Imagine you’re standing by a busy road after sunset, camera in hand. You press the shutter, and magic happens – streaks of light crisscross the frame, turning an ordinary scene into an extraordinary image. I’m talking about light trail photography, and if you’ve ever been captivated by light trail images, you’re not alone.
But despite the incredible appeal of the light trail technique, many hobbyists struggle to understand how light trails work and how to get great results. Fortunately, I can say from experience that it’s actually pretty easy to get stunning light trail photos – once you know the right techniques.
And that’s what I’ll share with you in this article: The tips, tricks, and techniques you need to know for amazing images. I’ll offer an overview of the essential gear and settings for light trail photography, and I’ll also share a simple, step-by-step approach to crafting your very own light trail masterpieces.
So whether you’re an enthusiastic newbie or someone looking to enhance your skills, this article will explain everything you need to know.
Let’s get started.
What is light trail photography?
Light trail photography is a technique where you use a slow shutter speed to capture the path of moving lights. The result is a series of bright lines that draw your eye through the frame.
Light trail images often feature lights created by cars. However, the lights in question don’t always have to come from speeding vehicles on a highway. They can also be as simple as a handheld flashlight or a sparkler.
Now, this technique isn’t confined to any particular genre of photography. You’ll find light trails in cityscape shots, where the lights of cars weave through towering skyscrapers. In travel photography, trails of light can accentuate famous landmarks or natural wonders. Landscape photographers use light trails to add a touch of drama to nighttime vistas, and you can even use light trails in portraiture to create intriguing effects.
The most compelling part of light trail photography is the aesthetic flair it adds to your shots. Light trails have the power to turn a dull nighttime scene into a vibrant, energetic composition. They inject life and movement into your photos, making them stand out in a sea of bland shots.
The best equipment for light trail photography
Here’s the basic equipment I recommend for light trail photography:
- Lens hood (optional)
- Remote shutter release (optional)
- Neutral density filter (optional)
- Warm clothes (optional)
There is no single camera or lens type that you need to capture light trails (these days, you can do light trail photography with only a smartphone!).
However, your camera must let you control your exposure settings, particularly those that allow you to choose longer shutter speeds (in the area of 10 seconds to 1 minute). Therefore, you need a camera that can shoot in either full Manual mode and/or Shutter Priority mode. All DSLRs and interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras do offer this functionality, though certain compact cameras, film cameras, and native smartphone camera apps do not.
You’ll also need a tripod, as you’ll be shooting with ultra-long shutter speeds. In a pinch, you can perch your camera on a concrete railing, the ground, or even a car, but it’s really best to work with a sturdy tripod.
And while not essential, it’s helpful to use a lens hood, which will block flare from ambient lights, as well as a remote shutter release, so you can trigger your camera without pressing the shutter button and causing camera shake. The two-second or ten-second self-timer is an adequate substitute for a remote release, but it can be inconvenient to wait for the shutter to fire while shooting, plus it can mess up your timing.
Finally, neutral density filters – which block the light to allow for longer shutter speeds – aren’t necessary if you’re shooting in complete darkness but will helpfully elongate your shutter speeds around sunset and dusk. And if you’re going out on a chilly night, make sure to bring warm clothes!
How to create light trail photography: The step-by-step approach
Ready to capture those captivating light trails? Here’s the simple, step-by-step process for great results:
Step 1: Choose the right location
First things first: pick a location where you’ll find moving lights. Roads or bridges are often ideal. But remember, safety is paramount. Make sure you’re well out of the way of any oncoming traffic before you start setting up.
Step 2: Carefully compose your shot
Next, think about composition. You’ll need to leave a good amount of space in your frame where the light trails will appear. This is often key; the lights need room to breathe!
Step 3: Set up your tripod
Get out your camera and attach it to your tripod, making sure the tripod is on solid ground. You’ll be shooting with a long shutter speed, so complete stability is essential. If it’s windy and your camera has a strap, now’s the time to remove it or tape it down.
Step 4: Choose your settings
Start with a shutter speed of at least five seconds. Longer times like 10 seconds often yield even better results. Your aperture should be narrow – think f/8, f/11, or f/16 – to get a deep depth of field. Keep the ISO low (at its base level if you can) to minimize noise in the final image.
Note: if you find that the light trails aren’t long enough or they’re somewhat overexposed, you can narrow your aperture even further. Alternatively, you can wait for the light to dim, or if you’re in a pinch, a neutral density filter can help darken the scene.
