In my previous post, I talked about the basic techniques for photographing one of the characteristic features of a city: the atmosphere created in the evening when artificial light sources boldly take over as the main player in the scenes we find before us.
However, there is a really enjoyable and creative aspect to this that will enable you to use this combination of elements to obtain extremely striking images.
These are the “light trails” and capturing them involves the use of a photography technique that anyone can manage, once you have a clear idea of how it is done.
WHAT ARE LIGHT TRAILS?
This is the self-explanatory photographic term for a particular technique.
Basically, it involves taking photos at night of moving subjects, using slow (or long) shutter speeds. The important thing is that the subject you photograph has its own light source; this could be cars but it could equally be a funfair with rides and so on…
Using a slow (or long) shutter speed, combined with the movement of your subjects, you get an image in which you can see very evocative and colourful light trails, as you can see in the photographs I have included in this post.
You don’t need to be a great expert in photography to achieve this light trail technique, nor do you need any professional photography equipment.
Of course, experience and practice give you the opportunity to further improve the images you produce but, to start with, what you need above all else is a camera that allows you to use slow shutter speeds.
This means you need a camera that offers the most common manual settings: shutter priority (T, Tv or S), aperture priority (Av, A) and manual (M).
To find out whether your camera has these functions, you have to read the instructions manual; if there is no section on these settings, then your camera won’t let you adjust the shutter speed and therefore it will be difficult for you to achieve certain results, such as those you see in the photos in this post.
If you own a REFLEX camera, I can assure you that it does have these settings.
The second tool you definitely need is a good tripod.
Manfrotto offers a range of very good solutions to this problem.
If you think you can take this sort of photo free-hand or using any old tripod bought cheaply, you will never achieve really good results.
I recommend the following models:
- Manfrotto 190 series, if you own a basic reflex camera;
- Manfrotto 055 series if you own a professional reflex camera;
- Manfrotto BeFree if you own a Mirrorless or lightweight reflex camera.
THE BASICS FOR CREATING LIGHT TRAILS
The first thing you have to do is to find the ideal scenario for capturing car light trails.
A good starting point could be to stand on a road or flyover that passes over an arterial road with heavy traffic.
Of course, you must take care that you can be seen easily by using a high-visibility vest (which you usually find as part of car emergency kits).
After this, you will be able to identify elevated viewpoints over a road or busy intersection; if you live in the mountains you could use the hairpin turns, with the cars that leave suggestive light trails as they climb the steep slopes. If you live in a big city, you could take advantage of a viewpoint from a skyscraper or apartment block.
The second thing you do, which I will explain further below, is to adjust your camera settings so that you can control the shutter speed, i.e. use the manual mode setting (M).
If you want to have a bit of fun, before exploring any technical parameters, have a go on your own. Try taking a few pictures using slow (or long) shutter speeds to see what results you get. It is a very good way to understand fully what we are talking about and how it works; and, anyhow, it doesn’t cost you anything to take a few extra shots with a digital camera.
It isn’t hard to produce light trails. If you’ve tried it out, you’ll have already realised this. The most complicated part is creating something interesting but, for now that you are just getting started, I will give you a few suggestions for the correct working approach to use:
1. Don’t wait until total darkness
You might think that you need to wait for pitch darkness to create light trails, but I recommend that you start taking pictures and testing out this technique right from the moment the sun goes behind the horizon.
Light trails may be beautiful, but they are even better when accompanied by an interesting atmosphere in the sky.
2. Identify your location
I have already mentioned this earlier, but we can also add to the list of interesting places for this type of photography: roundabouts, streets lined with brightly-lit buildings, traffic islands (on which you will have to stand to take your pictures).
3. Think about your composition
The rules of composition don’t change; they remain the same ones discussed in many other articles and posts. A good place to start is to apply the most practical, immediate and simple rule of thirds.
4. Camera settings
It would be great if I could give you a precise, unique setting that works for all photos using this technique, but there isn’t one.
The combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO value is too variable based on the context in which you are taking your photographs. In addition, there is the added variable of the speed of the vehicles. That said, I can give you some settings to start with:
- Set your camera to Manual (M);
- Set the lowest possible ISO value (100 or 200 iso);
- Set a shutter speed of 10 seconds;
- Set your aperture at f/8.
5. Take your picture
All that remains is for you to start taking a few test shots to see if the camera settings are right or need a little adjustment.
Are the photos too dark?
If the photos are too dark, you can resolve the problem by increasing the ISO value (from 100 iso to 200, for example) or by increasing the aperture (from f/8 to f/5.6, for example) or by further slowing the shutter speed (as far as 15 or 20 seconds). You can also adjust all three settings together.
Are the photos are too light?
If the photos are too light, the only setting you can work on is the aperture. In this case, you can further reduce the aperture (from f/8 to f/11 or more). If you like, you can also increase the shutter speed a little, taking it to 5 seconds, for example; but this will compromise your results in terms of light trails.
WHAT WILL MY NEXT POST BE ABOUT?
To conclude this series of posts devoted to night-time photography, I couldn’t fail to include a piece on nocturnal landscapes!
So keep an eye on my blog and make sure your camera batteries are fully charged!
Freelance photographer, photography teacher, author and blogger.