How to Do Light Trail Photography

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LIGHT TRAIL PHOTOGRAPHY IS FASCINATING

Welcome to my humble guide on how to do light trail photography. Back when I started photography, light trail is one of the first subjects that fascinated me. To me, traditional photography has always been capturing “a frame of time” in a photograph…

Then came along a “mysterious” photo with long silky light streaks.

I had my moment of “how is this possible”, “that is an amazing photo”, and I never knew that photography could do something so interesting.

I then started to dig around for more information on how these light streaks are captured on the camera, and I learnt more about long exposures.

Until today, I still love light trails and that is probably something you will love to do for a long time too.

There is just something very magical about it. So with this guide, I shall share my secrets on shooting light trails.

A) REQUIRED AND RECOMMENDED GEAR

At the time of writing (2017), smartphone cameras are still sadly, rather limited. So to get started, you need to have the following gear. Don’t worry, you don’t need any “special” gear nor strange expensive exclusive explosive equipment.

Note : affiliate links below. Read my boring disclosure message if you want to…

  • A decent camera
    DSLR or mirrorless camera, that is capable of manual settings and taking long exposures. Yep, one that allows you to control the shutter speed and not burst into flames after a few seconds of exposure.
  • A sturdy tripod
    As long as it does not break, tip over with a touch, or get blown away by the wind. I personally prefer ball head tripods. [Selens] offer pretty affordable and decent ones, or you can spend a little more on a good old reliable [Manfrotto].

Optionally, these few cheap gadgets will help you take better photos:

  • Remote shutter release 
    Helps you keep your hands off the camera, and reduce camera shake. Does not matter if it is wired or wireless. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
  • 2-way or 3-way bubble spirit level
    Helps you get the horizon straight. Prevents people from thinking that you are drunk while taking the photo. [Bubble spirit level]
 💡 You don’t need to spend a fortune on camera gear. In fact, a camera and tripod will be sufficient.

B) THE BASICS

Just what are those light streaks?
Marina Coastal Highway : Light Trails

Well, they are very simply, tail lights of vehicles passing by. In a “normal” photo with a fast shutter speed of let’s say, 1/320 second, the vehicles will probably be “frozen in movement”.

But when it comes to a slow shutter speed (long exposure) of let’s say, 15 seconds, you will catch trails of light as vehicles pass by. This is where the name “light trail photography” comes from.

 💡 Simply put – capturing moving lights in a dark place with slow shutter speed.

B-1) One very basic in light trail photography is long exposure and lights.

Which means, you need somewhere dark, and you need people to switch on their car lights. Night should be a good time to bring out the light trails.

While most people immediately think of night time city shoot, I actually prefer the blue hour (some time after sunset) more. Because only during blue hour, you can get a bit of light to catch the clouds and some nice details of the surroundings.

So if you want a wider shot with the sky and landscape, I will highly recommend blue hour. In either case, anytime after sun down is your playground for light trails.

B-2) Secondly, you need a good location to capture those lights.

Somewhere near a road of course. But don’t even think of standing in the middle of a busy road, there are better and safer places. I love to haunt overhead bridges and tall buildings. Particularly those that are facing roads and junctions.

I usually avoid busy streets, as it draws quite a bit of unwanted attention. Usual problems while shooting on the floor may include:

  • Occasion bumps, destroying your entire shot.
  • Overly-friendly strangers who cannot leave you alone to take one shot.
  • Accidental “expert art directors” who tells you how to shoot and frame your shot.
  • Annoying children who runs into your tripod and grabs it, for like, whatever reason.
  • Vehicles suddenly stopping, and a profanities screaming driver.
  • Zealots who suddenly praise your photography, and spreading the love of god?
  • “Alert” citizens who start questioning and interrogating your actions.

So… just get to somewhere with less human traffic, and somewhere that you can shoot in peace.

B-3) Lastly, you need moving vehicles.

Yep, cars that don’t move don’t produce any light trails. Make sure that there is some moving traffic on where you are trying to shoot.

 💡 You can also use a bright flashlight in front of the camera to create light trails. Which most of call “light painting” instead.

C) THE SETUP

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C-1) Tripod

If you do not have mad master ninja skills to hold absolutely still and stop breathing for 30 seconds, deploy your tripod. Tripods are your best friends and a must.

C-2) Spirit level

While you are setting up the tripod, remember to put the spirit level on too. I know, there is something called “virtual horizon” in the camera to help you get straight horizons.

But nothing is more convenient than an actual spirit level. No need to fumble with the controls to get the virtual horizon out.