Step 5: Take the shot
Here’s where the action really starts. Wait for a car (or other subject with moving lights) to approach your frame. As it gets close, hit that shutter button. Timing is everything. Try to make sure the car has left the frame by the time the exposure ends. That way, your light trail will look like one continuous line.
(However, you can certainly play around with partial light trails – in photography, there are no rules, only artistic decisions!)
And use the camera LCD to check your images regularly. Pay careful attention to exposure and zoom in to look for any blur. You might need a couple of tries to nail the perfect shot, but that’s okay; it’s all part of the fun.
Light trail photography tips
Now that you know the fundamentals, let’s look at some helpful shooting tips, plus plenty of in-depth discussions!
1. Think about the light
Light trail photography requires darkness, but what time is best? Should you shoot just after sunset? An hour after? Or the middle of the night?
That depends on the effect you’re after. If you shoot at midnight, you’ll get a very dark shot with (probably) car-less light trails. This can look nice, but tends toward abstraction:
Personally, I prefer shooting just as the sun is going down. You’ll capture the light trails along with ambient light in the sky, which can add atmosphere to the composition.
Plus, if you shoot earlier in the evening, you’ll get a little more action, with lots of cars and even people moving through the scene.
2. Take a lot of photos
It’s often good to think of your first couple of shots as test runs. Light trail photography can be fairly complex, and if you only take a single shot before packing up, you’ll often end up disappointed.
Elsewhere in this article, I mentioned the importance of checking your files on the LCD, and that’s a good practice. But I’d also recommend approaching each scene in several different ways: from different angles, using different shutter speeds, etc.
Also, watch out for overexposure. You want to capture light trails, not swathes of blown-out brightness. Your camera’s histogram is your best friend here. Keep an eye on it to avoid issues!
Remember, every shot teaches you something new. So keep shooting until you get a few that you really like. It’s worth the extra time and effort, trust me.
3. Carefully select your composition
It’s not hard to find light trails. But if you want an attention-grabbing shot, you’ll need to put some extra thought into your location, timing, and framing.
For instance, find a location that complements (and highlights) the light trails. You’ll need to pick an area next to a road, but also look for nearby buildings, road merges (where the traffic flows together to create interesting light trail pathways), or even roundabouts (for beautiful circular light trails!).
Compositional framing can be useful, too. Look for natural frames, such as overhanging trees, railings, fences, and the like to emphasize the light trails. Keep the viewer away from distractions (and if possible, eliminate these from your scene!).
And think about incorporating foreground objects or leading lines into the shot; that way, you can guide the viewer’s eye into the scene.
4. Experiment constantly
The main thing I learned in my early days of light trail imaging? Experiment extensively.
After all, you’re learning a new technique. It’s bound to take some fine-tuning, and if you dive in with enthusiasm, you’ll see gorgeous results in no time at all.
So shoot at different times of the evening/night. Try different equipment. Use different focal lengths. And work with different shutter speeds, too!
5. Pick the right light trail photo settings
While the ideal camera modes, shutter speeds, and apertures will depend on the ambient light and the speed of the cars, I can offer helpful guidelines to streamline your choices.
First, use manual focusing; that way, you can get your subject sharp, then leave the point of focus and forget about it.
As I discussed above, if you don’t have a remote shutter release, make sure to use your camera’s self-timer. (Also, if your lens or camera offers image stabilization, make sure it’s deactivated.)
As for aperture and shutter speed: While I wish I could give you specific numbers, different situations are just too variable, so there’s no one exposure combination that will work in every setting. I usually shoot at shutter speeds between 10 and 20 seconds, which gives cars time to move through the frame. And I work with midrange apertures, starting at around f/8 or so, then stop down or widen the aperture depending on your shutter speed requirements.
Also, you can darken the image by dropping your ISO or brighten the image by raising your ISO – but use an ISO boost as a last resort, because the higher the ISO, the noisier the image will become.
And as discussed above, pay careful attention to your exposure. You don’t want to blow out any light sources (such as headlights or street lights); this looks bad, plus it draws the eye away from the main subject. Again, the histogram is your friend. After you take your first shot, go ahead and view its histogram on your LCD, looking for peaks pressed against the right-hand side of the graph.
One final settings tip: If possible, shoot in RAW. It’ll offer increased dynamic range, plus more flexibility during post-processing for better overall results.
6. Seek out a vantage point
Shooting from eye level is a common choice, but light trail photography opens the door to a world of exciting perspectives. One often-overlooked approach is to find a vantage point above the action. From up high, you can capture a new layer of dynamism in your images.
