Shooting light trails is one of my favorite types of photography. By making long exposures, you are able to slow down time and view the world in a whole new way, one that only cameras can see. It’s also a fantastic way to increase your understanding of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).
Here are some tips to help you take light trail photographs for both beginner and advanced photographers:
Beginner Light Trail Tips
Tip 1: Set your camera on a tripod. You’ll need one since you are working with long exposure times.
Tip 2: Once you’ve composed your scene, set your ISO to the lowest setting possible (most likely 100 or 200).
Tip 3: Set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode. This way you can control how long your shutter will stay open.
Tip 4: Dial in our settings to give you the correct exposure. Experiment with different times to see which exposure gives you the best result. For instance, a busy street at rush hour might have plenty of streams with just 5 seconds. However, if the road is not as busy you may need 10, 20, or even 30 seconds before you get the result you want.
Tip 5: Take a few different shots of the same scene so you can choose which one looks best.
Advanced Light Trail Tips
If you want to get really sexy thick light streams, you may need to stack and blend your images together. For example, as you can see in this before/after image below of Busan’s Gwangan Bridge, the before image only has a few light trails. That’s because not that many cars passed by during the 10 seconds that my shutter was open.
To get as many streams as possible, I took a bunch of different photos of the same scene. Just when a group of cars were about to pass by I would take my photo. The After image below is actually a composite of 5 different photos taken at 10 second intervals. Here are the steps to do that:
Tip 6: Take many photographs of the same scene. It’s important that you don’t move your tripod or change the focal length. Just keep clicking your shutter shooting the same image over and over. Try to get about 5 exposures of the same image.
Tip 7: Import your images into Photoshop and then stack them together. Once you’ve done that, blend the images together using Blend Mode Lighten. This may sound complicated or scary since it involves Photoshop. It’s actually one of the easiest things to learn and takes about 1 minute to do. I learned about it by reading Jimmy McIntyre’s blog post How to Use Blend Modes In Photoshop To Beautifully Enhance Your Photos and watching his tutorial here:
Bonus Tip: Do you want to turn those street lights into star bursts? Set your aperture as high as you can, say F/16 to F/22, to get that effect.
Once you learn the basics of long exposure photography and light trails, try experimenting with different light sources. Flashlights, lighters, glow sticks, and lights sticks are fun to play with and can give some really cool results.