A beginner's guide to photographing light trails

A beginner's guide to photographing light trails

First published:
February 26, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Top tips for capturing streaks of light for that ultimate ‘rush hour’ image

We’ve all seen imagery taken at night that features ‘light trails’ – dramatic streaks of often red light that float above a road and dominate the frame yet look like out-of-place echoes or ghosts. Where do these lights come from – and how did the photographer capture them? The answer, of course, is that they’re usually the headlights or taillights of cars allowed to move through the frame. These moving lights are captured when the photographer opens a camera’s shutter for several seconds.

It might seem like an advanced technique, but with some basic equipment, simple settings and some easy-to-follow guidelines it’s possible for beginners to create a light-trail image with minimum effort.

Here are some top tips to get you started:

1 What you need and how to begin

London Rush Hour. Photo by Perspective Photography - ISO 100 | f/10 | 8s

To attempt light trail photography you’re going to need a camera that can be put into manual (M) mode. It’s also got to have a ‘bulb’ (B) mode that allows you to determine the shutter speed if over 30 seconds. Almost all DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer this functionality, as do many smaller compact cameras. You’ll also need a tripod and preferably a wide-angle lens so you don't miss anything.

The length of your shutter speed will determine how short or long light trails are. Although there are many places to take light trail photography, beginners should find an elevated location overlooking a busy city at night. Such locations are away from dangerous traffic where you can safely experiment with settings and create incredible images of streaks of white and red light whizzing around busy urban environments. A good place to start is ISO 800, a five-second shutter speed and an aperture of around f/8 – then experiment from there to find what works best (be patient!). 

Author’s tip:

An essential part of your kit bag is a tripod. Only by keeping your camera completely still while the shutter is open will it be possible to create a sharp, blur-free image with a distinctive light trail running through it. An intervalometer if a shutter release cable is essential because you need to react to traffic when deciding went open and close the shutter. Always re-focus every time you change your composition.

2 Branching out

Car drives around the bend
Car drives around the bend. Photo by Richard Bacon - ISO 100 | f/18 | 30s

There are many locations for light trail photography, some obvious and some far less so.

Bridges over highways and motorways are great locations for capturing the white headlights and red tail lights of traffic moving both toward and away from you. Another common location for light trail photography is to set up a tripod close to a road – preferably on a bend – and have cars travelling into the frame from the front and behind. However, this can be a very dangerous shot that’s not recommended to try this as a beginner.

Another common light trail shot is to find an empty landscape with a road running through it. When the light is low close to sunrise or sunset it's possible to open the shutter for several minutes, using a very low ISO, to capture the long, winding tail lights or headlights of a car as it travels through your composition. However, do think beyond car lights. If you can find a position overlooking a marina or port you can try to capture the light trails created by yachts, ferries and boats as they come and go. Similarly, motorbike headlights in busy Asian cities give a different ‘wobbly’ quality to their headlights and taillights, as do people out running around cities at night while wearing head torches and/or red light armbands. 

Author’s tip:

Once you’ve mastered the basics and achieved some usable images try experimenting with both your settings and your equipment to get something unusual. For example, why not try a short exposure without using a tripod? Using the same settings you perfected for a tripod shot, a handheld version will be abstract and disorientating to look at – which may be just the effect you’re looking for. 

3 Get your timing right

Tower bridge traffic trails
Tower bridge traffic trails. Photo by Keith Cavanagh - ISO 200 | f/14 | 8s

For light trail shots, timing is everything. Go in the ‘blue hour’ (just before sunrise and just after sunset when you’ll get soft natural light and cool colour temperatures) and you’ll have to use shorter exposures, but you’ll get more visible backdrops and foregrounds. Go in the dead of night to a rural location and you’ll need much longer exposures, which will mean images long on trails, but short on context (though often with the added bonus of stars above).

Taking the actual image is all about timing, too. Exactly where the light trails begin and end in your finished photo will depend on when you open and close the shutter. If you want it to begin and end within the frame – suggesting “where did it go?” unease in the viewer – then open the shutter as the vehicle appears in the frame (or, rather, when its tail lights are in the right place) and close it before it exits the frame. In practice, this is difficult to do because the vehicles can be moving fast and they can be hard to see in your viewfinder at night. To take images of a car driving through a big landscape take a lot more practice and patience, with much longer shutter speeds required – and likely many time-consuming re-shoots. Wrap up warm!

Author tip:

Whenever you’re taking images at night or in low light always shoot in RAW quality as well a JPEG. That way you’ll retain a lot more data, which will make it much easier and cleaner to post-process images in software like Photoshop or Gimp. It’s also a good idea to stay at ISO 800 or thereabouts to keep your images clean and noise-free, though that will depend on your camera (full-frame cameras can often cleanly go beyond ISO 3200).

4 Using a smartphone

Hanoi at night
Hanoi at night. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala - ISO 100 | f/14 | 20s

Although DSLR and mirrorless cameras are the best choices for capturing light trails, it’s increasingly possible to use a smartphone, too. There are various ‘night modes’ on cameras that can be worth experimenting with – and a handful even have a dedicated ‘light trail’ mode – but all you really need is a smartphone that offers a ‘pro mode’ that allows the shutter speed to be changed.

However, don’t despair if your smartphone doesn’t have any of these because there are a plethora of smartphone apps that allow long-exposure photography, such as Camera+2, ProCamera and Camera FV-5.

Author tip:

There are also some apps available that specifically deal in light trails. One of the best is Slow Shutter Cam, which has a dedicated Light Trail mode in which you can manually set the light sensitivity, the shutter speed and the ISO. However, to use it effectively you will need to mount your smartphone on a tripod, just as you would a camera. Other apps that include a light trail mode include Moment Pro Camera and Shutter Stop. 

5 Staying safe

Light trails at sunset. Photo by Lou Howell - ISO 100 | f/14 | 20s

Safety is so important when trying light-trail photography. Since you’re going to be after a shot where the point of view is everything it’s imperative that you scout a location ahead of time. That goes double because the shot has to be taken at night. It’s also worth thinking about the places you will be at night; areas close to busy roads, motorways and bridges over highways aren’t exactly the safest places to be during darkness.

Setting up a tripod yards from a major road is never a good idea – drivers will not see you crouched behind a tripod in the dark and nor will they be expecting you to be there.If you must do this, wear very bright and very reflective clothing. A far safer way of approaching this kind of shot is to go somewhere completely deserted and have someone drive a car through your shot on purpose. It will be trial-and-error, but you’ll have total control even down to the speed of the driver.

Author’s tip:

If you do go somewhere remote you can actually drive the car through the shot yourself by using your camera’s shutter delay or by using an intervalometer to operate your camera from afar. However, for this to work you do need to both get your timings exact and then drive your vehicle through the frame … and back. There’s nothing more annoying than having a perfect light trail ruined by a car doing a U-turn and driving back through it!
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