Weekly Theme #19: Light Trail Photography Challenge

Photo by Joey Kyber
Photo by Joey Kyber

This week our mission to improve our photography continues as we explore light trail photography. But, first let’s talk about how great you did with the previous weekly theme. Last week, our search for higher perspectives brought us gorgeous landscapes shot from mountainsides, and monochrome photos shot through railings and down escalators. There were also deserts, beaches, train stations, hotel balconies, and photos taken from airplane windows. I’d been expecting mostly mountain scenes, but was blown away by the variety of locations. Great work, everyone!

Before we go any further, let’s address one big change you might have noticed. This is Ben writing. I’ll be taking full responsibility for weekly themes from now on. This way, Tiffany gets to spend more time on important editorial duties, while I get to grow this exciting side of PhotoBlog.

Let’s do this!

Weekly Theme #18 Winners:

Congratulations to these members – check your inbox for a PM from me. I highly recommend browsing all the entries here. Would you have chosen differently? Tell us in the comments below!

Weekly Theme #19 – How To Shoot Light Trail Photography

Shooting light trails has been close to my heart ever since I first experimented seven years ago. I was homesick in Shanghai at the time. Alone in a friend’s apartment, I pulled back the curtain to reveal a jaw-dropping view of Nanpu Bridge; a colossal feat of human engineering and a truly wonderful sight when lit up at night.

My mood brightened and I grabbed my camera. Not wanting to let the opportunity pass me by, I turned my dial to ‘M‘ and set up at the window. I had wanted to fly back to London, but that evening taught me to appreciate the concealed beauty of a city I’d so far failed to bond with. It also showed me the restorative powers of a good solo photography session. There is something meditative about it. This is especially the case with the methodical process for capturing light trails.

Photo by Ben McKechnie
Photo by Ben McKechnie
Light trail photo of bending roadway. Photo by Ben McKechnie
Photo by Ben McKechnie

Above are my 2 favorite photos from that evening in Shanghai. Not bad for a first attempt. What do you think? I hope you’ll see there’s nothing to fear if you’ve never tried photographing light trails before. With a few pointers, you’ll be taking visually striking pictures in no time. Alternatively, if you’re a seasoned pro at this, why not show us exactly what you can do?

How to Participate:

Deadline: December 18th, 2016

How to submit: Add weeklytheme19 as one of the tags in your post on the PhotoBlog platform

Check out the submissions: Use the brand new Weekly Theme tab

Support and encourage: Like and comment on your favorite posts

The Basics

Light trail photography requires you to locate a spot where you’ll see the light trails created by vehicles. You’ll need to set up your camera so it’s steadily fixed in place. Then, select settings for a long exposure. Shoot at a time after dark when cars are going to be passing by. Finally, don’t forget to wrap up warm this week if you’re in the northern hemisphere!

Next, I recommend you check out this great video by Canon‘s Australian team. In just 3 minutes, it’s going to teach you the most important things you need to know in order to start shooting traffic light trails tonight.

As mentioned in the video, shooting light trail photography is often one of the first times new photographers get onto manual mode. It’s a great way to start thinking artistically, beyond simply “documenting the moment” in automatic, program, or aperture priority modes. Let’s recap and elaborate on the important points.

Location

Choosing the right place to shoot from can make or break a light trail image. You want to be somewhere with a reasonably high volume of cars passing, in order to create enough light trails for your sensor to pick up. It is multiple light trails building on top of each other that creates a strong red or white light in your final picture. Just one car? Weak light.

I recommend getting onto a footbridge over a busy road. Wider scenes shot from high up are also great. Shoot out of the window of a tall building, or better yet, get access to the roof. Alternatively, you could shoot side-on at road level. Let those creative juices flow!

HDR photo of light trails below an overpass at night
Photo by Denys Nevozhai

Gear

First, you’ll need a digital camera that allows full manual control. Don’t worry at all if you have an old or basic DSLR. Since we’re shooting 30 second exposures, we won’t be needing the ultra-high ISO performance of the latest cameras. We’re actually going to keep the ISO low.

If you have one, a shutter release cable is a good idea. We don’t want to rock the camera with our finger because even tiny movements will cause the image to blur. If you don’t have one, just use your camera’s 2 or 10 second timer function to trigger the shutter.

Next, and this is really important, you need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera absolutely still while the shutter is open. If you don’t have a tripod and are planning to balance your camera on the bridge’s guard rail, don’t forget your neck strap! If you’re indoors in a tall building, you can use a stack of books on a window ledge. But really, no photographer has ever regretted investing in a good tripod.

Light trails in every direction! A busy roadway and overpass in the city
Photo by Mike Wilson

Settings

The theory is similar to light painting–see Kendra Swall’s excellent article on that–only it’s cars doing the painting for you. The settings required are different, however, because we want to imply motion and let in light over a longer period of time while keeping the camera completely still. I recommend selecting these settings to start with: ISO 100, an aperture of f/22, and a shutter speed of 30 seconds.

From here, you can experiment by making slight changes as you wish. An aperture of f/22 will create a starburst effect around street lamps. This is due to light being forced through the tiny hole created by your lens’ aperture blades at that setting. Want less starburst effect? Just use a wider aperture. Take ambient light and the speed the cars are traveling into consideration. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with different settings combinations here. Just keep the exposure triangle in mind when shooting in manual mode.

Example Shots

Light trail photography of a car traveling down a highway at night
Photo by Simon Brace

This clean and simple light trail shot by photographer Simon Brace shows us what can be achieved by positioning yourself on a footbridge over a highway.

Light trail photography of busy city streets with lights passing by
Photo by Jan Philipp Kohrs

Above is an awesome shot by photographer Jan Philipp Kohrs taken in Hong Kong. The erratic lines indicate a shutter speed significantly shorter than 30 seconds. It was only six seconds.

Light trail photography of Singapore waterway
Photo by Shubhankar Sharma

Photographer Shubhankar Sharma took this brilliant long exposure on the waterways of Singapore. Who said the traffic had to be on the road?

Your assignment is to get out there and shoot fresh light trail images. Don’t be afraid to try light trail photography, it’s surprisingly easy. Find a busy junction or a bridge wherever you live. Since this should be done at night, hopefully work will be less of an obstacle to taking part. If you work nights, shoot on your way to work or when you leave.

Remember to tag your posts with weeklytheme19 to enter them into the weekly theme. Entering a post will bring a lot more eyes to your photoblog. Remember to stay safe and shoot with a friend if you can. I hope you have a lot of fun and learn something new this week. Cheers!

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About the author

Ben McKechnie

Ben is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Ben is a graduate of MatadorU's Advanced Travel Photography course. Check out more of his recent India-based photojournalism over on on his Facebook page and Instagram using the links above.

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