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How To Create Trail Of Light

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How To Create Trail Of Light

Taking photo’s of light path can seem complicated, but it’s somewhat easier than anticipated, which is based on a large amount of trial and error. Light trail photos are most frequent found with car headlights and tail lights, however you also can make light trails with stars (star trails) or some other source of light in motion during low light hours of sunset or night.

light trail photography

Light trails are simply long exposure shots that take place around moving sourcess of light. There isn’t much you need to be able to take these shots, but an appropriate camera, and extra equipment might help, even though some is not needed. Let’s begin to explain basic principles involved.


For a lengthy exposure shot (the premise of this tutorial), you may need a camera that has some control for the exposure settings, for example changing the shutter speeds. Some cameras may enable you to slow the shutter speeds down, although some (for example DSLR’s) will permit you to leave the shutter open with a finite period of time until you manually opt to close it, that allows as much light in the camera what you deem necessary.

You will also need a tripod for this, as using a camera handheld with long shutter speeds will make it near impossible to compose an excellent looking shot, without everything being blurry. I have done long exposures on rests before, for example a bridge overlook, plus it worked well. You just have to ensure that the camera has minimal movement throughout the exposure.

2 more things that can really help, but are not needed, are a remote shutter release, and also a lens hood, which will help block surrounding ambient light (including if you’re around a surrounding city, or with street lights). The remote helps so there’s no camera shake when pressing the shutter button. Also, using mirror lock-up (feature of all DSLR’s) will likely minimize camera shake. My last tip, which is good for any long exposure, is to use the noise reduction function if your camera has it.

tutorial on light trail photos

But only do that once you know the best shutter time you will be using. Noise reduction takes the initial exposure, which is the shot, it will close the shutter, and take a similarly timed shot, with pitch black, and blends both shots together to reduce noise. And the reason you need to wait (and soon you know your proper exposure time) until you enable this feature, happens because if you take a good exposure of two minutes possibly even, then that means you’ll be waiting four minutes until the shot is entirely complete. Take my word correctly, it’s like watching paint dry.

Setting Up Your Shot

For our examples, let’s assume we want to take long exposure light trails of car lights. You will want to find somewhere high where there is a lot of fast-moving traffic, and not much of ambient light. Although, I must add, having neon signs or another lighting on the side can add for cool effect with the photo.Now, look for a perspective which will catch the car lights passing by, and setup your tripod, camera, and get ready!

Camera Settings

This is where trial and error come into play. There are no exact “perfect” camera settings. It all is dependent upon the ambient light around you, how quickly traffic is moving, etc.

First of all, set the digital camera to a low ISO (film speed) setting. This will reduce the amount of noise inside shot.
Next, set your aperture (raise your f-stop number) and take test shots and see how they come out. This is where the trial and error comes in. I usually set my f-stop around 10 or more, when I have it set. But then again, I always use bulb mode.

If your shot arrives too dark, raise your aperture size (decrease your f-stop number). And if your shot is just too overexposed, decrease your aperture size (increase your f-stop). Aperture will affect your depth of field also. Keep in mind, you don’t ought to stick to ISO 100 or 200. Try various different mix match settings and discover what works right for you. What I do is use bulb mode, which leaves the shutter open for as long as you want that it is open, where you hit the shutter button to the second time to close the shutter. On a DSLR, its on the mode dial, marked “B”. I usually set my ISO to 100 or 200, work with a remote, hit the shutter button, and wait about 10-seconds, then close the shutter. I then examine my shot, and find out if my shot is too dark, too bright, etc.

Getting Your Shot Timing Correct

The last part is getting your timing correct. You will want to look through the camera and know the place that the photo will in fact begin. This is because you want to start your shot before any cars type into the shot. If you don’t, then you will have some light streaks start midway through the shot, coming from nowhere. Sometimes this can’t be prevented though, and in addition sometimes it can come out to be cool. But most times you would like to expose the shot before any car enters the shot.

how to take light trail photos

Few More Tips

I have only a few more tips, and you’re prepared to shoot! First, always shoot in RAW mode (because you always should anyway) so most adjustments will likely be easily corrected at a later date. Next, you may need to use manual focus, as it could sometimes be difficult to focus in the pitch black dark. Last, keep in mind what the difference in f-stops do. For instance, you adopt a shot at f-5.6 in a street light, plus it comes out normal. If you adopt the same shot with the f-stop of 16, you’ll have a star influence on the light. Just something to bear in mind if you have any signs or any other lighting subjects with your shot.

I hope this tutorial has helped you out, answered your questions, and you come up with some great light trail shots! & don’t forget to comment below.

Ty Sharp

Visit our Online Photography School Again for better understanding of photography. You will again fall in love with what you love doing. If you like the article then make a effort to share. Thanks

3 Responses
  • photography_beginnner
    January 20, 2013

    Good tip…nicely explained…can you please post the tip to capture star trails.(basically about the F-stops & shutterspped)

    • admin
      January 22, 2013

      Yes sure. We will be posting tips for that soon

  • Rachel
    July 26, 2013

    Not all DSLR’s have Mirror Lock Up. My Nikon D3200 does not. Good article, though.

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