Light Trails: Photographing Car Lights at Night
Photographing car lights at night is an easy way to take beautiful urban images in towns and cities. We’ve all seen these light trail images, and the technique behind them is surprisingly simple to do.
It’s a common technique and definitely not a fresh take on city photos. However, the resulting images can still be quite striking with strong composition.
Regardless, photographing car lights at night is a great way to become accustomed with the manual mode of your camera and how different shutter speeds affect light in your photo.
How to photograph car lights at night
As a car drives past, a fast shutter speed will freeze the movement. The result would be a sharp car with no light trails. But if you switch your camera into a semi-auto or full manual mode and slow down the shutter speed, you’ll be able to see the lights begin to trail.
This is because a slow shutter speed means that the camera’s sensor is exposed to light for longer. As the car moves through the scene, the moving sources of light are recorded in the final image. This is the concept behind a light trail photo.
Why doesn’t the car blur?
The darker it is, the less likely you are to see any shapes of the moving cars. With the car not in one place for any given amount of time, there is not enough light reflecting off of it to make an impression in the final photo.
If you were to attempt to shoot a light trail image in daylight (using filters to reduce the light passing to the camera), then you may start to see some “ghosting” of the car.
But at dusk and nighttime, you will not seen the car in your photo.
What settings do you need to photograph car lights?
It may be possible to use a semi-automatic mode here to make things easier. Shutter priority mode (sometimes indicated as Tv on your camera’s mode dial) means that you adjust the shutter speed only, and the camera adjusts the other settings to balance the exposure.
However, this won’t always be possible because the darker it gets, the harder it is for the camera to effectively adjust the other settings. Once it’s too dark, you’ll need to use full manual mode.
Manual is the best mode for this anyway, as it gives you total control over the camera and the final product.
There are no specific settings you should dial in, but a good starting point when shooting at night would be to use a shutter speed of 1 second and a low ISO value like 200. Your aperture depends on the ambient light, and you should increase the f-number (to reduce the amount of light available) progressively until the resulting image is exposed properly.
The longer your shutter speed is, the physically longer your light trails will be in the image. But they will also get brighter as more cars pass, and they can become so bright that the image is ruined.
So it is essential to experiment with the settings until you have the desired effect. Starting with a 1 second exposure, keep increasing the shutter speed so that your exposure is longer and longer until the light trails look how you imagined.
With digital cameras, there is no harm in shooting repeated photos until you get it right.
Equipment you’ll need to bring
We’ve looked at the settings you’ll need and how to actually create a light trail, but to produce a quality photo you’ll need to bring some pieces of equipment with you.
For photographing car lights at night, it is absolutely essential that you use a tripod. Using a slow shutter speed without a tripod will render the shot completely blurred and useless.
A tripod keeps the camera steady and ensures that the only moving element of your frame is the car lights. Something like the Manfrotto Befree travel tripod is ideal for working in urban areas. It’s very light, portable, and quick to set up.
You’ll also need a remote release (also known as an intervalometer) to trigger your camera without you touching it. This means that there is no shake introduced to the camera by you pressing the shutter button.
If you don’t want to spend the extra on a release, you can use the self-timer mode. But this isn’t foolproof, and it does delay your reaction speed to capturing the scene.
Composing shots for different effects
The natural linear appearance of car light trails can create strong leading lines in your scene. This is an effective element in your composition, as it draws the viewer’s eye through the image.
You can use this to your advantage, and get creative with how it is used.
For example, a winding road through a mountainous area will result in a snaking light trail that disappears into the distance.
To do this, though, you’ll likely need to use a neutral density filter to allow you to use such a long shutter speed that the car is able to pass through the entire scene whilst retaining the correct exposure.
Filters will also allow you to capture light trails at sunrise or sunset, creating a more unique style of shot.
Back in the city centre, you can think about your positioning relative to the road. If you have the opportunity to safely position your tripod on an island in the middle of the road, you can capture lights moving all around you.
Or, you could go up high and shoot down at the road from above. A roundabout or twisting highway junction would provide an interesting circular pattern with lines of cars taking their exits.
Composition is where your creativity really takes ahold. This is also what turns a simple light trail into a more dramatic one.
Now you know the concepts behind photographing car lights at night. As you can see, it isn’t all that hard and is a really fun thing to try out with your camera.
Once you’ve got some great images, you’ll also have an understanding of how manual mode works and of the different settings that form the exposure triangle.
Give it a shot. Stay safe, and good luck!