Capturing light trails can be great fun, can teach you more about your camera and if done right can garner very impressive results. But it’s not as simple as just turning up and setting a long shutter speed.
Get there early
I’m a great believer that unless you get very lucky you don’t just pitch up at a location spend 5 minutes getting your shot and go home again with a killer shot in your camera. Generally the longer you can spend at a location the better the shot you’ll go home with. For this shot I turned up at the location about 30 minutes before sunset, even though I would be shooting after sunset. This gave me time to scout the best location on the bridge, setup, check all the camera settings and take some test shots.
It’s all about the light
This is one of the oldest photography mantras there is and it is just as applicable here as it is when shooting during the day. I’m not referring to the light from the cars here but the ambient light. For me the thing that makes this image is the post sunset sky. If it hadn’t been a beautiful sunset on this particular evening I wouldn’t even have stopped the car. For me, the difference between these light trails disappearing into the beautiful red of the sunset compared with simply heading into a void of black is what makes the shot. Equally I would not have shot in the other direction.
Busy is best
This time of year is probably the optimum time for creating this kind of shot because sunset coincides with rush hour. For me, the more cars there are travelling down the road the better the shot will be. In the summer when the sun sets at 9:30 the road will be almost empty, not great for light trails. In an ideal world you definitely want a busy road.
Clean and uncluttered
Although much of the scene will be in silhouette which obviously tends to hide a multitude of sins as far as un-tidiness is concerned it’s still worth trying to find a location that is fairly clear anyway, especially along the road. In this image there is just one road sign visible and I wish that wasn’t there.
What settings to use
As always there is more than one way to do these things and all I can do is say how I did it. Remember, if the end result is good then you must have done it right, no matter how you did it. With that in mind, here’s the process I went through. I have my camera on a tripod, on a bridge, overlooking the motorway and using my hot shoe level I make sure that the horizon is level. The next thing to consider is the composition. Now this shot is all about leading lines and I think it is one of those occasions where the rule of thirds is made to be broken. Not one element of this shot obeys this rule. If we consider this a landscape shot then this may seem a little odd. Landscapes invariably obey the rule of thirds. The horizon line is usually on a thirds line and so is the subject, but it’s also about what the important elements of a photograph are. In this case I felt that the important elements were the leading lines of the lights and the sky. I felt that the sky had equal importance so I decided to give it as much of the image as the lights. This is why for this particular shot the horizon is more or less dead centre. ND Filter
- Get there early
- Focus to infinity
- Pick a beautiful evening
- Shoot into the sunset
- After sunset
- Underexpose by using 30s when it should be more
- Watch the cars slow down thinking you are police
- Use a graduated ND filter
- clean and uncluttered silhouete