How to Photograph Light Trails – A Step-by-Step Guide

moving lights.

Have you ever seen images where the moving lights from passing vehicles appear as vivid light trails and wondered how to create them yourself? This article reveals what is involved and exactly how to do it. By the end of this article, you will have a theoretical and practical understanding of light trail photography.

Interpretation

Light trail images fall under the long exposure photography category. A long exposure is when a camera takes one image continuously for a chosen amount of time. To enable a camera to do this, the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed must be set appropriately to get the right exposure. They all play a part in controlling the exposure of images.

An important setting that makes taking a long exposure photo possible is the shutter speed. With that being said, a long exposure is when a camera leaves the shutter open for an extended amount of time to let in further light. This allows images to be shot at night and in low light conditions. Long exposures exclusively use and require the use of longer shutter speeds. This can range from 1 to 30 seconds or even for numerous minutes when using bulb mode. Taking images with such lengths of time results in creating an image that shows motion blur whereby moving objects appear blurry or obscured, while stationary objects remain sharp.

There are many ways that a long exposure can be used to create different effects. It is used as a specific technique to achieve certain results, such as turning running water in a waterfall into a smooth flowing surface or removing crowds of people walking through a busy promenade.

Additionally, when a long exposure photo is being shot at night, any moving source of light appears on the image as a trail of light. This effect is of great importance to the subject of this article as it enables the ability to create fantastic images where a vehicle’s path is shown by its light.

mesmerising yellow light trail from bus in hong kong.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 11, and Shutter Speed 5 Seconds.

A light trail photo involves taking a long exposure at night when vehicles are passing the camera, which results in capturing an image showing the movement by light. Due to the camera capturing a photo that lasts several seconds, it causes every passing vehicle to create colourful light trails of the path taken. Vehicles appear as streaked moving lines that travel across the image, which looks exceptionally beautiful and enchanting. There is something special about the patterned trails that are created, which make it greatly pleasing to the eye.

Examples

Here are some examples to provide an idea of what light trail photos can look like.

eye-catching light trail of bus driving around corner in central london.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 10, and Shutter Speed 10 Seconds.
spectacular patterned light trail on tower bridge.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 11, and Shutter Speed 6 Seconds.
stunning light trail of cars passing the south gate in tai pei.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 10, and Shutter Speed 8 Seconds.

The Camera Settings Making Long Exposures Possible

ISO – The ISO takes control of the camera’s sensitivity to light which regulates the exposure of a photo. In basic terms, it is a camera setting that will brighten or darken the photo being taken. The chosen ISO settings will determine the brightness of the photo produced. ISO 100 is considered a low ISO, and ISO 16000 is considered a high ISO. A low value ISO will produce a darker image, and high value ISO will produce a brighter image. The typical ISO setting used to take photos of vehicle light trails is ISO 100 and shouldn’t be set higher than ISO 400.

Shutter Speed – The amount of time that is set for the camera’s shutter to be open to letting light into the camera sensor is called the shutter speed. This is the duration that the camera will be taking that particular photo for. The length of time that can be set ranges between fractions of a second to several minutes. The longer it is open, the more light is let into the camera sensor, which leads to the image produced being brighter. The less time it is open, the less light is let into the camera sensor, which leads to the image produced being darker. Typical shutter speeds used to take photos of vehicle light trails are between 5 and 20 seconds.

Aperture – The size of the opening in the camera lens when a photo is taken is referred to as the aperture. It is a hole within the lens where light travels into that is adjustable to allow more or less light in. So, the aperture that is set determines the size of the hole in the camera lens. The larger the hole, the more light gets in, which makes the photo brighter, and the smaller the hole, the less light gets in, which makes the photo darker. Typical apertures used to take photos of vehicle light trails are between f/3.5 and f/11 but can be slightly higher depending on the lighting of the location.

diagram of renowned and informative exposure triangle.
The exposure triangle shows how the ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed work together.

What Equipment Do You Need to Capture Light Trails?

Technically all you need is a camera. DSLRs or mirrorless cameras are all that is needed. If you do not have one, your camera must have manual settings that can be adjusted, which include the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Most digital cameras have this functionality.

It is advisable and very beneficial if you pair your camera with a sturdy tripod. It is the single most important piece of equipment that is needed to shoot light trail photography. If you are unaware of what a tripod is, it is a three-legged stand that a camera sits on top of.

It will provide your camera with stability and avoid camera shake. Long exposure photos require the camera to take a photo lasting multiples of a second, so it needs to be kept totally still, as any camera movement will make the image blurry. Avoiding camera shake is a must. Placing it on a sturdy tripod ensures the camera will not move at all while it is taking an image and produce an image that is clear. Additionally, it will provide you with flexibility for positioning. Using one will allow you to freely position your camera to set up and take images wherever you choose. Without one, you could just place it on nearby surfaces such as fences or posts. However, this will hinder the stability of your camera and also limit your flexibility of positioning to capture light trails.

In addition to your camera and tripod, you can also use ND filters, shutter remotes, lens hoods, and wide-angle lenses. However, these pieces of equipment are optional and not essential.

