrate how to use adjustment layers and masks to make the light streaks appear to illuminate their environment.

SEE MORE: How to photograph light trails of cars

Light trails step by step – steps 1-3

01 Open the start file

Download our start files and follow along! Copy our raw start file to your computer’s hard drive. In Photoshop Elements, choose File>Open and browse to select light trails_before.dng. Click Open. As this is a digital negative format file, it will open in the Adobe Camera Raw editor, Photoshop’s raw-processing digital darkroom.

02 Adjust the exposure

The histogram graph is huddled towards the right, indicating bright highlights. To reveal colours and details in the over-exposed sky, drag the Exposure slider left to -2.20. Drag Highlights down to -22 to reveal more information in the brightest areas. The histogram now shows a healthier spread of tones.

SEE MORE: Night photography – how to set up your camera to shoot anything

03 Contrast and colour

Push Shadows up to +36 to reveal the darker car without over-exposing the correctly adjusted highlights. Boost Vibrance to +30 to tease out the scene’s weak colours. Drag Temperature left to 4750. This adds a cooler moody look that will contrast more effectively with the warm light trails.

Light trails step by step – steps 1-3
Light trails step by step – steps 4-6
Light trails step by step – steps 7-9
Light trails step by step – steps 10-12
Light trails step by step – steps 13-15
Light trails step by step – steps 16-18


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