C-3) Composition

There is not much difference on framing for light trail photography. The usual photography composition rules still apply, find your foreground-background interest and offer your interesting perspective.

But do take note that the light streaks will become very strong lead lines, learn to use those streaks to your advantage.

 💡 No tripod? Cannot deploy one? Find a railing or rubbish bin. Anything that you can rest your camera on.

D) THE SHOOT

Clarke Quay, Singapore : Light Trails

D-1) Shoot in RAW

Always shoot in RAW when your camera supports it. Can’t stress that enough. RAW files contain more data than JPEG and is extremely useful in editing.

D-2) Auto will not work

Forget about shooting in auto. It will never work here. For those who are slightly new to the exposure triangle, go full manual and get ready for a wild ride. 🙂 Not really… if you are uncomfortable, turn the camera into shutter priority mode and hit a really slow shutter speed.

D-3) The exposure triangle

Sadly, I cannot give you a magical setting that fits every light streak occasion. But I shall share my common settings, and why.

Shutter Speed : At least a good 5 seconds, should give you enough time to catch light trails. But it really depends on how fast your subject is moving.

Aperture : I tend to hit f/8 and beyond. Hey, it’s still a landscape photo, and you need a good enough depth-of-field… although bokeh light trails can be pretty interesting as well.

ISO : ISO 100. As usual, keep the ISO as low as possible unless you are forced to.

So these are my usual settings, but note, use this as reference only. The settings really depend on the situation you are in.

 💡 You can determine the shutter speed by looking at your viewfinder, and estimating how long it takes for the vehicles to travel from edge to edge of the frame.

D-4) Bulb mode

If you want more control with the shutter speed, you can turn the camera to bulb mode. This is a little on the advanced side, but with bulb mode, you have precise control of the shutter speed.

Open the shutter when the subjects start to move, hold, and release to close the shutter when the subjects pass or stop.

D-5) Hands off the camera

In long exposures, hands off the camera and tripod as much as possible. Shakes will result in a blurry photo.

Connect your remote shutter release. If you don’t have a remote release, turn your camera to timer mode with just one second delay.

D-6) Semi-manual focus

Use the auto-focus and focus 1/3 into the scene. Once your frame is in focus, turn that auto-focus off (into manual focus mode).

The reason is very simple.

Since your camera is mounted on a tripod, the focus is not going to run. Also, you do not want to trigger that auto-focus again, which will start to hunt on moving subjects. You want the camera to be ready to take a shot immediately, not wait for the auto-focus to hunt.

D-7) Take a shot

If you are on a DSLR and remote shutter release, turn on the mirror up mode.

That will further reduce camera shake, and give you an even sharper photo. But note, the first press will lock the mirror up, the second press takes the photo – You need to press the release twice. If you are on timer mode, do give a 1 second allowance for the shutter to go off.

Last step, take a shot. Sounds simple enough, but not really. You need to time the movement of subjects as it enters your frame. Review your photo on the spot, and see if the streaks are to your liking. Adjust your shutter speed on the spot.

E) WHAT TO NOT DO IN LIGHT TRAILS PHOTOGRAPHY

This is one of my failed shots, and a section to share on how not to do light trails.

Just in case you are wondering what went wrong, try to find light trails in this photo. You might spot it if you squint hard enough.

TPY Light Trails

E-1) Too early

The time when I took this photo is 7.15pm, shortly after the sun has gone down. It was a stormy and cloudy day, so I thought, this should be dark enough.

When I got back home and looked at the photo on my big screen, it all turns out that I was wrong. It sure is all gloom and blue, but it is still not dark enough. The contrast is not enough to bring out the light trails.

E-2) Too little traffic

Usually at this hour, people will be rushing back home. But for some reason, this stretch of the highway is pretty silent. Maybe an accident happened down the road and slowed the traffic. But if you want some spectacular streaks, wait for more traffic.

E-3) Wrong shutter speed

Light trails is not all about pushing that shutter speed to 30 seconds or more. It’s about following up with how fast the subject is moving. This photo is a highway, meaning, vehicles are travelling fast. I should have used a much slower shutter speed of 10 to 15 seconds.

E-4) Note the side of the roads

Not really a mistake, but something that you should take note for roads. Where are the vehicles going? Because on one side, it is going to be white head lights, and the other is going to be red tail lights. Head, tails or both, plan your shot before you shoot.

HIT IT!

Alright, we have come to the end of this guide.

As my usual advice goes – you need to go out and try it for yourself. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments below, I will try to answer and improve this guide.

Have fun!

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