Give Your Light Trails Wings

Give Your Light Trails Wings

Light trails are a perennial favorite for long exposure shooters, and a right of passage for any budding photographer. So why restrict yourself to cars in a street scene when the sky's your limit?

There is the press photographer's notion that the camera captures an instant that is definitive, authoritative, and truthful in the moment. In less than the blink of an eye, we are able to record all that the camera surveils. Of course varying shutter speed and aperture can introduce creativity to picture making and long exposure photography is a great example of this. Think wispy water shots, streaking clouds through the sky and, yes, light trails! You only have to skim through a photo sharing site (insert the name of your favorite here) to see how popular a genre it is.

There really is something magical about recording time on a human scale (i.e seconds to minutes) that allows us to track movement through a scene. Not only that, but they look damn good to boot!

Cefn Bryn Mountain Road, Gower Peninsular, Wales

Cefn Bryn Mountain Road, Gower Peninsular, Wales

Thinking back to one of my tenets of what makes an extraordinary photo, then light trails fall into the "new and unusual" category, although with more and more people able to shoot great photos, you need to think a little more laterally. That means breaking the scene down in to its three core elements: space, time, and light. Once you've done that, vary each element. For the image above, this equates to a mountain road with a car that will move through it (space). The exposure was 62 seconds, enough to record  travel through the scene (time). Finally the light sources are the red tail lamps (light).

In another personal project, my daughter Erin helped me create this light vortex. We were just experimenting with light sources and took at couple of small LED lights off my bike. We left them on solid beam and, to my amazement, they pulsed which, with the blue front light, allowed us to experiment with a range of movements to create these outlandish vortexes.

LED Light Vortex

LED Light Vortex

As I live near an airport, shooting aircraft light trails was the next obvious thing to do. First and foremost, airports are usually very security conscious and often do not allow any photography within the perimeter. That said, there has been a long traditional of photographing aircraft so you will find there is often either a viewing area or locations around the perimeter that are ideally located for photography. Usually you want to be at either end of the runway, on public property, but not obstructing anyone. The gallery below was almost entirely shot at London Luton Airport which has two great viewing locations at both ends of the runway, so no matter what the prevailing wind direction, you'll be able to get some great shots.

Back to our tenets: space, time, and light. Landing aircraft are much easier to photograph as they are traveling more slowly and are more predictable — you can see them approach and so begin your exposure. If you are beyond the end of the runway, take-off is far harder to capture because you don't know when acceleration begins and the aircraft are going much faster. For both take-off and landing, the arrivals/departures page on the airport website is a wonderful mine of information! Aesthetically I've found that moving diagonally through the frame provides a great leading line and draws the viewer's eye through the image. As there may well be no other spatial cues, the diverging light trails help with interpreting the image. You will need to experiment with the length of exposure given the lighting conditions — at night you will be able to run 1-2 minute exposures, but sunsets will be closer to 30 seconds. Finally, there is the light source — aircraft tend to have lights on the undercarriage and wing tips, varying between solid and flashing, with different colors.

As ever, there are surprising variations that can delight the eye.The arcing light trails (above) are actually from take-off — at Luton the planes immediately bank to the left to avoid a built-up area and this provides some nice overlapping curvature to the trail. Sometimes you see the trails bobble about as the plane loses it's course and has to correct. Don't forget the environmental shot, pulling in the surrounding buildings. At Luton, you get the lights of the town along with the nearby highway. Perhaps my favorite shot is at London City Airport, which is actually situated on the old London docks. There was a 15 minute window to shoot at sunset, with the clouds and colors in the sky providing perfect lighting. The backdrop was magical — Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome are immediately recognizable landmarks, the starbursts of the runway lights drawing the eye.

If you've never shot light trails at your local airport then give it a try! There are a huge range of creative opportunities and, not only can you create images that are different from the crowd, but you get that adrenaline rush as aircraft shoot overhead!

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Airplane trails are definitely under appreciated. You’d probably like this one I made a couple years ago!

Mike Smith's picture

Thats a great one! Another arcing plane and that sky looks great. Endless opportunities!

Great post! Creative and fun ideas!