Capturing Light Trails During Night Photography

Posted on: 30th December 2013

Night PhotographyLight trails on road traffic are an amazing subject in night photography. The long brilliant lights are perfect for creating abstract compositions. You can produce stunning images by using these tried-and-tested techniques.

  • First you need to have your very basic gear – an SLR preferably one with wide angle lenses, a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release.
  • Observe your surroundings so you can determine which would be the best location to capture traffic trail lights. The busiest parts of the city are an obvious place to start but you can also scout for landmarks and other structures around the area. Of course, it would be more appealing if you can do your photo op on a famous place. But do not take out of the equation rural areas with lovely sceneries.
  • Setting up on a bridge is ideal since it offers a good viewpoint. Make sure that you are not in harm’s way and you are not obstructing traffic flow. Consider different compositions such as merging roads, winding roads, traffic islands and such, because all of these can provide interesting-shaped light trails.
  • And as long as there are cars (and even humans!) moving in different directions, you can make stunning night photography out of it.
  • Bear in mind that cars that move away produce red light while vehicles coming towards your position produce white light.
  • Exposure time is critical – in the range of 15 to 60 seconds – to produce lively pictures at night. Give the shutter enough time to allow light to come through the frame.
  • Count how many seconds for a car to pass by and then calculate the shutter speed you need for it. It means using different exposure time for different scenarios. You can use manual mode if you want to experiment on the exposure time. You can also choose aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode.
  • A greater depth of field can be achieved by using a corresponding aperture of around f/8 to f/16. Use between 100-400 ISO to achieve this setting and to avoid camera noise.
  • Most cameras have a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds. If you wish a longer exposure time, use the Bulb setting. It will keep the shutter open for as long as you want.
  • Bu using a remote release, you can hold the shutter open without causing any camera movement. It is important that you time the exposure accurately so make sure you have a wristwatch with a second hand.
  • Get pin-sharp images at long exposures by using a sturdy tripod. You can opt to shoot while holding the camera if you want to create lovely abstract effects.

Minding the composition

Set up in a location with interesting backdrop that will complement smoothly with the light trails and other elements in your composition. It should also make it easy for you to frame your shot so the traffic path will flow seamlessly through the image.

Selecting the right lens

A wide angle lens aids in keeping the light trails as well as the background sharp and vivid. An f/8 to f/16 aperture is needed so you can have a shutter speed of 15 to 60 seconds. High ISO setting is essential but don’t go beyond 800.

Avoiding camera shake

Use a remote release or use Mirror Lock-up. If you opt for the second one, combine this with the two-second self-timer delay. Bulb mode is ideal for longer exposure time (more than 30 seconds). Keep the shutter open through the remote release.

Shooting light trails at dusk

  • Set up before sunset so you can capture the ambient lighting from the background or from the light trails from passing vehicles. The soft sky light is also a perfect subject for your night photography.
  • Give the light trails and the background good exposure so you can produce a balanced image. It can happen when the light exposure for the lights trails is similar to the exposure of the background and/or the sky.
  • Use manual exposure setting for the light trails. Click before the optimum point and continue shooting until the light on the background fades away. When you use manual exposure, the light trails will get the right exposure all throughout the entire period you are shooting it.

Using slow shutter speeds

  • Don’t get too close to moving traffic. Aside from putting yourself in danger, it may distract the drivers and can cause them to swerve away from you. This will in turn produce camera shake and will create blurring to your images.
  • Too bright lights can be distracting so make sure that you don’t focus on them. This might even make the light trails look boring or uninteresting.
  • Get better control over white balance during processing by shooting raw format. Since you are dealing with different sources of light, various light intensities could also affect your shots.
  • Use an ND filter to minimize the amount of light passing through the sensor. This is important especially if you are using ISO100 of your lens’ smallest aperture or you want a shorter exposure time for your shot.
  • Manual setting is the best option if you are shooting in low light situations. Automatic focus might fail to lock on at your desired time. Focus on the spot in the picture as the light trails are passing through. This would create a sharper image.

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