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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

A beginner's guide to light trail photography

Dark winter nights are perfect for getting creative with light trails, and it's a great way to start to understand how to use longer shutter speeds to blur motion without the need for filters. So in this blog, we look at how to get off auto mode and get started with light trail photography.

What is light trail photography?

We're used to seeing the lights of cars and buses moving around in these dark winter evening, but our eyes see them as points of light. Cameras give us the opportunity to see this night time world differently, by blurring motion using long shutter speeds (which I normally define as anything longer than around 1/2 a second or longer).  

The photo below shows the lights of a bus passing the camera, captured using a shutter speed of 30 seconds which has turned the various lights on the bus into light trails

What you'll need

1.  A camera with manual exposure controls

Most cameras (even most phone cameras!) allow you to set the exposure manually. On most bridge, DSLR and mirrorless cameras this means changing the mode dial to the 'S' or sometimes 'Tv' (Shutter Priority) or 'M' (Manual) mode position. It's usually better to use full Manual mode for this type of shot, but for beginner's using Shutter Priority (S) is easier to understand, so I will focus on this method in the remainder of this description.  See also my beginner's guide to getting off auto, here

2. A tripod

As it's not possible to keep your camera completely steady during the long shutter speeds needed, you're going to need a tripod to hold your camera firm.  You don't need to spend lots of money on a tripod; as long as it holds your camera securely then that's all that's needed. I once had someone on one of my training courses who had a basic £15 tripod from a well known discount supermarket, and that did the job just fine! At a push, you can just find somewhere to rest your camera such as a wall or a bench, but this will limit your ability to compose the photo properly.

3. You need to find out where your shutter delay mode is

Ideally you should find out where your shutter delay mode is on your camera and set it to '2 second delay' (this is often found in your 'drive mode' settings. This is so that you don't jiggle the camera by pressing the shutter button manually. Alternatively you can use a remote release if you have one (these can be cable releases, dedicated remote control releases or even an app on your phone). 

4. Find a suitable location

Think about suitable roadside locations where there will be moving traffic and you can safely set up your camera. Give some thought to where might make a good composition around the light trails.  


1. Choose the right time to head to your chosen location

Although you can capture light trails when it is completely dark, it's often better to do so in the 'blue hour' at dusk, after the sun has set and it's not completely dark. This is so that there is some detail and interest in the sky rather than it just being black. If you're lucky there might still be some colour in the sky following a nice sunset. See my beginner's guide to blue hour photography here.

2. Look for compositions that work

It's often better to look for potential compositions BEFORE putting your camera on the tripod. Although the aim is to capture light trails, it's important not to forget the basics of composition to make sure the overall photo is interesting. See my beginner's guide to composition here

3. Put your camera on the tripod

Place your camera on the tripod, and make sure it's securely attached. Also make sure all of the moving parts of the tripod are tight, so that there is no movement during your long exposure. Do final adjustments to get the composition that you want. 

4. Adjust your camera settings

- Set your camera mode to Shutter Priority (usually 'S' or 'Tv')

- Adjust the shutter speed until you have a 'good' exposure. Normally this is done by turning the dial on the top left of the camera body, but you may need to check your camera manual. 

You can tell that you have a good exposure using your light meter (the arrow will be somewhere in the middle), your histogram (all of the peaks will be somewhere in the middle of the graph, not scrunched up on the left or the right of the graph) or the image preview will look well exposed (not too dark or too bright). The shutter speed you achieve will very much depend on how dark it is, but hopefully you will be able to get to at least 10 seconds without over-exposing the image.  

- Set your shutter delay to 2 seconds, or set up your remote shutter release. 

- Wait for a suitable vehicle, or vehicles to come towards you (buses are great as they have lights at various levels) then 'press' your shutter. You will have to pre-empt things a little if you are using a 2 second delay.

- Your camera may take a moment to focus (as focus systems work on contrast, as long as there are some lights in the scene, it should achieve focus OK) and then it will take the long exposure shot. Hopefully you have captured some light trails! As every shot will be different depending on what lights are passing, it's always good to experiment for a while. 

Final words

While we're waiting for the lighter spring evenings, why not get out and make the most of the dark winter evenings and experiment with some light trail photography? I guarantee you'll learn a lot about long exposure photography, and you might even get some great photos too!

Want to jump-start your learning?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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