Ah, yes the joys of traffic. If you have ever lived in a big city or have just passed through one you know the feeling - that sinking feeling of knowing you're nowhere near your destination, and are not likely to get there any time soon. If only there was a way to make traffic more interesting. Well guess what? There is. How about making it a photography subject? Keep reading to find out more.
Yes, traffic stinks. So most of the time, the goal of your traffic photography should be express that—or at the very least to convey some sense of the meaning of traffic: what is it like to be stuck in it, what it is like to be a slave to it, and ultimately, what it says about life in the city and the human condition in the modern world.
Unless you're a naturally sadistic person, the chances are pretty good that you don't find a lot of beauty in stopped traffic. There really isn't a lot of beauty in traffic when it's moving, either. So this type of photography needs to capture more emotion and meaning than aesthetics. Your goal should be to take a photo that makes your viewer think. And to do this, you need to carefully consider the way you approach your traffic photography.
No discussion of photographing moving vehicles would be complete without some discussion of safety. I don't have to tell you that cars can be dangerous. And cars being driven by frustrated people can be even more so. I do not recommend standing on the shoulder of your local interstate taking pictures during rush hour. That's a really good way to get a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Instead, find a vantage point to shoot from that is not in the danger zone. The balcony of a building near the interstate would be a good choice. You could also shoot from a congested part of the inner-city—sidewalks are generally pretty safe, although it pays to be alert wherever you are in the city, whether you're taking pictures or not. Whatever you do, stay off the roads themselves, no matter how tempting it may seem. You can always find an interesting—and safe—vantage point to take a picture from, but you can't take any pictures at all if you're dead.
Above all, be aware of what’s around you. It can help to have a friend along to watch your back (and to make sure you don’t do anything silly).
Settings and equipment
Depending on what you're going for, you can take traffic photos with almost any type of camera, though I strongly recommend using a camera that gives you full manual control over your settings. You're going to want to adjust settings like shutter speed and ISO in order to get the most out of the conditions—and a camera with limited user controls and may not make it easy for you.
I also recommend using a tripod. Now, a tripod is not going to be necessary for every shot you take in this genre, but for some of the techniques I'm going to suggest you will absolutely need to have one.
Capturing a movement, or lack thereof
One thing about traffic is that it moves. Sometimes. Albeit slowly. But you do want to capture the fact that these are vehicles that are on the road, not just vehicles that are parked there. This can be tricky to do with cars because they look just about the same when you shoot them in motion as they do when they’re at a stand-still. Now, if your goal is to capture the parking lot-like nature of a traffic jam, that’s not going to be so much of a problem for you. But if you do want to capture a little bit of motion, you will need to use a slow shutter speed technique.
Let's start with a photo you've probably seen and admired many times—the light-trail photograph. This is a really great way to capture traffic that is actually on the go, and to create a mood of hustle and bustle, or of a living and active city. Light-trail photos are nearly always taken at night, and they usually need to include some parts of the landscape—for the most impact, this is generally the city skyline. To shoot a car light-trail image, you need a camera that lets you put your shutter speed in BULB mode. BULB mode is the setting it that you get to right after the 30-second setting—it's the setting that will allow you complete control over how long your shutter remains open. Depending on your camera you may press the shutter button once to open the shutter and again to close it, or you may need to keep the shutter button depressed throughout the exposure. Either way, using BULB mode obviously requires the use of a remote release—a remote release will allow you to release the button without touching the camera and to keep it open for as long as necessary. Obviously you don't want to stand there with your finger on the shutter button throughout the entire exposure, because then you'll get nothing but a bunch of a wobbly camera shake lines.
After-dark images usually require manual mode, because your meter just isn’t that good at figuring out your settings when the light is low. So start with a mid-range aperture such as f/8, and then take a series of test shots at different shutter speeds. Check each one on your LCD until you start to get results you like. Your goal should be to keep your shutter open from the point just before a car enters the frame until just after that same car exits—that way you’ll get a continuous light trail from one side of the image to the other. Remember that cars move at different speeds depending on location and congestion, so your shutter speed may be a lot faster above the freeway after rush hour than it will be in the city at 5pm.
Now it could be that you don't want to capture those after dark light-trail images because that's just not the mood that you're going for. You don't want to tell people how happily busy and pretty the city is, you want to tell them how much it stinks to be sitting in traffic. There are a few things that you can do to help promote this mood. First of all, I like to suggest turning your ISO up. I know, you've probably heard a lot of things about how you should always be shooting at low ISOs, but I am here to tell you that sometimes there's a good use for the noise that you probably associate with photos shot higher ISOs. Digital noise can give your image a gritty, photojournalistic feeling—and when you're shooting the frustration of stopped traffic that may be just what you need. Another thing you can do is convert your photos to black-and-white. Taking the color out of the scene is a great way to convey a sense of gloom and, well, colorlessness.
There are a couple of ways you could approach this type of traffic shot. First, because traffic is rarely completely still you could use a slowish shutter speed to capture a small amount of motion in the cars that pass. Because of the stop and go nature of a traffic jam, you’re likely to get some sharp photos of those cars that aren’t moving, and some cool motion-blurred images of the cars that are. If you are going to use a higher ISO, however, you’re going to have to take these shots at dusk when the light is very low, otherwise you won’t be able to achieve both a high ISO and a slow shutter speed. Again, a tripod is essential—you want the motionless parts of the image to be tack sharp. Set your shutter speed to 1/15 or 1/30 to start, and then change the speed depending on how fast the cars are going and how close your results are to what you’re looking for.
A second way you could approach this scene is to go for the “parking lot” shot, but ideally you don’t want your viewer confusing your photo with an actual parking lot. You want to convey the idea of heavy traffic, but you can’t do this if it’s not clear that there are people in those cars and that they are actually trying to go somewhere.
Brake lights are really necessary to pull this off—there’s nothing like seeing a bunch of brake lights appear in front of you as you’re traveling down the freeway. It always means that traffic is slowing down, so if you don’t get those lights in your shot you’re not conveying the whole story.
To adequately capture those brake lights, you may need to switch back to color. Try to get that whole line of cars and include some of the road, so that your viewer will get a sense of just how big that mess actually is. You could also include other moving elements in the shot—nothing says “I should have taken the train” like a motion blurred light-rail moving along between the rows of stopped cars.
Let’s face it, photographing traffic is so much more fun than sitting in it. So the next time you’re lucky enough to not be one of those shmucks sitting in the stop and go, get your camera out and take some photos. It’s always fun to be reminded of how un-fun traffic is, especially when you’re sitting at home with your car parked in the driveway.
- Stay safe!
- Shoot from a safe distance
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Use a tripod
- Slow shutter speeds can help communicate motion
- Capture car light trails after dark
- Use manual mode
- Try to capture emotion
- Use a medium-slow shutter speed to capture slight movement
- Use a fast shutter speed to communicate traffic at a standstill
- Include brake lights to let your viewer know the cars are stopped
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