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Have you seen cityscape photos with light streaks of moving cars? That’s called light trail photography. I see it as a part of the long exposure photography family. However, the exposure doesn’t have to be very long (typically under 30 seconds) to capture light trails. While my absolute favorite long exposure photography style is waterfront cityscapes with a silky smooth water effect, I also enjoy light trail photography – and it’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years. So I’d like to share some tips I’ve learned so far so that you’ll achieve better light trails at blue hour shots much sooner.
This is a prerequisite for any great light trail photography. It might sound plain obvious, but it’s not always easy to find a perfect location, as there is more to it than meets the eye. I’ll describe more down the road.
Rather than staying on the same level as moving cars, getting up above allows you to shoot more dynamic images.
Compared to light trails shot on straight roads (such as the first photo above), those shot on curvy roads look more pleasing (to me, at least), as seen in the photo below shot at Connaught Rd Central (Hong Kong).
Depending on the road you’re photographing (one-way street or two-way street), there may be only headlights or tail lights available. Or both of them may be available.
Personally, I prefer headlights, as they are more visually striking. As seen below, one-way traffic with tail lights (only) lacks some impact.
The majority of light trails are created by low-height vehicles such as private cars and taxis. However, when tall vehicles (e.g. buses, trucks) move through the frame, light trails record at a much higher point, adding more interest to your photos.
I shot the photos below from a sideway of a busy street in Seoul, Korea. Seeing public buses frequently passing through, I timed my exposure to capture their lights. I love how they came out!
By the way, I have one funny story to share.
When I shot the photos above, I spent a full hour shooting at minus 10 degrees Celsius in Seoul’s winter. Since I didn’t have gloves, my hands went completely numb with cold. By the end of the photoshoot, I couldn’t even hold my lens cap properly. Trying to put it back on the lens with trembling hands, I dropped it so many times. It sounds like a joke, but this simple task took me so long to complete!
You can shoot light trail photography at blue hour without using any neutral density (ND) filter, but the exposure time will probably be a little too short (a few to several seconds) to capture enough light trails.
If you don’t own an ND filter, try shooting with a small aperture (e.g. f/13) to make the shutter speed longer (ideally 10+ seconds).
An ideal strength ND filter for light trail photography is around a 2 or 3 stop ND. For example, a base shutter speed of 2, 2.5, and 3 seconds (i.e., when no filter is attached) will extend to 15, 20 and 25 seconds, respectively, with a 3-stop ND filter attached. That is long enough to capture plenty of light trails on busy roads. FYI, I shot almost all the photos in this post with a B+W 3 Stop ND Filter (77mm) attached.
One advantage of using a 3-stop ND filter is that you can attempt shooting light trails many times, as each exposure time isn’t too long.
When using a more dense filter like a 6-stop ND filter, a base shutter speed of 2 -3 seconds turns into a 2-3 minute exposure. This severely limits the number of photos you can take during the blue hour.
Besides, when the exposure goes so long, you won’t be able to time your exposure to target certain lights (such as those of tall vehicles).
I hope these tips will help you capture stunning light trails at blue hour. In fact, writing this post has made me want to try more light trail photography!
As always, if you have any questions or info to share about shooting light trails at blue hour, feel free to do so in the comments below. Happy shooting!