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a colorful and moving ferris wheel shot at long exposure

Night Photography: How to Shoot Stunning Light Trails

At night, the city lights up in a display of colors. It’s the perfect time to practice your long exposure photography skills and capture some light trails. Light trails create a sense of speed and energy in the image. A viewer inherently knows that the light trail was created by a moving object, so they perceive it as action in the image.

You can manipulate this effect and use it to your advantage. For example, the viewer can’t really tell how fast a bus is traveling down the street. As long as it doesn’t stop, you can just lengthen your shutter speed to capture a lot of movement in even a slow-moving vehicle.

a bus passing by the parliament building and the Big Ben at night

What do you need?

For this style of photography, you don´t need fancy gear, just the basics:

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release, such as MIOPS Smart, Remote Plus, or Mobile Dongle

Step 1: Find your composition

At the most general level, photographing light trails involves finding a spot where you’ll see the light trails created by cars, securing your digital camera, setting a long exposure setting on your camera, and shooting at a time when cars will be on the move to create the trail of light.

moving cars captured at night with long exposure photography techniques

Step 2: Camera settings

  • Shoot in RAW
  • Choose the lowest ISO values
  • Set your aperture to the sweet spot of your lens, in the f/8 to f/11 range
  • Use a shutter speed of about 10-30 seconds through Bulb mode
  • Try to use manual focus

Choose a small aperture that will maximize your depth of field. This will ensure everything in your image is tack sharp, and also help you to control the exposure. Essentially, you want the background of your shot to be fairly dark, but still visible, and the streaks of light to be bright, but not blown out.

A larger aperture, like f/2.8, lets more light into the camera and will force you to use faster shutter speed to expose the shot correctly. A faster shutter speed won’t produce light trails.

a person creating light trails with a light source while the other stands below him under an open umbrella

Step 3: Use the shutter release

With everything ready to go, it’s time to take the shot. When you’re using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, just pressing the shutter button can introduce vibration into your photos.

The best way to avoid this is to use a remote trigger or shutter release cable such as the MIOPS devices. Another advantage is that you can program the settings and work from a longer distance to focus instead, on your composition.

Even pros twist the lights

If you are more acknowledged in post-production, you can also try to stack together different long exposures, the same as you would do to create a starlight trail. This is a simple way to increase the number of trails and their length.

Snap many photos of the scene, load them into Photoshop as layers, and blend them in Lighten mode. This way you blend only the brightest pixels and will have more trails than in the single images.

Light trails photography does not require tons of expensive photography gear. And it’s simple to create.

If you love urban photography, you will have great fun. And you’ll get to see the city come to life as you have never seen before. Your own living space will the best place to start practicing.

star trails captured in long exposure with arctic mountains

Step 4: Repeat, repeat, repeat

Don’t stop after your first shot. Light trail photography takes experimentation, first to get the settings just right and then to get the image you really want. Check the #lighttrails hashtag on Instagram if you need some inspiration.

If you are not happy with the initial results, just start playing with your composition. Place your camera on a different angle, adjust the settings by increasing or decreasing the diaphragm and time of exposition. With practice, you will find the settings on your choice that will do upcoming workflow more fluent. 

the busy machines moving and turning at an amusement park by night

Related Article: Best Tricks for Shooting Stunning Long Exposure Photographs

About The Author Manuel Delgado:

Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.

Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany. 

Manuel Delgado Instagram Profile