For landscape scenes, high-elevation areas, such as hills and mountains, offer an outstanding perspective for breathtaking photos:
If you’re more of a cityscape photographer, then rooftops can work beautifully. If you can get access to one legally and safely, you’ll see the roads and movement below in a whole new light. The cars become tiny light specks, tracing intricate patterns on the streets.
Bridges offer another fantastic opportunity. Station yourself at the midpoint of a pedestrian overpass, and you’ll have a direct line of sight to both approaching and departing traffic. This position lets you shoot light trails that converge into the distance, adding depth to your photos.
Parking garages may not sound exciting, but they’re a versatile location for light trail shots. You can choose from various heights and angles, giving you a chance to experiment. Plus, they are usually easier to access than rooftops or bridges.
Don’t forget safety precautions when you’re up high. Make sure your gear is secure and that you’re not in a hazardous position. Even minor distractions can become significant problems when you’re focused on capturing the perfect shot.
7. Try an ultra-long exposure
Ever thought about taking your light trail photography to the next level? Consider trying some ultra-long exposures – shots that last minutes or even hours. Traditional light trail photos often stick to exposures of 5-30 seconds. But when you push out that shutter speed even farther, the results can be especially magical.
There are some caveats, of course. Such long exposures can introduce a lot of overexposure in parts of your image. They might technically be imperfect, but that’s part of the charm. The end result can look wildly artistic and unique.
To try this, you’ll need to get acquainted with your camera’s Bulb mode. This function allows you to shoot exposures that exceed the standard 30-second limit. Accessing it varies from camera to camera, but it’s usually somewhere in the menu settings or attached to a dedicated button.
Stability is even more important when doing ultra-long exposures, and a flimsy tripod just won’t cut it. Make sure your tripod is rock solid. If it’s windy, weigh it down with a bag or other heavy object.
8. Don’t just photograph light trails from cars
When you hear “light trail photography,” you probably think of cars zooming down a highway. It’s the go-to subject for many, but let’s think outside the box for a moment.
Consider handheld flashlights. These portable light sources can be incredibly creative tools. Imagine setting up your camera on a tripod in a dark setting. Trigger the shutter and then dash around your subject waving the flashlight. You’ll end up with an ethereal outline that looks amazing.
Fireflies are another great subject. Capturing these natural light wonders over minutes or even hours can create a breathtaking image. Photographing fireflies is a bit more unpredictable than using human-made light sources, but the outcome often has a magical, organic feel to it:
You could even get more abstract. How about a light trail portrait where you or your subject wave glow sticks or sparklers? By carefully moving the light source, you can form shapes, letters, and more.
Switching up your light sources adds a layer of creativity to your work that can set it apart. Keep an open mind and experiment with these alternatives. The results might surprise you!
9. Take your editing seriously
Snapping the picture is just the first half of the battle. Once you’ve got your shots, it’s time to hop into your favorite editor. You’re working with lots of contrast – bright streaks of light against a dark backdrop – and that can be challenging to balance.
Even the best shots can look bad straight out of camera. For starters, you’ll want to adjust your exposure levels. If your light trails are too dim, bump up the overall exposure, the highlights, or the whites. Be cautious, though. Going too far can blow out detail.
Adjusting white balance is another essential step. Your camera might have captured the scene with a strange color cast, depending on the light sources. In the editing process, you can adjust the temperature and tint to ensure a more natural effect.
Additionally, light trails offer an excellent opportunity to play with hues. You can change the colors of the trails to create a mood or atmosphere that complements your artistic vision.
And finally, consider converting your image to black and white. It might sound counterintuitive for such a color-rich subject, but you might be pleasantly surprised by the results. A B&W conversion can turn your light trails into ethereal, almost otherworldly elements.
How to photograph light trails: final words
By now, you should have a solid foundation for venturing into the fascinating world of light trail photography. The technical aspects might seem daunting at first, but remember: every expert was once a beginner. With the proper gear and the techniques I’ve shared, you’re well on your way to creating the kind of light trail images that can truly captivate viewers.
If you’re eager to improve, put in the time behind the lens. Trial and error is part and parcel of the learning process. Take a lot of shots, spend time editing, and have fun.
So remember the tips and tricks I’ve shared. And the next time you’re out at night, do some light trail photography!
Now over to you:
Where do you plan to photograph light trails? Got some good light trail shots? Share your thoughts and photos in the comments below!