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Techniques

Photography Tips for Taking Pictures of Light Trails

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Light trail photography is great fun. The trails show something we don’t like, traffic, in a much more interesting way. Light trails can even enhance a building image by adding an extra element, potentially making your image stand out from the crowd. Here are tips and techniques for taking light trail pictures.

Light trails in London near Westminster
Settings: F8 | 30 sec | ISO 100

Equipment

Here are a few suggestions for your equipment when taking light trail pictures:

  • Tripod: Set your camera up on a decent tripod so that there won’t be any handshake. Manfrotto as well as MeFoto offers great tripods which work well for these types of images.
  • Lens: 24-55mm is normally good for a wide shot. If you are quite far from the action you may need to zoom in accordingly. We often use the Canon EF 24-105mm so that we have a good range to work with.
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Settings

  • Camera Mode: Aperture Priority (AV Canon, A Nikon) – This is so you can control the Aperture (for depth of field). We always shoot in Aperture Priority and have always got well exposed light trail images (using a range of Canons cameras).
  • Shutter Speed: As your shooting in Aperture priority, the camera will set the shutter speed. It’ll likely be between 10-30 seconds. Go Manual if necessary for more control or to extend past 30 seconds.
  • Aperture: F4-F16. Note, a narrower aperture (F16+) will also create bigger star busts from street lights, whilst a wider aperture (F4 or wider) will reduce that or create no starburst. That’s something worth bearing in mind as large starbursts can sometimes be distracting but it’s a personal preference.
  • Focus: Manual Focus using LiveView if you have it. We often focus about two-thirds of the way into the image on a sign or road markings.
  • White Balance: Auto is normally fine. If you shoot raw you can change this later if it doesn’t look right.

Other Settings:

  • Set Mirror lockup, this reduces any vibration from the camera by moving the mirror up at the start of exposure.
  • Image stabilisation (IS Canon, VR Nikon) off (This is because when set to on, the camera will try and find movement that doesn’t exist.

Taking the Shot

  1. Compose your shot, think about where you want the light trail to start and end. Vanishing points are good as well as bends in the road. Also, keep an eye on the traffic. We don’t like it when I have quiet patches on the road where there isn’t much traffic.
  2. Press the shutter release, preferably on your remote or using a self-timer.

More Light Trail Examples

Here are more examples of light trail including the settings used:

Light trails on a road at night
Settings: F16 | 30 sec | ISO 100
Light trails in Venice at night caused by boats
Settings: F6.3 | 30 Secs | ISO 100
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Summary

Taking images with light trails can be quite addictive and when seeing the results that you capture from such images it’s no surprise why. By using lights on moving objects at night you can create a fantastic effect and when done well can really enhance your pictures.


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Mike Clegg

Editor-in-chief at travelanddestinations.com
Mike is a traveller, photographer, WordPress developer and the creator of TravelAndDestinations.com. He started this website so as to share his experiences and tips with travellers. He is from the UK and has travelled to many places around the world. He loves to shares his pictures and stories through Instagram and this website... [Read full bio]
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