Digital Photography Live

How to photograph light trail – Tips, Settings and Ideas

Photo Credit: Dennis Forgione

How to photograph light trail

Photographing light trails is one of the easiest assignments that you can go on. You may have seen photographs like the above picture in magazines or on the internet. Believe me, anyone can capture images such as these. All one needs is a camera that lets you choose the shutter speed and a bit of imagination and patience to go with it.

Tools

Of course popular blogs and photography tutorial websites will add a few extra gears to the above list, such as a tripod, a remote shutter release cable and many be even a neutral density filter. But honestly, to get started you only need a camera, preferably a DSLR. Tripods and the rest can come later when you want to do more serious stuff.

What are light trails?

Light trails are the results of exposures that are captured using a really long shutter speed and are usually of subjects such as a vehicle or any other moving light source. Even your hand-held flash light could be used as a light source for capturing light trails. Advanced users have been able to take this a step forward by burning steel wool and creating mesmerizing works of art.

Location & timing

As a humble beginning you can head for a busy street or a freeway where there are a lot of passing cars and your chances of capturing light trail is easy. It must be an evening or at least the sun should be below the horizon to be able to use a longer shutter speed. If you meter the scene and note down the shutter speed, you will notice that the camera needs a longer shutter speed to properly expose for the scene than you would need during the day. If there is a lot of ambient light then the shutter speed will be shorter and you may need to use a neutral density filter to use desired shutter speed.

Camera settings

The key to capture light trail is to keep the camera’s shutter open for long enough. So that, desired effect can be created. Applying exposure triangle you can achieve that effect in many combinations at different shutter speed, aperture & ISO. Try to keep the ISO at low (100-400) to avoid digital noise. Remember the trick is not to overexpose your photographs and yet capture that beautiful long light trail. Usually, to get the effects of light trails you need a shutter speed of at least 1/15th of a second and maximum has virtually no limit. Which means you must use a very good tripod.

The shutter priority mode is my favorite & easiest mode to photograph light trails. This mode will allow you to set your desired shutter speed and camera sets the aperture. Remember to set the ISO manually, otherwise camera may select a hight ISO number to compensate the low light, may result more digital noise. Also set the camera to shoot in RAW. This will allow you to correct issues and eliminate any noise later on. When every settings checked you may start with 1 second shutter speed and see what the result is; if the trail is too short, add 2 seconds, and then keep increasing the shutter speed until you get the desired effect. Modern digital cameras will let you see the effect immediately. If you have too much blurring, then your shutter was open too long, and you need to dial it back down maybe a full second.

Is there any ‘golden’ setting for light trail photography?

There is no such thing as a ‘golden’ setting in photographing light trail. One setting is not suitable for all situations and there is no one trick that can guarantee you ‘wow’ quality pictures. You will have to begin with a setting and keep changing it until you are happy with the results.

Composition

What to point at depends on what appears interesting to your eyes. This is where your mastery over the rules of composition comes into place as well as knowing what makes a great picture.

Point & Shoot? Don’t fret

For those without a DSLR or the budget to buy one don’t fret. Your point and shoot can also be used to shoot light trails. As I said you are only limited by your imagination. Your camera probably came with a number of preset modes such as ‘fireworks’, ‘snow’, ‘candle light’, etc. Select the ‘fireworks’ setting and you are good to go.