Photographing light trails is one of the most beautiful forms of art in photography. To be able to photograph light trails you need any camera with the possibility to manually control the shutter speed. A DSLR or mirrorless camera may be the right choice for this type of photography, therefore, if you have a DSLR camera you are able to photograph light trails without any stress.
How to photograph light trails? You need a DSLR, mirrorless or any camera with the ability to control the shutter speed, a tripod and optional a shutter remote control. Set your camera on the tripod facing any lights in motion such as traffic at night, fireworks etc., step down the aperture, lower the ISO and trigger your shutter speed at least a couple of seconds.
Those are the very first steps in order to capture light trails. There are a lot more to discuss and to focus on, such as lenses and aperture to use, ISO, focus mode and a million other settings, therefore, if you want to get the best possible out of your DSLR, I recommend you follow this guide.
How to photograph light trails step by step:
Before getting into the post, I want to create a step-by-step list of how to photograph light trails:
How to photograph light trails
Total Time: 15 minutes
Find the right spot
Find the right spot where you have a light in motion such as cars (traffic) a Ferris Wheel, fireworks or simply yourself in front of the camera with a flashlight. Make sure that the photographs are taken during the night or in a darkened place where no other distracting elements or lights are present.
Set up your tripod and the DSLR on the tripod
Now is time for you to set up the tripod and the DSLR camera on the tripod facing the traffic (e.g.) or any other lights in motion.
The DSLR settings
Your camera settings will be different for every scenario, therefore, I cannot give you exactly the settings to use but it will be something as following:
– The first step is to set your image output file to RAW and NOT JPEG!
– Next, set your camera lens on manual focus and focus on the area you want to capture the light motion using the live view mode and the zoom function. Disable VR or IS (image stabilisation) as you don’t need it, moreover, if you have it on, the IS will shake the image.
– Set up your camera on manual mode and keep the live view on.
– Step down the aperture to f/4 – f/12, depending on the lighting situation. More light = you have to step down the aperture more to be able to decrease the shutter speed.
– Set your ISO settings on manual and choose values between ISO100 and ISO500. Try at first with the lowest ISO settings as for the image to have no noise at all.
– Now the shutter speed has to be set between 2sec and 30sec. Any values will do just fine, but remember, the more shutter remains open, more light it captures and the light in motion will be imprinted on the image sensor, creating the light trails.
– Furthermore, Adjust your settings until you get the right exposure for your scene.
Take multiple exposures with multiple values on each round and see which ones go the best for your scene. Make sure you frame the elements following different composition techniques.
When post-processing the light trail photographs, there’s no much to change if the photographs are taken in the right way. Don’t play with the highlights too much as this can affect the light trails. Remove other undesirable elements from the scene, work with the shadows, darks, contrast and saturation and ensure you have set the right colour temperature.
How to photograph light trails. What camera do I need?
As already mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need a DSLR camera to be able to capture light trails. Any camera, mirrorless, compact or even a mobile phone with an app which allows you to control the shutter speed is good. But a DSLR camera is a bit different and even easier to use than it appears to be.
In general, when you use a DSLR camera to capture night photography handheld or indoors photography without a tripod, you need a full-frame over DX camera as for more light to be captured by the FX sensor. But in light trails, this is not the case. A DX camera will do just as fine as an FX camera and you definitely don’t need the most expensive DSLR on the market to be able to capture amazing photographs by this type.
One key point to mention is that most of the light trails are taken during the night as the light trace captured by the camera sensor will be highlighted on a dark background without any other light sources to distract the main element.
It is possible to capture light trail during the day (this will be followed in the post).
What lenses are recommended for light trails and what is the right aperture?
Because of the nature of this type of photography, you don’t need fast prime lenses in order to capture the light trails. Moreover, you will step down the aperture because you need to control the amount of light it goes into the camera sensor and nor you need bokeh.
The more you step down the aperture the more the stationary lights such as the street lights will bust and get that starry look.
Keep in mind that the advantage of the prime lenses over the zoom lenses is that in general, prime lenses are sharper in special when you step down the aperture. But zoom lenses are not bad either, therefore, any of zoom lenses or prime lenses would be just fine.
But as an instance, you have a 50mm prime lens and a 24-70mm zoom lens and you want to capture on the 50mm focal length, I would strongly recommend you to use the prime lens unless you want to capture the light trails on the whole 24-70mm range.
I am a prime lens user. I had zoom lenses in the past and not just one, but I always stick with the prime lenses for most type of photographies I am doing.
Now talking about the focal length, how wide or telephoto the lens has to be is up to you, but more is depending on the scene you are going to capture. As an instance, if you are trying to capture a heavy traffic area, it is a good practice to use a wider lens where distant traffic would benefit more from a telephoto lens. The fireworks exposure from the above photo I took it with a 50mm lens, but in general, the light trail photographs look better when taken with a wider lens.
