Light Trails – Night Photography in the city
In a previous post we looked at creating patterns of light in night images using star trails photography. This time, we will think about using the lights from cars and other vehicles to create light trails in night photos. This tends to work best in towns or cities as you can rely on there being some traffic. The street lights often also add an extra layer of interest. This is not to say it is impossible in the countryside (see some of the examples on Getty Images and elsewhere). You just need something to create your light trails from. If there are no vehicles at all around, then you might like to try light painting instead.
You will need a camera that allows you to control the shutter speed (length of exposure), such as a DSLR. It is helpful to have a cable release & or remote shutter release if possible so that you can avoid wobbling the camera when taking photos. Alternatively, you can use the self-timer to give the camera a chance to stabilise. A polariser or neutral density filter of about 2 stops can also come in handy. Polarisers can remove unwanted reflections from windows, for example. You can also enable a slightly longer shutter speed if it isn’t that dark where you are.
Make sure that you have a tripod or other support that you can use to keep your camera completely still. For long exposures it is not possible to hold the camera or you will get blurry images. The slightest movement will ruin your pictures, so if possible do invest in a good tripod. If you have a spare battery then do take that with you too as long exposures can use up power quite quickly.
Try not to rely on the light trails to do all the work for you. Look for an interesting composition. Ideally, you want to find something that would look good without the light trails in it. Then, they are enhancing an already strong composition. Admittedly, though, sometimes the light trails can be enough to transform an otherwise relatively uninteresting scene. I doubt the image on the right would have worked well without the light trails!
You should keep your ISO settings as low as possible to give you good image quality. The Aperture should be set according to the usual principles. So, consider how much depth of field you want and set it accordingly. I would normally have my aperture set around f/8-f/16. Ideally you will want a shutter speed of around 30 seconds. If you can’t get that slow with your settings, you can go for a smaller aperture if you wish. The downside with this is that you can lose sharpness due to diffraction at extremely small apertures. An alternative is to add a polariser or ND filter to enable you to keep the shutter open longer. If your exposure is less than 30 seconds you may find that you start seeing the vehicles rather than just the light trails.
Bicycles and emergency vehicles will often give you dotted lines due to their flashing lights. Headlights and rear lights will give you constant trails. You may just need to watch your exposure of headlights as they can burn out areas of your image. Sometimes, the trails from one vehicle will be enough. Otherwise, take several exposures with the same settings as different vehicles pass. Then, you can combine the images (e.g. in Photoshop Elements) as layers. You may find that they blend better if you use the “lighten” mode for your layers. Sometimes you will still need to mask out bits of layers to ensure a clean final image. The image above right (portrait format with the blue sky), for example, is a composite of several images to give a really busy feeling with lots of lights.
If possible, start shooting soon after sunset. This can enable you to get some colour in the sky instead of it being plain black. Look out for the so-called “blue hour” when there is some dark blue in the sky. This will often help keep an extra level of interest in your images. If you would like street lights to have a star-effect then you need to keep them relatively small in your image and use an aperture of f/8 or smaller. Don’t worry too much about people – as long as your exposure is at least 30 seconds and they keep moving you won’t even see them.
Taller vehicles like buses, lorries and ambulances can leave light trails higher off the ground as well as at the usual sort of height. You can enhance the effect further by choosing a dramatic angle for your composition. Wide angles tend to work well to enable you to play with a sense of perspective. The image below was taken using an ultra-wide angle lens from a very low angle.
Light trails tips checklist:
Use a tripod to keep your camera still & a cable release or remote shutter release or self-timer
Aim for something around ISO 100, aperture f/8 and a shutter speed of about 30 seconds – adjust according to the available light, etc
Compose carefully – find something that looks good before adding the light trails – try to pre-visualise your final image
Keep a careful eye on traffic – stay safe! – look for times when the traffic will be moving fluidly and not static
Shoot multiple images of the same composition at the same settings so you can blend later if you want to
Shoot RAW if you can to enable you to have more control in post-production
Focus as you would for a landscape photo – use live-view at a high ISO if you are struggling – see further tips on how to focus in the dark
Sometimes it helps to just look around when people are nearby as they then don’t assume they will be in the way. The last thing you want them to do is stop!
Have fun playing around with light trails – you can create some fun and unusual images.
© Joe Lenton, February 2015