A Guide for Capturing Long Exposure Light Trails

The use of long exposure photography is quite a popular technique for capturing various cityscapes, traffic motion, and other stylistic shots involving light in motion. This quick tutorial is a great video filled with quite a few tips for anyone looking to play with this type of photography.

The art of capturing light trails is surprisingly a little more than simply setting up a camera on a tripod and pressing the shutter. It involves taking the time to plan your locations in order to arrive at the appropriate time, which will then allow you to make the most of the ambient light in addition to the long exposure. Sometimes, you might want to shoot when it is incredibly dark in the middle of the night; other times, you will find more benefit in shooting with more sunset or dusk light.

Even if you dial in your settings and your composition, you still have no control over traffic patterns or even traffic volume. Sometimes, additional steps need to be taken in order to create the image that you originally had in mind. Sometimes, this involves setting shutter speeds for even lengthier periods of time; other times, it means you have to utilize a faster shutter. Still other times, you might need to rely on post-production blending techniques. This video goes through several different scenarios to help you see what all your options are, so as to make the most of your shoot experience as a whole.

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Jordan McChesney's picture

This is a nice basic guide for the technical part of capturing light streaks, but it's only the first step, for sure. For me the biggest mistake I see is people using the light streaks as the subject themselves rather than to enhance a subject (ex: used as leading lines). To me, light streaks are like a prefect sunset, a nice addition to an already interesting subject, but hardly a subject by itself.

Good video....you cover the holy trinity of ISO , Shutter speed and aperture...but where do you focus?? Do you switch to manual focus and settle for infinity or leave it on auto focus and hope that the dancing cursors land on a subject ?

Jordan McChesney's picture

When using a tripod, especially in dark locations, using manual is always a good bet. The best way to do it is to zoom all the way in on your display and make sure it’s sharp. If it’s night time, it’s a good idea to use a light as your reference (the smaller it is, the more in focus it is). Using the display is also a good way to ensure there is no camera shake and the tripod isn’t slowly tilting down. It’s best to focus on whatever the subject is (ex: a building) but focus stacking is also a good way to make sure everything is sharp.

Henk Markland's picture

I can understand that you focus on the subject (i.e. a building) but where do you focus in case you want to make a picture of i.e. light trails of cars ?

Jordan McChesney's picture

Then you should focus on where the cars will be passing by (if they are moving side to side). If they are moving from the front to the back of the frame without another interest, you could focus on the middle of the frame and set your aperture around f/11. However, as I said in my first comment, I don’t typically regard light streaks as an interesting subject by themselves. If I’m using light streaks to enhance a subject I almost always focus on the subject, rather than the light streaks. I’ve found it’s harder to determine the sharpness of the light streaks than a stationary subject.