What is the right shutter speed to use when capturing light trails?
The right shutter speed can be as low as 2 seconds and as long as 30 seconds or even more. It is important to know the scene, subjects to frame and the lighting conditions. The more light you have in your photo, less the shutter is going to be open. If you need to decrease the shutter speed, step down the ISO and the aperture.
Most of the light trail photographs I took until now were between 4 seconds and 12 seconds. Depending on circumstances and some camera models, you have no limit on how long the shutter speed can be open, and this works perfectly when you are aiming to create star trails. Your limit may be the battery level.
ISO and other settings to keep in mind when capturing the light trails
The ISO has to be as low as possible but in some scenarios, you will have to increase the ISO. Remember, you have your camera on the tripod, therefore, you don’t have to worry about increasing the ISO, only on special circumstances where there is not enough light and you have to take short exposures.
As the nature of the light trails, you will have no bokeh. Instead of using an ISO 100 with an aperture wide open at f/1.8, better increase the ISO to 500 so you can step down the aperture a bit. But my recommendation is to length your shutter speed, keep the aperture stopped down and the ISO on the lowest settings.
This is one great advantage of setting your camera on a tripod, that in the most lighting conditions as poor as it may look, ISO is the last settings you want to look over, therefore, as I said it before (many times, apparently), keep the ISO as lowest settings possible.
Hint: At the moment you increase the ISO on your camera, the camera sensor will become more sensitive to light but the disadvantage is that noise is captured into the image, which is difficult to remove it, even in post-processing or at all.
Use the Exposure Value (EV, as on the image above) to overexpose or underexpose the photograph you are about to take. The EV works only if you have at least one of the settings on auto mode, such as either the aperture, the shutter speed or the ISO.
Types of light trails – What to focus on!
The above photographs are just a few examples of types of light trails to focus on and are taken by me.
One of the most common light trails is fireworks. For the fireworks, you need an exposure of 4 to 8 seconds but no more, because as more you expose the fireworks, more fireworks will actually explode and can make a big mess into the image.
The next type of light trails is actually the traffic and this is the beauty of it. Most of the traffic you are going to capture is around an urban area with illuminated streets or buildings around. At this moment, you have plenty of light, therefore, step down the aperture as much as you can, even to an f/16 to be able to take long-exposure light trails. Keep the ISO at its minimum.
In an amusement park during the night there are Ferris wheels or different lights spinning or in motion. Taking a long exposure will create those beautiful effects of light in motion, and this will be another brilliant idea to focus on.
Lightning strikes – to be able to capture lightning strikes from a storm you need to set up your camera on a tripod with the same settings more or less as taking light trails – therefore you will take lightning strikes light trails, or simply, capture more lightning strikes.
One last but not the least idea of creating light trail is to actually write on the air with a flashlight as in the image I took from above. You can write anything, from initials to heart and different shapes – as long as your imagination and skill can set you up for this. But you will definitely need a wireless shutter release controller to be able to control the shutter speed time and to set your camera on bulk mode.
Accessories recommended when capturing light trails
Tripod and shutter release would be the only two accessories I recommend.
TO have a tripod is kinda mandatory when taking light trails photographs. You simply cannot take any long exposures without a tripod.
As for the shutter release I would recommend you to have (they are very cheap) – the reason is that you don’t have to click your camera shutter and induce any unnecessarily shake into the image – having a shutter release controller would be the easiest way to capture any long exposure without to touch the camera at all. And as I’ve mentioned above, if your aim with light trails is to write with the light on the thin air, you need to have a wireless shutter release controller. Here is one I strongly recommend it (amazon affiliate link) as I have it for my Nikon D500 and works flawlessly.
Light trails during the day?
Light trails taken during the day can be a thing as long as the moving light is going to be noticeable, but is not something I would really focus on. You can create all kind of motion during the day which can boost up the beauty of a photo.
But as an idea, as mentioned above, lightning strikes during the day could be one example of light trails to take. Beware, as you will need to step down the aperture a lot or even to have a neutral density (ND) filter attached to your lens to be able to decrease the shutter speed.
How to photograph light trails – Conclusion.
Wherever you are choosing to capture light trails or any other type of photography, by practising you increase your skill and be able to take outstanding photographs. Check our other guide on how to improve your DSLR photography for some unique tips.
In the beginning, if this is your first time capturing light trails, you may get a few fail photos. Believe me, I was the same, and even now, although I am not doing it perfectly, I am doing it good enough to share it with you my experience and what I’ve learned.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope you have an amazing day. See you around!
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