Beginner Photo Tip #5: How To Make Light Trail Photographs

One Way Street

One Way Street

Light trail pictures are long exposure night photos which show a trail made by lights passing through the frame. Normally, light trails are made of automobile lights, but they can be of any moving object that has lights, such as bicycles, boats, buses or trains.

Necessary Equipment

You need a camera that gives you control over your shutter speed so you can make a long exposure.

You need a tripod or some other way to keep your camera still during a long exposure.

That’s about it.

I like to also use a remote shutter release so that the camera does not move when I press the shutter release. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can accomplish the same thing using your camera’s self-timer mode. (That’s the setting that delays the shutter release for several seconds after you press it.)

Camera Settings

Camera settings vary depending on conditions, but here are some thoughts to get you started . . .

Shoot in either shutter speed priority or, better, manual mode (where you adjust all the settings).

I recommend that you set your ISO as low as possible to reduce noise in your photos. My camera’s lowest setting is ISO 100.

Start by shooting at f/8 for 10 to 20 seconds and see what you get. Then, adjust based on your results. If you shot is underexposed (too dark), take a longer exposure or open up your aperture (select a smaller f-stop number). And if your shot is overexposed (too light), shorten the exposure time or stop down your aperture (select a larger f-stop number). Keep adjusting and experimenting until you get what you want.

It’s a good idea to glance at the histogram of each photo to see if anything is blown out. A blown-out point of light can ruin an otherwise good photo. If the histogram shows highlights blown out (lines up against the right side of the histogram), either crop the offending light source out of the photo or adjust your settings by treating the photo as you would any overexposed shot.

You can make further adjustments of the bright light source in post production. To be able to do the most in post production, you should shoot in RAW image format.

For what it’s worth, the photo at the top of this article was a 15-second exposure at f/22. ISO was 100. There was no exposure compensation.

Framing And Timing

Even though your photo will feature the light trails, you still have to compose an interesting shot around them. Make the photos somewhere that is interesting such as with shops or some landmarks in the photo.

Don’t forget that the light trails will be part of the final picture, so allow for that in your composition. In the photo above, for example, the light trails serve as effective leading lines that draw the viewers’ attention into the center of the photo from the lower left.

By timing, I mean both time of day and how to time the actual exposure.

If you shoot just after sundown, there will be ambient light in the sky which will add another interesting feature to the photo.

As far as timing the exposure is concerned, begin the exposure just before the moving object enters your frame.

Here’s another example from the same photo shoot.

One of the clustered spires of Frederick, Maryland

One of the Clustered Spires of Frederick, Maryland

(Click on the photos for the full effect.)

Now it’s your turn. Contact me with your questions and let me see your results.

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