Nothing says futuristic, dynamic, and dramatic like a well-done traffic light trail photo. This is a genre of photography that almost all landscape photographers will have dipped into, it’s like a right of passage. The kind of images you can create make others want to go out and buy their first tripod.
Indeed getting a good photo of light trails will justify carrying around that heavy tripod perhaps all day long. There are lots of things to consider when taking this type of photo, and in this article, you’ll learn straight away what it takes.
This photo was taken from a residential building overlooking this amazing traffic intersection in Shanghai.
Choosing the right location
The most important thing to creating light trail photos is to go to a place where there will be lots of moving lights! This should be obvious, but some places are better than others. In all cases, the light trails will be part of the frame and either the main subject or the leading lines that direct the viewer to your main subject. In most cases your location is going to be urban, so let’s look at the options.
This light trail photo of the Colosseum in Rome uses light from a passing bus.
1 – Down on the street
A busy main road can be a good place to take light trail photos. The chances are you’ll be photographing a famous landmark from your locale, and using light trails will give the photo a more dynamic feel.
Position yourself so the light trails either lead up to your landmark or disappear off into the distance beside it.
When a safe traffic island is available, experiment with photographing from the middle of the street. This will give you both white headlights, and red rear lights.
It’s easier to control the intensity of the light from rear lights. So it’s often best to position yourself to photograph light trails as the traffic is moving away from the camera.
Photograph during blue hour as much as possible, this should be the case for all cityscape photos.
The best light trails are produced when buses drive past. They have lights that will fill your frame, as these vehicles are taller and lit up more.
The height at which you have your tripod set can dramatically affect your results when photographing at street level. The lower the tripod, the “higher” the lights will appear in your frame.
If you don’t want the lights to paint across the entire photo, experiment with an external shutter release, and the bulb function on your camera. Bulb allows you to open and close the shutter when you choose, so you can close it and end the exposure before the moving vehicle completely moves through your photo.
In this case, the Bulb function was used so that the light didn’t paint over the building on the right.
2 – Get up high, and photograph from above
Taking photos from a high vantage point is often a sure fire way of getting good results. This is especially true when it comes to taking light trail photos. There are two choices when it comes to this, you can go to the public area, or try for the trickier private access.
Public area – The easiest and safest option, though this likely means 1000’s of other people will also visit the same spot. This will commonly be a pedestrian footbridge over a road, a viewpoint from a mountain, or perhaps a viewing gallery in a tall building.
Private property – The best policy here is to ask permission. The other approach is riskier, more clandestine, and more in keeping with a genre of photography called urbex. At this time access to private rooftops is becoming increasingly difficult, in no small part because some people enjoy filming daredevil stunts from such locations. So do your research on a location you would like to photograph, and be respectful if you are lucky enough to get access. In some cities, rooftop bars can offer great views, but if you wish to bring a tripod in then emailing the business ahead of time is advised.
This high vantage point was achieved by contacting a rooftop bar in advance and getting permission to photograph from their location.
3 – Embrace the great outdoors
Of course, anywhere there’s a road can be a good location for light trail photography. Roads that wind their way up a mountainside will look great in a photo, you just need a good vantage point. Even photos from a lower position can look nice with a single stream of light, which can create a nice minimalist feel to your photo.
Photos taken in these locations may require very long exposures to allow the vehicle to drive through the frame. The best solution here is to take a series of 30-second exposures, and then stack the results later in Photoshop (or use an ND filter to cut the light and get longer exposure times).
This location is in Taiwan. To reach the viewpoint there were several bits of rope I had to climb up, as the side of the mountain was steep.
How to take long exposures of car light trails
Once you have settled on your location it’s time for the fun to begin! Taking these photos well does require some technical knowledge, let’s break this down here.
Compose your photo, and ensure the light trails complement the frame you wish to produce.
Arrive around 30-minutes prior to sunset. This will give you time to plan your photo and to take additional photos for digital blending if needed.
Ensure the camera is steady, this is challenging in strong winds. To achieve this use a heavy tripod, and where possible hook your camera bag under the center column. The heavier the tripod, the less likely it will be moved by the wind. Avoid putting up the middle extension tube on the tripod, as this introduces more instability and movement.
You can focus the camera using Live View. In Live View, zoom (using the magnify view button + not zooming your lens) into an area of the frame such as a sign. Now set your lens to manual focus. Choose an object to focus on that is towards the back of the mid-ground in your photo. Keep the camera in manual focus, so that the camera doesn’t change focus when you press the shutter button.
An additional option is to use digital blending to balance the light throughout the scene. Digital blending is a post-processing technique that requires a set of bracketed photos at -1, 0 and +1 exposure (or -2, 0, and +2).
Using an aperture of f/11 or smaller will create a starburst effect on any street lights that are in your frame. But the larger the aperture the brighter the light trails will be, so a balance is needed.
Now everything is set for you to take your photo. The light trail photo needs to show continuous light moving along the road. Make sure your exposure is long enough for this to happen, usually this is at least 15 seconds. To avoid camera shake use an external shutter release, or the camera’s self timer. If the camera isn’t in Live View, use the mirror lockup, this prevents shake on dSLR cameras when they expose.
This frame required several stacked images to enhance the amount of traffic in the photo.
Enhancing your light trail photo in post-processing
As with all photography, you can enhance your image in post-processing to get an even better result. There are two principal techniques that can be used to achieve this.
Digital blending – In order to use this technique you will need a set of bracketed images to work with. This technique will allow you to balance the level of light throughout the scene.
Photo stacking – The next option, usually done in conjunction with digital blending, is photo stacking. You can use this to intensify the light trails within your photo. The concept is to take photos of multiple traffic light streams and overlay the images on top of each other.
There aren’t many better places to photograph light streams on boats than Venice!
Other types of light trail photos
There are lots of other ways to use light trails in your photography. Here are a few other ideas you can try, that will complement your other light trail photos.
Boat lights – Boats on the water produce beautiful light trails, with the added bonus of reflections. The speed of boats is much slower though. This means an exposure of around two minutes or stacking several photos together to complete the light trail.
Create your own – You don’t need cars to create light trails, in fact, you can just use a light source and make your own. To have the most fun with this purchasing a Pixelstick is a great idea.
Kinetic light painting – Static lights can be turned into light trails, you just have to move your camera! Try out zoom bursts, or camera rotation to see some amazing results.
The u-bein bridge in Myanmar is a classic photograph. You won’t see light trails here unless you make your own!
Time to hit the road, and get some light trails
Now it’s time to get out there and try this amazing style of photography. I’m sure many of you have taken car light trail photos, so share your best work with the community in the comments below.
What style of photo do you like best? Are there any further tips that you use for your photos that you’d like to share? As always share your thoughts, ideas, and work below and let’s talk about car light trail photography.
Time to get on your bike, and out there taking light trail photos!
is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in lensball photography Simon is the expert in this field, get some great tips by downloading his free e-book!
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