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How to Create Dynamic Photos of Car Light Trails

Nothing says futuristic, dynamic, and dramatic like a well-done traffic light trail photo. This is a genre of photography that almost all landscape photographers will have dipped into, it’s like a right of passage. The kind of images you can create make others want to go out and buy their first tripod.

Indeed getting a good photo of light trails will justify carrying around that heavy tripod perhaps all day long. There are lots of things to consider when taking this type of photo, and in this article, you’ll learn straight away what it takes.

Choosing the Right Location

The most important thing to creating light trail photos is to go to a place where there will be lots of moving lights! This should be obvious, but some places are better than others. In all cases, the light trails will be part of the frame and either the main subject or the leading lines that direct the viewer to your main subject. In most cases your location is going to be urban, so let’s look at the options.

1 – Down on the street

A busy main road can be a good place to take light trail photos. The chances are you’ll be photographing a famous landmark from your locale, and using light trails will give the photo a more dynamic feel.

  • Position yourself so the light trails either lead up to your landmark or disappear off into the distance beside it.
  • When a safe traffic island is available, experiment with photographing from the middle of the street. This will give you both white headlights, and red rear lights.
  • It’s easier to control the intensity of the light from rear lights. So it’s often best to position yourself to photograph light trails as the traffic is moving away from the camera.
  • Photograph during blue hour as much as possible, this should be the case for all cityscape photos.
  • The best light trails are produced when buses drive past. They have lights that will fill your frame, as these vehicles are taller and lit up more.
  • The height at which you have your tripod set can dramatically affect your results when photographing at street level. The lower the tripod, the “higher” the lights will appear in your frame.
  • If you don’t want the lights to paint across the entire photo, experiment with an external shutter release, and the bulb function on your camera. Bulb allows you to open and close the shutter when you choose, so you can close it and end the exposure before the moving vehicle completely moves through your photo.

2 – Get up high, and photograph from above

Taking photos from a high vantage point is often a sure fire way of getting good results. This is especially true when it comes to taking light trail photos. There are two choices when it comes to this, you can go to the public area, or try for the trickier private access.

  • Public area – The easiest and safest option, though this likely means 1000’s of other people will also visit the same spot. This will commonly be a pedestrian footbridge over a road, a viewpoint from a mountain, or perhaps a viewing gallery in a tall building.
  • Private property – The best policy here is to ask permission. The other approach is riskier, more clandestine, and more in keeping with a genre of photography called urbex. At this time access to private rooftops is becoming increasingly difficult, in no small part because some people enjoy filming daredevil stunts from such locations. So do your research on a location you would like to photograph, and be respectful if you are lucky enough to get access. In some cities, rooftop bars can offer great views, but if you wish to bring a tripod in then emailing the business ahead of time is advised.

3 – Embrace the great outdoors

Of course, anywhere there’s a road can be a good location for light trail photography. Roads that wind their way up a mountainside will look great in a photo, you just need a good vantage point. Even photos from a lower position can look nice with a single stream of light, which can create a nice minimalist feel to your photo.

Photos taken in these locations may require very long exposures to allow the vehicle to drive through the frame. The best solution here is to take a series of 30-second exposures, and then stack the results later in Photoshop (or use an ND filter to cut the light and get longer exposure times).

How to take long exposures of car light trails

Once you have settled on your location it’s time for the fun to begin! Taking these photos well does require some technical knowledge, let’s break this down here.

  • Compose your photo, and ensure the light trails complement the frame you wish to produce.
  • Arrive around 30-minutes prior to sunset. This will give you time to plan your photo and to take additional photos for digital blending if needed.
  • Ensure the camera is steady, this is challenging in strong winds. To achieve this use a heavy tripod, and where possible hook your camera bag under the center column. The heavier the tripod, the less likely it will be moved by the wind. Avoid putting up the middle extension tube on the tripod, as this introduces more instability and movement.

Enhancing your light trail photo in post-processing

As with all photography, you can enhance your image in post-processing to get an even better result. There are two principal techniques that can be used to achieve this.

  • Digital blending – In order to use this technique you will need a set of bracketed images to work with. This technique will allow you to balance the level of light throughout the scene.
  • Photo stacking – The next option, usually done in conjunction with digital blending, is photo stacking. You can use this to intensify the light trails within your photo. The concept is to take photos of multiple traffic light streams and overlay the images on top of each other.