Facebook Pixel 6 Tips for Photographing Amazing Light Trails at Blue Hour

6 Tips for Photographing Amazing Light Trails at Blue Hour

amazing-light-trails-at-blue-hour-photography

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.

6 Tips for Photographing Amazing Light Trails at Blue Hour

1. Find a location with a great city view with plenty of traffic going by

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.

amazing-light-trails-at-blue-hour-photography

18mm, f/10, 25 seconds (based shutter speed of 3 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 7 minutes before dusk. © Joey J

2. Shoot from slightly higher than ground level (e.g. a footbridge)

Rather than staying on the same level as moving cars, getting up above allows you to shoot more dynamic images.

Image: Shooting from a footbridge is an easy way to get up above the moving cars. This is how I shot...

Shooting from a footbridge is an easy way to get up above the moving cars. This is how I shot the photo above, clamping Manfrotto Super Clamp onto a footbridge railing. © Joey J

3. Curvy roads give a more pleasing result

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).

amazing-light-trails-at-blue-hour-photography

18mm, f/8, 25 seconds (based shutter speed of 3 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 5 minutes before dusk.

4. Headlights, taillights or both?

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.

Image: 18mm, f/13, 10 seconds (based shutter speed of 1.3 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached),...

18mm, f/13, 10 seconds (based shutter speed of 1.3 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 8 minutes before dusk. © Joey J

5. Capture light trails of tall vehicles

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!

Image: 24mm, f/8, 30 seconds (based shutter speed of 4 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO...

24mm, f/8, 30 seconds (based shutter speed of 4 seconds, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 1 minute after dusk. © Joey J

amazing-light-trails-at-blue-hour-photography

22mm, f/13, 8 seconds (based shutter speed of 1 second, with 3 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 10 minutes before dusk. © Joey J

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!

6. Use mild-strength neutral density (ND) filter

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.

Image: Neutral density (ND) filters help reduce light coming through the lens and allow you to slow...

Neutral density (ND) filters help reduce light coming through the lens and allow you to slow down the shutter speed by a certain number of f-stops (e.g. 3 stops). © Joey J

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).

Image: 18mm, f/13, 161 seconds (based shutter speed of 2.5 seconds, with 6 stop ND filter attached),...

18mm, f/13, 161 seconds (based shutter speed of 2.5 seconds, with 6 stop ND filter attached), ISO 100, shot 7 minutes before dusk. With B+W 6 Stop ND Filter (77mm) attached, I exposed for 161 seconds, capturing a ton of light trails in a single shot. © Joey J

Conclusion

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!

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Joey J
Joey J

is a Singapore based enthusiast photographer primarily shooting cityscapes at twilight and dusk (a.k.a. blue hour). Get his free eBook Taking Your First Long Exposure Photos at Blue Hour. Or visit his website LASTLIGHTS.NET where he posts his best photos (from Singapore, Brunei, Southeast Asia, and beyond) and shares his experience photographing cityscape photos with long exposure at blue hour.