Essential tips for getting started with light trails

Set up your light trail shoot for success with these handy tips.

Once you know what time of day is best for shooting, which circumstances will get you the best results, and how to maximise your existing photography setup, it becomes remarkably easy to get those classic, bright streaks travelling through your image. Here are a few things we recommend before setting out.

Know your equipment

Light trails are almost entirely about shutter speed, so your most important requirement is a setup that allows you to shoot in manual. After that, stability is the top priority since even the tiniest movement can cause camera shake in a long exposure. In most cases, that means you’ll need a tripod, ideally a rugged one that won’t be susceptible to wind even if you have to crank it up to view over bridge railings (more about locations below).

Although a good Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless is ideal for long exposures, your smartphone can get above average light trail shots with the help of a third party app, such as Camera+ 2 for iPhone or Camera FV-5 for Android, which allow for slow shutter speeds. You’ll want a tripod for your phone, just like you would have for your dedicated camera. Look for one that features octopus legs so you can use your surroundings to position flexibly.

Another factor in your light trail photography is your lens. For thin, precise trails shoot with a wide angle lens. For thicker, heftier ones shoot with a telephoto lens. This is a purely artistic choice; you can get quality results with either type.

Scout the right location

To get light trails you will need to either create light-based motion or find a place that already has it. That sounds more limiting than it actually is. There are many different types of light trails you can try if you know where to look for them:

Cities and streets

City streets are a favourite because there’s guaranteed motion at almost all times. It’s the perfect setup for getting started because you can just shoot, make adjustments, and reshoot continuously without waiting for the right moment. A higher vantage point gives your viewers a better idea of what is happening, so look for roof access points, walkover tunnels, bridges, and hills. It’s also good to have a little distance from your subject matter so the vibration of cars or trains whipping past doesn’t interfere with the stability of your tripod.

The con of a city location is the same as its pro: there’s a lot of traffic. If you’re down in the action, pedestrians might bump into your equipment and jostle it around. Visually, even if you have a great vantage point, heavy traffic can get messy. Cars are turning and indictors are blinking, muddying up the direction in your composition. Once you feel confident getting the ‘guaranteed’ shot, it might be time to find an interesting road with fewer drivers.

Carnivals, fairs and amusement parks

There’s a lot of eye candy at these locations for a light trail photographer; you can get unique patterns from different rides. There’s also a glow of ambient light from the surroundings. The downside is that these locations are often packed with people who aren’t on the lookout for a tripod. You’ll usually have the most success at a location outside the carnival, unless you can find an isolated pocket between attractions.

Airports

Because security is such a high priority at airports, the first guideline here is to be sure you know where you are and are not allowed to shoot—we cannot stress this enough. The rules will be different at each airport you visit and some require you to have a filming and photography permit, so it’s important to check the website beforehand. If you can find a decent vantage point where you are allowed to shoot, however, light trails from a plane have a unique look. When planes take off and land, there is a continuous light at the front of the plane, which is relatively easy to catch by listening for the uptick in engine power that happens right before takeoff, or just by gauging the progress of a landing plane.

Waterways

If you live near a busy canal, river or harbour you can get some excellent trails that come with a bonus: reflections. Water traffic generally moves more slowly than cars, so you will need to keep that in mind as you choose your shutter speed. Waterways also tend to be darker, so look for a nicely lit bridge to piggyback off of if you need ambient light.

DIY

The beauty of creating your own light trails is that you can do it just about anywhere, and very affordably. If you want to get a shot of a neat, winding mountain road at night, enlist a friend or assistant to drive your car around while you shoot. Try your hand at light writing with sparklers, a bright flashlight, or even glow sticks. This is a great way to get creative with a new technique and you can easily practice in your own home if you don’t want an audience the first few times.

We recommend you start off on a well-travelled road and practice with car lights, then work your way up to more advanced, DIY light trails.

Understand how to get the shot

Now you know where to set up, you need to know how to get the light trail effect. It’s a surprisingly simple technique. The biggest challenges are finding the right location and managing your shutter speed, but they aren’t the only factors in balancing a light trail exposure. You’ll need to consider four main elements as you shoot:

1. Light balancing

Though shutter speed is your top priority, don’t neglect the other corners of the exposure triangle. Your ISO should be as low as you can manage in order to keep digital noise at bay. Your aperture will affect the depth of field, so keep your f-stop at f/8 or narrower for the widest visibility, or open it to f/5 or wider if you want to focus on only a small section. Your shutter speed for a good light trail will usually be between 10 and 30 seconds, give or take. Keep an eye on the colouring in your preview and try a faster shutter speed if you’re seeing only hot, white streaks.

2. Focusing

Your autofocus will almost definitely struggle to keep up with moving objects, so use manual to get the right point of focus. If you just can’t let go of autofocus, try switching your camera to back button focusing temporarily to help it lock onto the right spot.

3. Metering

Spot meter for your highlights, since the light trails are the star of your image. You may end up with faded, wispy light trails if you meter for the darker surroundings.

4. Timing

For ambient light that may come across as daytime after a long exposure, find the blue hour for your date and location. A little bit of glow in the sky is helpful for fleshing out a scene, but too much will make it harder to balance your lighting. Likewise, a completely dark scene can be difficult to meter for. As you work toward mastery, go for an evening scene with a good balance of shadows and light movement, then branch out as you build confidence.

Edit for colour and clarity

You’ll usually see things on your computer screen that weren’t apparent on your camera’s preview screen, so shooting in RAW is helpful, as always, and a good post-processing workflow will help you take your images up a notch.

If you shot your image in RAW it will automatically open in Affinity Photo’s Develop persona. In the Basics panel, you’ll find a range of sliders to increase or decrease the Exposure, Blackpoint and Brightness of your image as well as to make enhancements to Contrast, Clarity, Saturation and Vibrance.

For washed-out light trails try decreasing the Highlights or increasing the Blackpoint to get a bit of contrast back. You could also try upping Saturation and Vibrance to the increase colour intensity and make your light trails pop. If this appears a little too garish you can use White Balance to experiment with the overall temperature and tint of your image.

For surroundings that have gotten too muddy and dark, try increasing your Shadows or Brightness, then slightly lowering your Blackpoint to maintain detail and contrast. You could also try experimenting with Clarity to enhance your mid-tones and the contrast between different areas in your image.

If you know that you’re about to shoot a challenging scene, composite different elements together in post-processing, or bracket your exposures and combine them using Affinity Photo’s HDR Merge. This is helpful for low traffic scenes where you want to get a shot of vehicles travelling both ways. It’s also useful for getting detail in the sky when street traffic is especially bright. Rather than trying to select around your light trails, experiment with Blend Modes to see if you can superimpose them naturally over a scene that is exposed for the surroundings rather than the highlights.


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