Light Trail Photography: A Beginner’s Guide (+ Examples)
If you want to capture beautiful light trail photography, then you’ve come to the right place.
Because while beginners struggle to understand how light trails work, it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few simple tricks.
And that’s what I’ll share with you in this article: The tips, tricks, and techniques you need to know for amazing results. By the time you’re done, you’ll be able to capture images just like this:
Plus, you’ll know how to experiment with different approaches for unique, one-of-a-kind light trail images.
Let’s get started.
What is light trail photography?
Light trail photography uses a long shutter speed to capture car lights as they drive past, for a creative, artistic image.
You can create beautiful light trail photos pretty much everywhere: in the city, in the suburbs, in rural areas, and even in the desert. You simply need the right equipment (discussed below), as well as a moving car or two!
The best equipment for light trail photography
Here’s the simple light trail equipment list, though I’ll explain more below:
- Lens hood (optional)
- Remote shutter release (optional)
- Neutral density filter (optional)
- Warm clothes (optional)
There is no single camera or lens type that you need to capture light trails (these days, you can do light trail photography with only a smartphone!).
However, your camera must let you control your exposure settings, particularly those that allow you to choose longer shutter speeds (in the area of 10 seconds to 1 minute). Therefore, you need a camera that can shoot in either full Manual mode and/or Shutter Priority mode. All DSLRs and interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras do offer this functionality, though certain compact cameras, film cameras, and native smartphone camera apps do not.
You’ll also need a tripod, as you’ll be shooting with ultra-long shutter speeds. In a pinch, you can perch your camera on a concrete railing, the ground, or even a car, but it’s really best to work with a sturdy tripod.
And while they’re not essential, it’s helpful to use a lens hood, which will block flare from ambient lights, as well as a remote shutter release, so you can trigger your camera without pressing the shutter button and causing camera shake. The two-second or ten-second self-timer is an adequate substitute for a remote release, but it can be inconvenient to wait for the shutter to fire while shooting, plus it can mess up your timing.
Neutral density filters – which block the light to allow for longer shutter speeds – aren’t necessary if you’re shooting in complete darkness, but will helpfully elongate your shutter speeds around sunset and at dusk. And if you’re going out on a chilly night, make sure to bring warm clothes!
Light trail photography: the basics
Here’s the simple, step-by-step process for light trail photos:
Find a spot with moving cars
First, you’ll need a good location, ideally one with plenty of cars driving by. I recommend shooting on a bridge or safely setting up near a busy road.
Mount your camera to a tripod and determine your composition
Get out your camera and attach it to your tripod; be sure the tripod is on solid ground. You’ll be shooting with an ultra-long shutter speed, so complete stability is essential.
Dial in your settings
You’ll need a shutter speed of at least 5 seconds, though 10 or more is often better. I recommend a narrow aperture (e.g., f/8) for increased depth of field (though you can adjust this, depending on your shutter speed needs). If possible, keep your ISO at its base level.
Wait for a car, then take the photo
Be patient. When a car heads toward your composition, press the shutter button just before they enter the scene. Make sure the car leaves the scene before the shot finishes.
Light trail photography tips
Now that you know the fundamentals, let’s look at some helpful shooting tips, plus plenty of in-depth discussions!
1. Think about the light
Light trail photography requires darkness, but what time is best? Should you shoot just after sunset? An hour after? Or the middle of the night?
That depends on the effect you’re after. If you shoot at midnight, you’ll get a very dark shot with (probably) car-less light trails. This can look nice, but tends toward abstraction:
Personally, I prefer shooting just as the sun is going down. You’ll capture the light trails along with ambient light in the sky, which can add atmosphere to the composition.
Plus, if you shoot earlier in the evening, you’ll get a little more action, with lots of cars and even people moving through the scene.
2. Carefully select your composition
It’s not hard to find light trails. But if you want an attention-grabbing shot, you’ll need to put some extra thought into your location, timing, and framing.
For instance, I recommend you look for creative perspectives – that is, perspectives that go beyond the standard, eye-level shots. Instead, get down low and shoot up, or even find a high vantage point that lets you shoot light trails from above.
Also, find a location that complements (and highlights) the light trails. You’ll need to pick an area next to a road, but also look for nearby buildings, road merges (where the traffic flows together to create interesting light trail pathways), or even roundabouts (for beautiful circular light trails!).
Compositional framing can be useful, too. Look for natural frames, such as overhanging trees, railings, fences, and the like to emphasize the light trails. Keep the viewer away from distractions (and if possible, eliminate these from your scene!).
3. Experiment constantly
The main thing I learned in my early days of light trail imaging? Experiment extensively.
After all, you’re learning a new technique. It’s bound to take some fine-tuning, and if you dive in with enthusiasm, you’ll see gorgeous results in no time at all.
So shoot at different times of the evening/night. Try different equipment. Use different focal lengths. And work with different shutter speeds, too!
4. Pick the right settings
While the ideal camera modes, shutter speeds, and apertures will depend on the ambient light and the speed of the cars, I can offer helpful guidelines to streamline your choices.
First, use manual focusing; that way, you can get your subject sharp, then leave the point of focus and forget about it.
As I discussed above, if you don’t have a remote shutter release, make sure to use your camera’s self-timer. (Also, if your lens or camera offers image stabilization, make sure it’s deactivated.)
As for aperture and shutter speed: While I wish I could give you specific numbers, different situations are just too variable, so there’s no one exposure combination that will work in every setting. I usually shoot at shutter speeds between 10 and 20 seconds, which gives cars time to move through the frame. And I work with midrange apertures, starting at around f/8 or so, then stop down or widen the aperture depending on your shutter speed requirements.
Also, you can darken the image by dropping your ISO or brighten the image by raising your ISO – but use an ISO boost as a last resort, because the higher the ISO, the noisier the image will become.
And pay careful attention to your exposure. You don’t want to blow out any light sources (such as headlights or street lights); this looks bad, plus it draws the eye away from the main subject. Here, the histogram is your friend. After you take your first shot, go ahead and view its histogram on your LCD, looking for peaks pressed against the right-hand side of the graph.
One final settings tip: If possible, shoot in RAW. It’ll offer increased dynamic range, plus more flexibility during post-processing for better overall results.
5. Consider Bulb mode
Many digital cameras have a mode on them, called “Bulb.” It allows you to keep the shutter open as long as you wish, past the standard 30-second exposure limit on most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
Bulb mode can be very handy if you’re shooting in extremely dark conditions or you need a lengthy exposure time to capture a car slowly winding its way through the frame. But make sure you use a remote release to stop any camera movement while the shutter is open.
How to shoot light trails: conclusion
Well, there you have it:
A comprehensive guide to shooting light trails.
So remember the tips and tricks I’ve shared. And the next time you’re out at night, do some light trail photography! It’ll be a ton of fun; I guarantee it.
Now over to you:
Where do you plan to photograph light trails? Got some good light trail shots? Share your thoughts and photos in the comments below!