Capturing light trails is a form of photography that fascinates almost every photographer at some point of time.
When done rightly, the streaks of lights produced by the headlights and taillights of vehicles in motion can really give a very desirable illusion of motion.
I’m writing this article for beginners who want to capture effective and smart light trails as opposed to the clumsy looking ones.
Here is a step-by-step procedure on how I captured the trails that you can see in the shot above:
- DSLR camera
- Shutter release (optional)
- The first step is to find an angle at which you can relatively straight streaks. This is shot is taken from a flyover on the Pune Bangalore highway. But instead of standing on the point that is directly above the road below, I took this shot from by moving towards the right hand side so as to get an angle.
The reason for this is if you shoot directly from above, the chances of getting absolutely straight streaks reduce because unless there are very strict lane rules in place, vehicles tend to not move in a straight line.
Here’s how the shot looked like when I took it from a point directly above the road.
You can see that the lines aren’t straight and it makes the shot look really clumsy. I’ve noticed that most beginners do not pay attention to this aspect when it’s really the most important thing in light trail photography.
Another thing is to find a place where there is a curve at the end of the road. This instantly makes the shot look better as it gives the illusion of the light trails moving towards some infinite realm.
- So once I had my angles in place, it was time to take the shot. The first thing you need to do is to mount your camera on the tripod and then lock it once you adjusted the composition.
- Then make sure that in your menu settings, you have chosen to shoot the RAW + JPEG option. As we’ll see later on, shooting in RAW format can really save you if something goes wrong.
- Next, it was time to focus. Since it was almost night time, I was struggling make the auto focus work. When it’s dark, sometimes the autofocus won’t work.
If you’re finding this to be the case, then one thing you can do is to try and focus when some car goes by. The auto focus can work if the area was well lit for that moment by the car’s lights.
If nothing is working, then you have to focus manually.
Shift from auto to manual focus and then rotate the focus ring to set the focus on the part where the vehicles are going by.
While you are focusing, you can use the magnify button to zoom in and see if the focus is correct or not.
Sometimes the only way to know whether the focus was correct or not is to take the shot and then zoom in to see how sharp the light trails are. So let’s see how to take this shot.
- First of all, set the ISO to 100.This is very important because we want the streaks to be as sharp as possible. Any noticeable noise in the streaks will make the picture look clumsy. So two things are important – the focus and the ISO.We may have to increase the ISO depending on the situation as we’ll see but only by a little amount.
- Next, set the aperture to something between f/8 to f/16 since you want most of the scene in focus.
- Now it’s time to set the shutter speed. There is no correct or incorrect shutter speed. It all depends on the scene that you are shooting since the speed of the vehicles will vary.
What is important is that you should get continuous streaks and not broken ones.
- So start with a higher shutter speed like 5 seconds and then move in increments. When you take the shot, it’s advisable to use a shutter release since you are operating at low shutter speeds and pressing the button can cause a minor shake that can result in a loss of sharpness. However, for this shot, I actually did not use a shutter release.Below is a shot I took at 10 seconds. You can see that the light trail is broken.
Now this may also have happened because not enough cars were moving at that point of time. So the thing to remember is to keep trying with different shutter speeds. The results will vary and sometimes you’ll just need to be a little lucky to get full streaks.
I finally managed to get the continuous streaks at 20 seconds and this is how the shot looked like:
Now you can see that there is one problem in this shot. And that is that at the bend, the mingling of the vehicles’ lights really overexposed that area.
So the thing to remember is that as you keep increasing the shutter speed, since you’re letting in more light, the shot will keep getting brighter.
So you have to find the right balance between the length of the streaks and the brightness of the shot.
If you find that at a certain shutter speed, you’re getting continuous streaks but shot is overexposed, then increase the aperture a bit to get it back to normal.
At the time I took this shot, I was still learning and I did not do this. This shot is at f/11 and ISO 200. I could have increased the aperture and reduced the ISO and that bend would not have remained so bright because doing so would reduce the amount of light entering the camera.
However, since I was shooting in RAW, I was able to edit the image very easily in Lightroom.
This is the advantage of shooting in RAW. It helps you get away with certain mistakes. If it was just a JPEG image then reducing the brightness in that bend would have come at the cost of quality.
But in RAW, the camera captures more details and hence it’s easier to edit.
- Once I had the edited image with the reduced brightness, I did two things to enhance the effect of the trails.
First, I removed anything that was causing distraction. So I removed the stationary vehicle on the left hand side in Photoshop.
Secondly, except for the streaks, I made the rest of the image black and white. This makes the eye of the viewer focus more on the streaks, making them stand out from the rest of the details. Here’s how the final shot looked like:
Remember when you shoot light trails, it’s really essential that the shot looks smart. Even if you have to do lots of editing, it’s worth it.
If you find any streak going astray, edit it without any hesitation. Streaks that are not straight fail to produce an impression of sheer speed.
Light trails can be a tricky affair as some things are out of your control. But if you keep the following three things in mind, then it can help you immensely:
- Streaks should be very sharp so keep the ISO low and make sure focus is spot on.
- Streaks should be straight
- There should be no distractions in the shot due to anything that is stationary.
About the Author
Hi there, I'm Kush Sharma, the founder of Creative Pad Media, an organization dedicated to simplifying photography and videography education.
We have over 40 online courses that cover various genres in photography & videography, catering to both beginners as well as professionals. These courses are available via Udemy.com. Our courses have been downloaded in over 170 countries.
I hope to see you inside a course very soon!