Capturing Light Trails with Your Camera


Staff member
I guess this falls under the High Speed Photography category, since the cars that will be going by will be traveling rather fast. The thing is, the photography itself isn't high speed at all. In fact, it's as slow as slow can be. So while you'll be taking photos of high speed objects, you'll be stationary and your camera will be moving at a snail's pace.

I'm sure you've seen photos of light trails before. Have you ever wondered how the photographers captured the photos you've seen? I'm here today to tell you that the process isn't difficult in the least. If you've got a fairly modern DSLR camera and a tripod, you're all set. Well, you'll also need a good spot to set your equipment up. One preferably that's got cars driving by it.

By the way, before I begin, I thought I'd mention that I wrote an entire post on this topic just yesterday that's quite thorough, so if you'd like to learn about photographing light trails in its entirety, please feel free to take a peek.

Okay, let's get going. To capture images of trails, any type of trails, you'll need to slow your shutter speed down. So while your typical shutter speed is set anywhere from 1/80 to 1/500 of a second, you'll need to slow yours down to 1, 2 or even 6 or 7 seconds to grab those light trails you want. While the shutter is open and the camera is dead still, the cars will drive by at night and the camera will record the trails created by the car's head and tail lights. This is somewhat the same process as slowing the shutter speed down and pressing the shutter button on your camera as you spin around in circles. Since the shutter is kept open and the sensor is recording the scene for multiple seconds, you'll end up with a photograph that's full of trails as well. Odd looking ones, but trails nonetheless.

When taking these types of photos at night, you've got to be cognizant of a few things. First, since you don't want grain in your photos and since you don't want the long exposure time to which you'll set your camera to overexpose your shots, you'll need to set your ISO as low as it can go. On most cameras, this is going to be ISO 100. Also, since your camera is going to want to open your aperture as wide as it can go, you'll need to set your camera to full Manual mode to control that setting yourself. Along the same line that has to do with aperture size, you'll likely want to have as sharp a shot as possible each and every time, from front to back (depth of field). So, with this in mind, set your aperture to f/8 to f/11. Don't go too small with the aperture size or else you'll subject your photos to a very slight blur that's highly annoying to look at. This blur is caused by what's known as "diffraction." Diffraction simply means that as the hole through which the light travels in a lens gets smaller, the light waves become jumbled up to cause confusion. This confusion is translated as blur and we don't want that. So stick with anything between f/8 and f/11. These smaller aperture sizes will also do a good job of keeping the exposure near normal as well.

Now, here's the fun part. Mount your camera on the tripod, set your mode to Manual, set your ISO value and your aperture size and then begin experimenting. Start off with a 5 second exposure (shutter speed). Take the photo and then look at your results on the rear of your camera. How's the exposure? Too bright? If so, increase the shutter speed by a second. Too dark? Slow the shutter speed down by a second. You can also adjust the aperture size some to control the light as well.

Next, look at the light trails. How do they look? Are they long enough? If not, slow the shutter speed down. You get the idea. Basically, you'll have the perfect photo in your mind and your job is to make adjustments on your camera to get you to the place you need to be. Mostly, you'll need to configure the shutter speed and the aperture size, but you can also experiment with the ISO values as well. Just be sure to follow the general guidelines I explained above.

Have you ever taken photographs of light trails? If so, why not share them below? Did you use any special tricks to capture the perfect photo? If so, please share them below as well. And finally, if you have any questions regarding this very exciting style of photography, this is the place to ask. We're always here to help. Thanks!