Light trails photography is a fun way of producing artistic, abstract and unusual images. There are various ways you can create light trails such as light painting or photographing light trails at night from traffic. Normally, for those methods you tend to have some static element and the light trails suggest movement. This time, I want to explore an idea that has much more movement – light trails photography in tunnels. This can be done on the move and I found it helped to alleviate the boredom for me on a long journey! You will need a camera with controls to operate the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. You will also need to be in a moving vehicle. IMPORTANT – DON’T TRY THIS WHILST DRIVING!! For reasons of safety it is only safe to try this when you are a passenger in a moving vehicle. It is also important that you turn off any flash functions as in these types of conditions flash photography can be extremely dangerous, if not illegal.
Whereas in cityscapes at night the movement of vehicles passing you provides the light patterns, this uses the movement of your own vehicle to create trails. Why tunnels? There are normally more lights at different levels in tunnels. There is also a natural perspective drawing your eye towards the end of the tunnel that can help with composition. Tunnels are often quite well lit so light trails photography in tunnels is often easier than on the open road.
Light trails photography in tunnels – how to set up your equipment
You will need a long shutter speed so that the lights aren’t frozen. We are aiming to create stripes by the lights merging into one another using motion blur. You can create quite wild movement and patterns with longer shutter speeds and if you don’t keep the camera still. To get smoother lines you need to stabilise your camera. You could go for some fancy gyroscope balanced tripod setup if you really want to and have plenty of money to play with. But, if you’re just doing this for fun then there are much cheaper and more sensible options. Firstly, you can hold your camera on the top of the dashboard (obviously not obstructing the driver in any way). This can reduce the shake compared to hand-holding the camera. Or, you could use VR or IS (Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilisation) or whatever your manufacturer calls it. Some lenses include a more advance VR that stabilises the shaking movement of vehicles as well as general movement. You could try using this function if you have it and want to get a sharper focal point in your image.
The time you need your shutter open for will vary depending on the speed at which you are travelling. The frequency of the lights will also play a part. If you are going slowly and there aren’t a lot of lights then you will need a longer shutter speed in order to get good light trails. However, if you’re travelling fast and there are quite a lot of lights then a relatively short exposure will be enough. The images on this page vary from 1/6 second to 1.6 seconds. The one following the car with the bikes on it was taken on the Shuttle train as we left it after crossing the Channel. It needed the longest exposure as we were travelling very slowly. I didn’t use VR for any of these images, but I’m happy with the artistic effect of the blur that has been created. The aperture varied from f/5.6 – 6.3 for the two top images. The car image was at f/18. You need to set the aperture to give you the exposure time that you need to get the right effect. There is no one size fits all setting. You must adjust according to the available light and your speed. Similarly, keep the ISO as low as you can. But, if you need it to avoid a very long exposure, push the ISO up. Artificial lights can give very strange white balances. So, shoot in RAW format so that you can adjust the white balance later if you want to.
In terms of composition, try thinking about leading lines and vanishing points. You may wish to go for just streaks of light and make the image a completely abstract one. Or, you can keep some elements recognisable and play with the feeling of movement. Light trails photography in tunnels is one of those occasions when having your subject placed centrally in the frame can work well. Try a few different angles if you can. Of course, you have to work quickly before you run out of tunnel!
Light trails photography in tunnels is obviously quite a niche technique – not something you can try everywhere at any time! It can be fun and produce some creative results. It can also help make journeys less boring. Just be very careful not to interfere with your driver’s concentration or that of other drivers of other vehicles. Remember – don’t use flash as you could cause an accident.
© Joe Lenton, September, 2015