Thursday, 6 September 2012

Tips For Photographing Light Trails

We have all seen beautiful photographs of light trails in many magazines. The contrast between the lights and its surroundings, the interplay of different coloured lights, the way they guide the viewer’s eye through the scene etc are the elements which inspire photographers to try to capture their beauty in their frames.

light trails
Photo By Brian Koprowski

Contrary to the popular belief if you are thorough with the fundamentals of photography Light trails are very easy to capture. A good understanding of the concepts of ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture and how they work together in creating an Exposure is a must. If you are a beginner and are not familiar with the basic concepts I recommend you to first have a quick look at a previous article – Understanding Exposure – The Exposure Triangle before attempting to photograph Light Trails.

Equipment Recommendations

A DSLR Camera or a Point and Shoot Digital Camera with Manual Mode.Basically light trails are nothing but long exposure shots and everything applicable to long exposure shooting is applicable here too. So to capture light trails the basic requirement is just a digital camera which will allow you to shoot at slow shutter speeds. All DSLR cameras and most modern point and shoot cameras allow you complete manual control over exposure values and in addition also provide various creative modes like Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority etc. so if you have a camera that allows you to shoot at slow speeds then you are good to go. All the rest are not must haves but are things that will make your shooting a much enjoyable process.

A sturdy Tripod

Keeping your camera steady during the course of the exposure is very important to get crisp pictures. Although you could try placing your camera on a solid surface to take shots, having a tripod allows you much more flexibility over your composition.

Wireless / Cable Release

Using a wireless or cable release will help further reduce camera shake. If you do not have one then you could use the self timer option in your camera.

Lens Hood

Using a proper lens hood will help block stray light from entering the camera. It is especially helpful when there is ambient light in the scene which comes from various sources.

Camera Settings for Photographing Light Trails

photographing light trails
Photo By Jonathan

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW format, use it to shoot light trails. It gives you the ability to change white balance, and also provides much more control when post processing your shots. Such control over the elements in post processing is especially important in photographs of Light trails as the typical scenes contain multiple light sources with varying colour temperatures.

Use Low ISO

Use the lowest possible ISO settings available on your camera. It has two advantages, first is that you will get noise free images and the second is that you will get slower shutter speeds which are a must to capture light trails.

Focus Manually

Most cameras find it hard to attain focus in dim light conditions, also when capturing light trails, often your exposure starts before the light source enters your frame so it is better to shift the focus mode to manual and manually focus on the right area.

Focus on the Hyper Focal Distance

Focusing on the hyper focal distance will help you get the whole of the frame in sharp focus. If you are not familiar with the concept of hyper focal distance or you do not want to do the math, a simple alternative is to focus a third of the way into a scene and you will have most of your frame in focus.

Use Histogram to Check Exposure

While photographing light trails use your cameras histogram in addition to the display on the LCD to check for exposure. Simply relying on the LCD will often deceive you in many situations.

Use the Bulb Mode

If your camera has a bulb mode it is the best mode available to shoot light trails as it allows you to precisely control the length of exposure. Using a shutter release cable is highly recommended when shooting in bulb mode in order to avoid camera shake induced by the act of pressing the shutter.

Setting Up Your Shot

light trail photography
Photo By Alex Lin

The Best Time to Shoot Light Trails

The time after the sun has set and before the sky turns completely black is the best to shoot light trails as the ambient light present allows you to expose the sky and capture the mood of the scene.

Composition and Framing

As with any other genre of photography, light trails also looks good when the shot is properly exposed, perfectly composed and there are some points of interests in the shot to hold the viewer’s eye, when there are no distracting elements in the foreground and background of the scene etc.

So before you actually start shooting, explore great locations for your shoot, find great vantage points, light trails look good when photographed either from a low or high vantage point, eye level shots of light trails are generally not that attractive.

how to photograph light trails
Photo By Beauty Eye

Find points of interests that you could add in your frame such as a sign board, tall buildings, traffic island or any other stationary object. You may use compositional guides such as the Rule of Thirds to help you compose the shot. Observe the direction in which traffic is moving and pre visualize the result. One thing to notice is that traffic moving towards the camera will leave trails of white light where as traffic moving away from the camera will leave streaks of red light.

Exposure Settings

The intensity of ambient light present in the scene, the speed at which the light sources are moving, the distance the light sources should cover before it exists the frame etc are all factors that determine the exposure values for photographing light trails. So there is no ideally exposure setting that works in all situations, the best method is to choose a mid aperture of say f/11 and a shutter speed of say 10 seconds and then making adjusting the values based on the results you see on the LCD.

tips for photographing light trails
Photo By Abi Booth

One thing to note is; if there are other light sources (street lights) in your frame using narrower apertures will result in the lights looking like stars where are they appear completely normal when shot at wider apertures.
Ideally light trails are shot with trails which are unbroken across the frame; that is exposure starts before the light sources actually enter the frame and ends only after the light sources have exited the frame. You may also get interesting shots by trying other techniques so feel free to experiment.

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