How To Photograph Light Trails :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Photograph Light Trails

by David Peterson 3 comments

Light trails make the city come alive at night. Many people think it takes a lot of work to get an image of light trails, but that couldn't be further from the truth. With a tripod and a camera that allows you to play around in manual mode, you'll be ready to capture some of the most colorful and vivacious images you've ever seen. Try out these tips for photographing light trails.

How Light Trails Happen

If you've read any of my previous articles on night photography, you know that you need to keep your camera's shutter open for a long time in order to capture the light that reflects off of your surroundings. Why is that? Most of the available light sources at night aren't nearly as bright as the sun. While you might normally take a picture with a shutter speed of 1/125s during the day, you'll need a much slower shutter speed of 3 to 5 seconds to take the same picture at night.

When you keep your shutter open for such a long period of time, any light source in your image becomes a bright spot. You could say these areas of the photo are overexposed or completely blownout, but it's a little bit different when you are doing it for artistic reasons. These light sources, when they are moving, become light trails.

Think of your camera like it's an Etch A Sketch. As cars pass by the front of it, both the rear and front lights draw lines across your image sensor. Because there is no other light to compete with the cars, you get light trails that go on for as long as your shutter is open. So, in order to get light trails, you need moving light sources, and you need to keep your shutter open long enough to capture their movement.

Why It's Important To Have A Tripod

There's a reason why you should have a tripod. It keeps your camera still so your light trails remain as crisp and clean as possible. If you shake your camera while the lights pass by, they will blur, and you won't achieve the same effect. The tripod is also important because you won't simply want to take pictures of light trails. You'll want to capture buildings and anything else that is illuminated by the reflected the light. You don't want that part of the image to be blurry either.

Some photographers go so far as to purchase wireless remotes for their cameras. This prevents any chance of shaking the camera as you press the shutter button. But if you're more budget minded, you can just use your camera's self-timer. With the self timer activated, the shutter won't open until a few seconds after you press the shutter button. So setup the shot with manual controls, press the shutter, and then step back. Your image should be perfectly still if you've done everything correctly.

Which Manual Settings Work The Best?

Even if you're using a point-and-shoot camera, you'll still want to take your pictures in manual mode. Automatic modes don't allow you to use extremely long shutter speeds like 3s or 5s. In some cases, you'll be keeping your shutter open for as long as 30s.

I like to set my aperture to F8 first (although it doesn't really matter that much for these kinds of photos). As long as you pick an aperture higher than F8, you should be pretty well set. After that, I simply start experimenting with different shutter speeds, using the fastest one first.

You'll need to experiment because not all light sources move at the same speed. Your biker friend and his bike light don't move nearly as fast as a car that's speeding down the interstate. Keep checking your LCD to make sure the light trails are filling the entire frame and not just a portion of it. If your trails aren't long enough, keep your shutter open longer. Generally speaking, your range will be somewhere between 3s and 30s.

If You Have Bulb Mode, Make Use Of It

Most entry level digital SLRs have a special shutter mode called bulb mode. When you are in bulb mode, you can keep your shutter open as long as you want. You need only press the button, wait until you have captured the light trail, and then press it again. Or on some models, you keep the shutter depressed as long as you wish the shutter to remain open. To keep the image stable in this mode, I highly recommend a remote shutter release.

Bulb mode eliminates some of the guess work in figuring out how long you should keep your shutter open. When you see a car approaching, press your shutter button, and as soon as it's gone, press it again. Instead of hoping a car will fill a time window, you can simply wait until a car approaches to press the shutter button.

To get good at taking light trail photos, you'll need to practice. It takes some time to learn how to make these images with any new camera, and not all cameras give you the same degree of creative freedom. The more you get out, the better you'll get at it. Just remember to bring some warm clothes.

Have you taken some light trail photos that you're really proud of? I'd love to see them! Share then with me (and other photography lovers) in our new Digital Photo Secrets Light Trails Gallery.

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  1. Joni says:

    I have a canon 5d m3 - what lens/lenses work best

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Joni,

      It really depends on what type of light trail photo you want to achieve. A lens like a 18mm will give you a great wide angle view of the whole highway, whereas zooming in to 100mm or 200mm will get you closer to one car.

      If you have a kit lens with a zoom, try a few different zooms first and settle on the one you like the most.

      If you're not sure what I mean about the mm numbers on the lens, look here:

      I hope that helps.



    during light trail photography, where shall I have to focus?

    • David Peterson says:


      I'd focus somewhere near the middle of where the cars are moving through your image. Although it doesn't really matter what you focus on. Most of the image will be blurry anyway because of the long shutter time.


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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.