How to shoot light trails

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THE MISSION

To outline a hilltop or mountain with light

Time: One hour

Skill level: Advanced

Kit needed: DSLR, sturdy tripod, remote release with Bulb function, torch/LED, assistant, mobile phones or walkie-talkies

Capturing light trails is a fun technique that most of us have tried at one time or another, but they are at risk of becoming somewhat overdone. 

One way to give new life to long-exposure light trails is to create your own by getting someone to run up and down a hillside with a light at night.

This technique requires a lot more planning than shooting your standard car trail in a city centre. We recommend that you practice on a nearby hill to get to grips with this technique before heading out into the hills to photograph your finished masterpiece. 

Make sure to scout out the location and the best vantage point for your final shoot in advance too, as navigation can become a challenge in the dark. 

You don’t just need to find the right location for setting up your camera; your assistant, who’ll be creating the light trail, will need to have some idea of the route you want them to follow. 

You also need to be completely sure that whatever method of communication you’re using will work in that location, as some rural areas have poor mobile phone coverage.

We chose to send our obliging assistant along the ridge line of Pen y Fan in South Wales, the red bicycle light they carried outlining the landscape in a single coloured line. 

If your landscape isn’t one you can outline (because of access limitations, say, or trees and other structures), play with the features you do have: get your assistant to loop around trees, or run in and out of buildings to weave the light between them. Own the landscape!

Step by step: Trace a path

ALL STEAMED UP

When shooting at night in the cold, your lens can quickly steam up. Wipe your glass with a cloth before you shoot and wrap some material around your lens to insulate it. This can be anything from a hand towel to hat. Set your focus ring to infinity and manual focus beforehand, and be careful not to knock it when wrapping it up.

1. Find a vantage point

Plan your shoot across a valley, so that you can shoot from one hill, looking over at the other. We travelled to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, where our walker could climb up and over the hills, highlighting the ridge line along the tops. Aim to get there well before nightfall to give you enough time to set up.

QUICK TIP!

It might seem obvious, but if you want to capture someone traipsing up or down a steep hill or mountain, it makes sense to shoot them on the way back down, rather than on the way up, as the exposure time will be much shorter. Plus, any light will be pointing towards your camera, rather than away from it.

2. Get down low

Set up your camera in an area sheltered from wind. Mount it on a low tripod, ideally one that's weighted down with a bag to prevent any chance of movement. As you'll be working from a tripod you won't need image stabilisation, but make sure to use the mirror up option (if your camera has one) to prevent unwanted vibrations from mirror slap. 

3. Take a test shot

In manual mode, set your aperture to the sweet spot of your lens – typically f/8. Increase your ISO as high as it will go, and then fire off a test shot at the shutter speed suggested by your camera (ie with the exposure-level indicator lined up with the ‘0’ on the exposure scale).

4. Calculate the exposure

Check the histogram to make sure it’s to the left, but not so far down that information is clipped, where it starts to fall off the scale. If it is, set a slower shutter speed. Once you’re happy, proceed to halve the shutter speed while halving the ISO until you reach the exposure time required for your assistant to come back down the hill.

5. Take your time

When you get above 30 seconds, your camera will default to its Bulb mode. In this mode, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter release is held down, which is why a lockable remote release is so useful. For our final shot, we needed an exposure time of about 20 minutes. 

6. Keep the noise down

If you’re shooting for longer than five minutes, you may find that your images look a bit grainy. This is caused by the sensor struggling with the length of the exposure. Find the long exposure noise reduction option in your menu to counteract this.