The static camera and the moving light.

Photographing light trails can be one of the easiest and most fun methods for the beginner to get the camera out of automatic mode and to start experimenting with the more manual settings.

At it’s most basic the camera just has to be set up on a tripod at the nearest traffic junction after dusk, the camera set to S-mode – shutter priority – a time set from between 5-30 seconds and then for the shutter to be pressed, and although the result may not be quite what you were expecting and will need some refining, it’s well to remember that photographing light trails isn’t so much a science as an art.

Light trails done well can look spectacular, so you need to plan the shot if you want it to look right.

Quality

Taking shots of artificial lights can be rather tricky, and so it’s best not to wait until the background ambient light has all but disappeared, because it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the two different types present in the shot, because the camera can usually only be set so that either the background or the artificial lighting is properly exposed, but rarely both.

The picture will look far better if there’s a good balance between the two, so don’t start too late when it has already become too dark.

You want big light trails, so get up close, take the shot from below to exaggerate the size of the subject, if possible use a wide angle to emphasise the effect still further.

Think about where the light will move through the frame and how that will affect the overall final composition.

What?

Many situations lend themselves to become the subject for light trail photography, tail-lights are perfect due to the abundance of roads and traffic in almost all towns and cities, but motorways also make interesting subjects as the light trail meanders through the landscape almost like a river of light.

On a rather different scale, stars and the night sky can also be suitable subjects, although more complicated techniques of capture are usually required.

But fairground attractions such as an illuminated roller-coaster or roundabout can be perfect, as can a friend dancing elegantly through the local recreational park holding battery operated bicycle lamps, there are plenty of opportunities for light-trail photography if you are prepared to look for them.

Exposure

Check every exposure after it’s been taken, if it looks under-exposed either

  • lengthen the exposure time, or
  • open the aperture a stop or two, but be aware that altering the aperture also affects the depth of field, if it’s too wide parts of the image will be out of focus, or
  • set a higher ISO.

but if it looks over-exposed do the opposite, set either:

  • a shorter exposure time, or
  • a smaller aperture, or
  • use a lower ISO.

If you are unsure of using the camera in fully manual mode, set the camera to S-mode – shutter priority – and experiment around with different timings, from 5-30 seconds.

ICM

In essence this is the opposite of ICM – Intensional Camera Movement, whereby the light remains static but the camera is moved.

Some examples illustrating the technique

Tips for when on location

  • Don’t wait until it’s too dark.
  • Set the camera up on a tripod
  • Check every image and if necessary adjust the exposure settings for the following shot.

© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2017