Photographing car light trails

Light painting can be a lot of fun, and one my favourite types of this genre are car light trails. Here I’m going to look at this long exposure technique, and how it can add real energy to your scene. This of course is often used as part of a cityscape scene, and careful consideration needs to be made to avoid the frame becoming too busy. There are 2 main types of light trail photos, and these are street level or overhead.

Overhead car light trails.
Shanghai junction

This photo of Shanghai is a popular location. The intersection makes a portion of the city appear like it’s an island within all that traffic. In this case a high vantage point was used to get this photo.

Getting over the top of a road so you can shoot the car light trails below you is a great way of making a dynamic cityscape photo, the trick of course is finding a location that works for this. One of the easier places to do this are bridges, or foot bridges over a busy main road. Photos taken from a bridge will of course be fairly low to the ground, so ensure your shot is nice and clean with not too many distracting elements coming into the frame. The road itself should provide a great leading line, and perhaps leads the eye to some tall buildings in the background. If you want to go higher there are often sky lounges in some of the world tallest buildings, or you could try your hand at roof-topping. Once you have your high vantage point if you’re shooting car light trails then you’ll need to have a junction, bridge, or busy road below you in the shot. In most cases shooting from the top of a building should make composition easier, but if you have buildings coming into the frame that dominate the picture in a bad way then you might need to find a different building to shoot from.

Street level light trails.
Dynamic Shanghai

In this photo lights from passing buses add to the dynamic feel of the shot, as everything leads towards the oriental TV tower in Shanghai.

In this case you’ll be stood by the side of the road, or perhaps on a traffic island if you’re brave. The car lights will be to the side of you, though care needs to be taken with the cars coming towards you with their headlights on, as this white light can blow out the frame. If you’re lucky you may also be able to get some “high” light trails, these are the lights from a bus coming into the frame. If you want the lights to appear higher in the frame try shooting with the tripod lower down by pulling in the tripod legs, and changing the angle the photo is taken from. The aim with these kind of shots is to use the light trails to lead into the main subject of your shot, which is most likely a building, but could be people.

Shooting the light trails.
Dongdaemun in Seoul

Who can resist contrasting old with new, this is the Dongdaemun gate in Seoul. This photo uses digital blending to control the exposure level of the sky vs the city. The traffic light trails are a result of several exposures to create a more dynamic image.

Now shooting the light trails is broadly the same technique, whether you’re at street level or higher. The main aim is to make sure the light trail covers the entire scene your shooting, in most cases light trails that finish mid-frame don’t look good. To make this kind of shot you’ll need a tripod, a camera that let’s you set the shutter speed, and possibly an external shutter release cable.

  1. Research the location you wish to shoot by visiting it prior to the shoot, and using google maps.
  2. Ensure you arrive around 30 minutes before blue hour.
  3. Compose your shot, thinking about how the lines of traffic will come into the frame, and how they will lead the eye to your main subject.
  4. Make sure your camera is steady. If you have a clamp this could be used to attach the camera to a fence. If using a tripod attach a heavy weight to the hook underneath the tripod, and avoid putting the middle extension tube up especially if it’s windy.
  5. Turn your camera onto live view, and your lens onto manual focus. Now zoom into a point in the middle distance, and use manual focus on your lens to achieve sharp focus. Using the camera’s auto focus is another option, but live view combined with manual focus produces better results.
  6. The scene should be exposed by bracketing at +1, 0 and -1 EV. You may wish to take several bracketed sets of shots as the light approaches blue hour. The aim here is to use digital blending to merge images together to produce the best exposure. The website www.shutterevolve.com offers some great guides on how to do this.
  7. Once the scene has been exposed, you now need to expose for the light trails. If the light is still bright you have several options. You could use an ND filter to reduce light coming into the camera, allowing for longer exposure times. You could use a smaller aperture again reducing light coming into the camera, or finally just wait until the light levels drop.
  8. Now expose your shot, this is likely to be a 15 seconds or longer exposure. Make sure you time it for when the traffic will be driving down the road. If you’re looking for bus light trails wait until a bus comes!
  9. Take several light trail photos to show light trails from the various roads on the junction if that’s what you’re shooting. In addition having multiple light trails on the same stretch of road allows you to intensify the trails by merging them together in post processing. The merging process will involve layering in the light trails using luminosity masks.
Penang street art.

In this photo the light trails are an accent, but work well to highlight the street art in Penang. In conjunction with the motorbike the light trails add story to the photo.

Note you could also shoot boat light trails along a river using the same principal, though take into account that where a car might move through your frame in 15 seconds a boat could take several minutes.

If you enjoy taking light trail photos I hope you’ll like my forthcoming tutorial on light painting.You can also try out some of my videos for free, and join the creative photography community by signing up below!

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