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How do I create light trail images?

Westminster by Night

Have you ever wondered how to go about capturing light trails? They look dramatic and add a dynamic feel to urban images and are easy to capture.

Before I go into technique there is an important factor about this image which lifts it above many light trail shots. The Sky. Its not just a case of shooting at night. In fact the ideal time is a short 15 minute period shortly after the sun has set. For architectural photographers and those after light trails this is the prime time to shoot. If you look at the image you will see the sky is not black, there is still some residual light (twilight) in the sky. In this brief period of minutes the light in the sky balances perfectly with artificial light which is why it is so perfect for capturing architecture and light trails. You can still shoot the light trails when the sky is black but the images won’t be quite as attractive. Have a browse of the finest architectural night photography and you will see the photographer works in this evening twilight period (or gets up early as a similar is experienced some time before sunrise).

Lets say you are in position at the right time. Get there well in advance so you can sort your composition out and get your exposure right before twilight. It is very frustrating to miss the brief twilight window becuase you weren’t in position and set up in time. Needless to say you need to be on a tripod with a remote shutter release. No graduated neutral density filters are needed as the camera can cope with the dynamic range of the image by this time. You may need a standard non-graduated neutral density filter (perhaps a 2-stop) to slow the exposure down if you are getting too short an exposure for the effect you are after (alternatively, you could use a narrower aperture, say, f16. I would avoid using f22 unless I was forced as the image quality will degrade due to ‘diffraction’, but thats another whole issue!)

For these images the lenght of the exposure is as important, if not a little more important, than depth of field. For my shot of Westminster I worked at f11 (which gave me sufficient DOF and kept me close to the sweet spot of the lens (around f8 would be about perfect). At ISO 100 (for the lowest noise possible), this gave me an exposure time of 4 seconds on my 24mm TSE lens. (As I was using a tilt and shift lens, I could have worked at f8 and used the tilt mechanism to give me the depth of field I needed but I was working quickly and didn’t want to complicate matters).

I test out several shutter speeds before the light gets to its best so that I am ready. The speed of the traffic and the brightness of the lights will dictate the length of exposure. Faster moving vehicles need a shorter shutter speed than slower vehicles. In my case, timing was vital. I could have shot when just cars were passing but I found it was worth waiting for a bus to appear as this gave a wider stripe of lights because of the upstairs windows. I fired the shutter, using a handheld remote release, a fraction of a second before the bus entered the frame. A few buses later, I had my image, the light dropped and it was time to head off for more night shots around London.

If you would like to master low light and night photography, why not join me on one of my London Night Workshops. We even have a London Black Cab to drive us around all of the best locations all night. Drop me an email if you are interested as these are selling out before I can list them on my website.

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