Create Light Trails by Panning
There are various ways to create light trails of various kinds. In previous posts we have looked at creating light trails from passing traffic, how to create light trails when driving through tunnels and also using stars to create star trails. This time we are looking at a very different technique that doesn’t involve long exposures or using a tripod. You can create light trails by panning your camera. When you have light sources present in the frame and you move the camera during the exposure you will get light trails.
In order to get streaks of light across your image you need the shutter speed to be long enough to register movement. Also, if you are doing this at night you obviously need to set the camera so that you get enough light to give a good overall exposure. For the images on this page I used 1/4 second shutter speed with an aperture of f/4 and ISO 800. The shutter speed may need to vary according to how fast your subject is moving. If so, then you might need to adjust the other settings to keep a good exposure. However, the main thing is that your panning speed is adjusted to match that of the moving subject.
Focus on the front of the vehicle and keep your camera moving so that your focus point stays in the same place. You should move in a smooth arc following your subject. It gets more difficult to pan accurately with longer shutter speeds because the viewfinder goes dark for longer. So, you will need to practise quite a bit and also need a little luck along the way too! It is easier to do this with a wide angle lens where the focussing is not quite so critical as with a telephoto lens. You will get a greater depth of field with a wide angle, which also allows you to get good trails from your scene even with a wide aperture.
It is generally easier to pan with a subject that is going parallel to you and maintaining its speed. This particular location I used was on a bend, so you also have to anticipate them breaking and slowing down. It is important to support your camera well and to keep it level if you are after neat horizontal light trails. If you get any vertical movement then you will of course get more wobbly lines. Look for a location where there are useful light sources behind where your subject will pass. Ideally try to find somewhere with various coloured lights to make it even more interesting. Once you have chosen your location try not to think too much about the light trails and instead focus on getting a reasonably sharp subject. If you do that then the trails should take care of themselves.
This isn’t the easiest technique but it is quite fun. It is also something you can do if you don’t have a tripod and want to take some night photos. Panning shots can increase the sense of speed, making it look like the vehicle is travelling faster than it really is. Next time you are out with your camera at night, why not try to create light trails by panning? You can create your own Back to the Future style or warp speed images with a bit of persistence and practise!
© Joe Lenton, February 2017