Photographing Car Light Trails

Some night photography requires cloudless, black nights in the middle of nowhere. But you can still experiment with night photography even if you can’t make it out to the wilderness on a clear night. All you need is a bit of darkness and a safe place to view some car traffic to practice making light trails.

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m61 2 by Mark Tighe
Car light trails create mysterious beams of light.

What are light trails?

Light trails are the glowing lines of light that appear in a photo when a car with its headlights or taillights on passes through the frame. Light trails can be made with other types of light, but moving traffic is one of the simplest subjects for starting out with this type of photography.

What kind of gear do I need for car light trails?

No specialized gear is required for light trail photography. In fact, a smartphone or a point and shoot camera with a long exposure setting will work. As with any long exposure photography, you’ll need to put your camera or phone on a tripod and use its self timer or a remote to trigger the shutter. This reduces camera shake during long shutter speeds.

Which camera settings should I use?

To reduce noise, use a low ISO. This will also allow for longer shutter speeds, which are essential to capturing light trails. Choose a small aperture size, such as f/16 to ensure that most of your scene is in focus, and, again, to allow for longer exposure times.

Choosing the right shutter speed will take some experimentation. The longer the shutter stays open, the longer and more fluid your light trails will appear. Too short of a shutter speed won’t necessarily produce light rails, but it might still make an interesting image with motion blur. Start with a shutter speed of about five seconds, and then increase or decrease the time the shutter is open to suit your tastes.

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110 Wife by Neil Kremer
A shorter shutter speed of .0.3 seconds blurs motion but doesn’t create significant light trails.

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Lakeshore Dr light trails by Rick Seidel
An 8 second exposure recorded the light trails of passing traffic, but no other evidence of the vehicles shows up in the image.

What time and location are best for light trail photography?

Evening and night are the easiest times for photographing car light trails. Stormy days and foggy mornings when cars are using their headlights also work for long exposures, but they require shorter shutter speeds, so you may need to use an ND filter to achieve smoother light trails.

42-21112582 by bm.iphone The scenery during daytime adds to this light trail image.

42-21112582 by bm.iphone
The scenery during daytime adds to this light trail image.

Shooting from a high vantage point is particularly handy with light trail photography. Freeway overpasses, hills, and bridges give you an interesting perspective. Dramatic bends in the road can make for lovely trails in the shapes of S-curves.

If you’re shooting from the ground, make sure you’re visible and safe. Look for a background that provides context or adds a point of interest to the photo. Often this is a sign or a piece of architecture.

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Go By Streetcar by Ian Sane.
The neon sign adds an element of place and interest to this ground-level light trail photo.

There’s not much to getting great car light trail photos. After you’ve scouted out a spot to watch traffic and stabilized your camera, you just need to fiddle with your shutter speed until you capture colorful streams of light.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit nicoalprice.com for more info.

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