5 More Things to Remember When Shooting Car Light Trails

Images of car light trails are often captured by photographers because they can make for stunning shots. Since this subject matter often entails going out at night or twilight, plus using long exposures, there are quite a few things to consider. We previously listed four important things to remember when shooting car light trails, and here are five more to keep in mind:

Perspective – light trails by themselves are already interesting but add a creative perspective and your image can go even further. Aside from taking the shot at the often used eye-level angle, play around a bit by shooting low or taking a shot from top view instead. See if you can take the shot from an elevated viewpoint such as from the second or third storey of a building by the side of a road, or from an overpass. If you are situated on the side of a straight road and face the road straight on, the light trails will appear as moving from side to side. It might look flat and two dimensional, although it does not mean the image will turn out bad. By angling the camera so that the road has a vanishing point, the light trails created will also appear to have more perspective.

Framing – the basic composition rules still apply when shooting light trails. The Rule of Thirds, balance, leading lines, and the light can all help make the shot more visually appealing. Take note of your foreground and background and see to it that they add, rather than take away attention from the point of interest. The horizontal or landscape format is often used but if you were to rotate your camera and shoot using the vertical or portrait format instead, your image might achieve a more dynamic impression.

Exposure settings – knowing the right exposure settings will be a result of trial and error. Luckily, we don’t have to worry much about taking a whole lot of test shots with a digital camera as compared to film. By reviewing your shots in the LCD, you can already gauge how to adjust a particular setting. Let’s discuss the three settings in more detail:

Shutter speed – a slow shutter speed will allow you to capture the movement of light. Try starting with shutter speeds between 10-20 seconds to give the cars enough time to travel through the frame. 

Aperture – remember that aperture affects depth of field so if you want most of the scene to be in focus, choose an f/number that corresponds with a smaller lens opening such as f/8. Keep in mind that the smaller the opening, the less light enters the sensor and you might need to leave your shutter open a little longer.

ISO – grain or noise is usually most visible in low light scenarios and if you can, try to keep the ISO to a low value such as 100. At ISO 400 or more, there is a bigger chance of obvious grain. 

Use Bulb mode – some cameras have a Bulb mode that allows the shutter to stay open for as long as you want. This is especially handy when shooting light trails. It is ideal to use a remote shutter release when using this mode to avoid camera shake while the shutter is open.

Manual focus – during low light situations, it could be a challenge to get your focus locked in on the point of interest if you are using autofocus.  Switch to manual focus instead to make sure you get the clarity you intend. 

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4 Things to Remember When Shooting Car Light Trails

Light trails are a popular subject matter among photographers and not only can they appear dramatic in an image, but it also gives you good practice on how to shoot at low light with long exposures. 

When shooting light trails, you will be looking for a location where cars pass by. Set up your camera and compose the shot to make sure the framing covers the area where the light trails will appear due to the long exposure. The road will give you a good idea of how the light trails will curve and travel through the image. It’s normal not to get the shots you want during the first few tries. When photographing light trails, you might end up experimenting heavily with your exposure settings, the position of the camera, and so on.  Here are great tips on how to capture great looking light trails in your image:

Consider the time of day – you can shoot in the middle of the night since this is the time when the sky is at its darkest (unless there is a bright moon) but it could also mean fewer cars. Shooting just after the sun goes down is another option; there is still just enough ambient light in the sky to show the scene without taking away the brilliance of the light trails. A lot of cars may also be on the road at this time, giving you many chances of shooting the trails. 

Equipment – there is no special gear you need to have to capture light trails but you do need a camera that allows you to adjust exposure settings, especially shutter speed. This should not be a problem since nowadays, all DSLRs and most point-and-shoots have a manual mode or a shutter priority mode. Shooting handheld will most certainly cause camera shake with during the long exposure, therefore a tripod is needed. If you don’t have one, you can place the camera on a secure and stable surface instead. Other accessories that you might find useful are remote shutter cables and a lens hood to block out ambient light flares.

Location – there are a lot more things to consider aside from knowing you will be setting up your camera near a road. Try to include something that would add interest to the shot, such as building or structure that is also lighted at night. You can choose an intersection or a curving road so that the trails created will have a different shape compared to a straight line. Make sure the spot where you are shooting from is safe and there is no chance you will be hit by a car or be robbed while you are engrossed with taking shots. 

Histogram – in a shoot like this, it is easy for shots have blown out highlights or washed out areas because of too bright lights such that coming from a nearby street light or a car headlight. These lights could ruin your shot because of overexposure and would also lead your viewer’s eye from the point of interest. Use the histogram to have a quick check whether your lens is capturing strong light. 


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