Photography Tips for Capturing Light Trails

In Tutorials by Stefano CaioniLeave a Comment

Capturing light trails is a neat camera trick with fantastic results. With the proper settings, a flat surface or tripod, and a little practice, you’ll learn how to produce vivid car light trails with any camera that features manual mode.

As you capture car light trails at night, you’ll produce superior images with a mirrorless or DSLR camera, as these cameras offer optimal low light performance. However, you can attempt car light trails with a smartphone too. The following tips will get you on your way to capturing car light trails successfully.

Why Light Trails Happen

Harbour Bridge from Cahill Expressway
Car light trails at Sydney Harbour Bridge. Multiple exposures blended together in Photoshop.

When you select a fast exposure, you freeze light hence the image. When you select a long exposure, you create lengthy light trails. Extending the trails produces an aesthetic you don’t see with a naked eye.

Choosing a location with consistent traffic and dialing in the proper settings on your camera creates beautiful, luminous trails, popping out against a stark background (i.e., on a rural highway) or bright city background. The effect has a wow factor, adding an unexpected punch to an otherwise ordinary traffic scene.

Check the image above, I took it from a vantage point that allowed me to have a clear view over the street with countless cars passing by and as a background the Bridge with suggestive City lights. I took several photos with long exposure and then used a technique in Photoshop called exposure blending. Ever heard of it? Let me know in the comments below.

Let’s now see what camera settings you need.

Camera Settings

The best camera settings for capturing car light trails are as follows:

  • Shooting in RAW
  • The lowest ISO setting available (usually 50 or 100)
  • An aperture setting in the sweet spot of the lens, generally in the f/8 to f/13 range (it always depends and it changes lens by lens)
  • A shutter speed in the 10 to 30 seconds range

Additionally, as you’re shooting on a flat surface or with a tripod and a mirrorless or DSLR camera, turn off your lens’s image stabilization. If you’re on a bridge or other floating structure, keep image stabilization switched on to combat vibration from traffic.

Test these settings in a given location to determine if they produce light trails of a decent length and then adjust them as needed. Pay attention to the highlight clipping. You want to have some color in the trails, steering clear of pure white, which is harsh and distracting. To avoid so, increase your shutter speed and fine tune until you achieve the desired effect.

You can combine this technique with another one called exposure bracketing. You can learn it with this article here on Pixinfocus Larn the exposure bracketing technique. The main point here is that you can create a stunning image by start shooting at sunset or during the blue hour (right after sunset, before the sky is completely dark) to get some interesting colors in the sky.

When the sky gets completely dark you’ll adjust the exposure in your camera accordingly to capture the car light trails with maximum contrast over the dark background and the rest of the scene. Then again, you’ll need to use a blending technique in Photoshop. Jump into the comments section below if you’d like to learn this photo editing technique and I’ll write a tutorial about it.

Best Locations for Light Trails

You’ll have the best luck capturing car light trails on a road with frequent traffic. Waiting for cars to come by is tiresome and won’t produce the trails you get with a constant flow of traffic. You’ll also want a location where you can shoot a safe distance from the traffic and with an unobstructed view of it. When you choose a view with curves in the road or multiple streams of traffic, think about where the curves and intersections hit.

It is possible to shoot car trails in roundabouts, but take care not to let your compositions get cluttered. Shooting against an iconic building or destination (i.e., the Harbour Bridge) adds a neat element to the image but certainly isn’t a requirement for a great car trails shot. A location that allows you to shoot straight-on or slightly above the traffic is ideal. If you get too high above traffic, you may not be able to see the car lights at all.

Gear You Need for Light Trails

You must have a tripod or flat surface to create long exposure photography. It really depends on the camera you have, but in general it isn’t possible to shoot below 1/60 second with a handheld camera without introducing motion blur. In a pinch, any flat surface, such as a bench or wide railing, will work for long exposure shots.

If you plan to take a lot of long exposure images, it’s worth purchasing a tripod that’s rated for outdoor use. A tripod offers full control over angle for a wider range of shots than you’ll be able to produce with the available flat surface in a given area. The tripod I use is the Manfrotto BeFree Aluminum and I can’t stop bragging about how happy I am happy with it. It’s small, robust and easy to set up and use. Great value for your money, you can get the Manfrotto BeFree here.

To capture light trails successfully, you’ll also need a camera with manual mode capacity. Every mirrorless and DSLR camera and most modern smartphone cameras are equipped with manual mode. In manual mode, you can dial in the settings covered in the camera settings section and then tweak them as needed to produce fantastic images.

The lens you select for your light trails photography will impact the size of the light trails. Wider lenses produce thin trails while narrow lenses produce thicker trails. There is no perfect light trails size. It’s up to you to determine the look you prefer for your long exposure photography.


In Conclusion

Any new photography technique requires patience and practice for full mastery. Car light trails are no exception. It may take some trial and error to determine the best places for capturing light trails in your area and some tweaking to confirm the optimal camera settings for said location and the aesthetic you want to achieve. With practice, you’ll learn to produce stunning car trails consistently and I assure you’ll have a lot of fun!

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