How to Create Light Trail Photos

Here is where the fun begins! The following is a guide for you to follow using the reputable After Dark Photography Formula from the book A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery to create vehicle light trail photos. It is outlined in four phases which are;

  • Plan
  • Setup
  • Execute
  • Analyse

Phase 1: Plan

Phase one involves all the necessary planning needed to be done. Specifically, you need to think about what kind of light trail image to create, where to do it, and what equipment you need.

Firstly, decide on what kind of vehicle light trail image you would like to create. You can take inspiration from the example images to help you come up with your idea.

Secondly, you must decide on the location. It needs to be at night and with a scene possible for your idea. If your chosen idea includes motor vehicles, choose somewhere that has a sufficient amount of them moving. Choose somewhere where the backdrop enhances the attractiveness of the photo. Choosing a good vantage point is also important.  

Lastly, you need to gather all the equipment needed to shoot light trails. As explained previously, for light trail photography, you will just need your camera and a tripod.

Phase 2: Setup

Phase two involves setting everything up at the location. This includes deciding on the positioning of the camera, setting the different settings on your camera, sorting out the camera focus, and taking test shots.

Firstly, decide where to position the camera to capture the light trail image of the vehicle/s driving past. It is important at this point to work out exactly where you want the vehicle/s to enter, move through and exit your frame. Your camera frame must be able to see the entire area where you want to show the vehicle/s driving from and to, including any points of interest such as a bridge, etc.

Secondly, your camera settings need to be set. First, put your camera into manual mode, then set the ISO to 100. Next, if your location is reasonably lit, try your aperture at f/5. If your location is not reasonably lit, try your aperture at f/3.5. After this, set the shutter speed to 5 seconds and set your camera to self-timer/remote mode. The settings provided here are a starting point and can be adjusted accordingly later. You will need to play around with the aperture and shutter speed to find what works best for the lighting at your location and for the vehicles passing by.

Thirdly, your camera focus needs to be set. Use your camera’s autofocus to focus on the central area of the frame. After this has been achieved, turn your camera onto manual focus, as this will lock the focus made.  

Lastly, test shots need to be taken to determine that your camera is in focus and to establish the camera settings are producing a photo that is not too light or too dark. After viewing your first shot, if the photo is not clear, adjust the focus until you get a photo that is clear. Additionally, if the photo is too light or too dark, adjust the aperture from the initial camera settings provided. Before moving on, you should get a photo that is in focus and has the correct exposure. 

dazzling light trail of bus turning a corner in tsim sha tsui hong kong.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 22, and Shutter Speed 8 Seconds.

Phase 3: Execute

Phase three is where the beautiful light trail photography begins, and the actual light trail photo is taken. You will be using the self-timer to take the photo, so anticipation is very important here. After pressing the shutter button, the self timer will take a few seconds to start taking the photo and therefore must be pressed just before the moving vehicle comes into your frame. So, when it is a few meters away from entering your frame, press the shutter button to set off the self timer.

Phase 4: Analyse

Phase four involves analysing your photo to recognise any adjustments needed to be made to the camera settings or mistakes that can be corrected in further attempts.

Possible adjustments could be a combination of the following:

(1) Frame – you may need to readjust the frame position.

(2) Focus – the photo/s taken might be blurry, and you may have to refocus.

(3) Too Bright – the photo/s you took might be too bright. In order to fix this problem, either gradually increase the aperture towards its lowest setting or slightly decrease the shutter speeds.

(4) Too Dark – the photo/s you took might be too dark because of the low light conditions. To fix this, either slightly increase the shutter speeds or decrease the aperture or slightly increase the ISO but try not to go over ISO 400.

If you need to make any of these adjustments, repeat phase three and phase four until you are pleased with the photo you have created to get your final image.

striking trail of light from a moving train.
Settings: ISO 100, Aperture 14, and Shutter Speed 20 Seconds.

Tips for Light Trail Photography

Before this article draws to a close, you are left with six valuable tips which will help you when moving forward with shooting light trails. They will also improve your overall efficiency when undertaking light trail photography in the future.

  • Aim to capture the light trails of large vehicles. They produce interesting light trails with different colours compared to what ordinary car lights produce.  
  • Try to capture the light trail of a vehicle that is driving around a corner or curve in its path. The result will be far more impressive than if the vehicle is moving in a straight line.
  • Before taking a photo, try to visualise the scene and how/where the vehicle will enter, move and exit (if at all) your frame.
  • When capturing the light trails of motor vehicles, choose a time and a good location so a sufficient amount of them will be passing by. At night and during rush hour is appropriate as it will help avoid waiting between shots.
  • The background adds extra interest to the photo. Try to choose a scene that has some detail, such as a bridge or monument.  
  • Choose a location and scene where light trails will be produced in different directions. Examples include a winding road, a high vantage point, a location where multiple roads merge together, a location where you get vehicles driving in opposite directions, and a roundabout where multiple vehicles will create circular shaped trails and interesting patterns as they enter/exit/drive through.

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