Shooting light and traffic trails can be one of the most rewarding types of shots in photography. For the beginner, it is a technique that is easy to practice and become good at quite quickly. For the more experienced photographers, experimenting with new and more challenging compositions can yield some exceptional results. Mostly though, shooting light trails are just a lot of fun and can provide an immediate sense of photographic satisfaction. The technique itself is quite simple, so let’s dive in and have a look a just how these types of photos are taken.
When shooting traffic and light trails, the basic premise is that you will be leaving your camera’s shutter open long enough for a light source (such as a car headlight/taillight) to travel through your frame as it moves. As a result, you will need to ensure that your digital camera allows you to shoot in either manual, shutter-priority, or bulb mode. Additionally, since you will be shooting at long (slow) shutter speeds, a tripod is an absolute must! There may be cases where you can rest your camera down on something stationary, but a tripod will afford you the most flexibility in arranging your composition the way you see fit. Lastly, if you enjoy doing this type of photography, then I would recommend investing in a shutter release cable. This will allow you to open the camera’s shutter via the cable, as opposed to pressing the shutter button on your camera (which may cause your camera to shake slightly). It becomes especially convenient when you wish to shoot very long exposures over several minutes, as most shutter release cables have a locking mechanism so that you don’t actually need to hold the shutter button down for that length of time.
Shutter Speed: In photography, when motion is the key ingredient of your composition, your main concern will be how long (or short) your camera’s shutter remains open for. In the case of light/traffic trails, you will want to be using a long exposure. There is no exact shutter speed to use; the shutter speed will largely depend on the amount of ambient lighting in your scene, as well as how fast the traffic/light is moving. Most of the time you will want to make sure the shutter speed is slow enough to allow your light source to pass completely through your frame, as opposed to having your shutter close half way though. If you shutter remains open for the duration of the light traveling through your frame, you will wind up with a smooth, full streak of beautiful light through your shot. If your camera allows, you can shoot in shutter-priority mode, which allows you to pick the duration of the shutter speed while your camera chooses the best possible aperture setting. You can usually limit your camera’s ISO setting, which we’ll cover shortly.
Again, shutter speed will depend on the type of scene and the amount of ambient lighting, but you should find that you have excellent results by using a shutter speed ranging anywhere from 6 seconds up to 30 seconds. Experimentation is the key, and all part of the fun in learning this type of photography.
Aperture: When shooting in shutter-priority mode, your digital camera will select the best possible aperture setting in order to capture sufficient light to produce a nice looking photo. Sometimes though, there are exceptions and cases where you may wish for your shot to be a bit brighter, darker, or to purposely choose a specific aperture. In these cases, it will be best to shoot in Manual mode where you will have control over the aperture also.
When shooting in manual mode, set your shutter speed to your desired speed depending on how many traffic trails you wish to capture. If you use a long shutter speed, then presumably more traffic will be captured, hence more light trails. Conversely, if you use a short shutter speed then less traffic will have time to pass through your frame, therefore less light trails will be captured. Once you have your desired shutter speed, then you can adjust your aperture setting to determine how bright/dark your photo will expose. If you find that your shot is too dark, then you will want to use a wider aperture (smaller f-stop number). If your shot is too bright, then you can limit the amount of light that gets captured by using a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number). Generally, you will find that an aperture range from f8 to f16 works great for traffic/light trails. Again, every scene will be different – the key is experimenting with different settings to produce a variety of results.
If you have some cool stationary lights present in your shot, another fun thing to do is to shoot with the smallest aperture you have available to you. When light sources are captured by a lens using a small aperture (high f-stop number), they produce a starburst effect, as seen here. In this shot, I cranked the aperture to f22.
ISO: Most of your traffic trail shots will be taken during dusk or night time, so you will want to use a low ISO to minimize the amount of noise your digital cameras may pick up. I recommend (and personally shoot at) ISO 100 for these types of shots. If you are shooting in Manual mode, you can set the ISO to 100. If you are using shutter-priority mode, you will want to consult your owner’s manual to determine how you can limit the ISO setting in shutter-priority mode. For most digital camera’s, you will find this setting through either the “function” or “menu” buttons.
A Word on Focus Mode
Since you will typically be shooting traffic trails in low light, you may wish to switch your camera’s focus mode to manual focus. The autofocus systems on most digital cameras tend not to function accurately in low light environments, and the last thing you want is for your autofocus to wreak havoc just as you press your shutter button to take your photo.
Traffic and light trail photography is all about capturing a sense of motion in your photo. Scope out an area with the potential for moving lights/traffic, find an interesting vantage point to shoot from, and experiment with as many combinations of settings and angles. Practice as much as possible, and in no time you’ll be having a blast capturing gorgeous streaks of lights, creating visual masterpieces.