Photographing traffic light trails – a quick guide

Done correctly, traffic light trails can produce striking almost abstract images. However, getting the perfect shot isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

So, what’s the technique behind it?

Well, the good news is to capture light trails all you need is a camera that will allow you to control the exposure time and a tripod, no expensive filters required, no fancy lens’s although a very wide lens will give a more dramatic result, as we’ll see further down the page.

Obviously, you won’t be capturing light trails in daylight, no lights on the traffic equals no light trails, no matter how much you filter out the light so we’ll be working at dusk, dawn or for best results at night.

Also, think carefully about your location. An obvious place to start is a motorway footbridge. The advantages here are, dark road, lots of traffic and on a bridge you can get central to it safely.

The actual technique is the same in all the shots below. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and try to get your shutter speed into the 20s sort of bracket, any more and you risk flooding the scene with too much light, 20s on fast moving traffic will be more than enough. Be careful to not to over or underexpose the surrounding area. Under exposed and you’ll get a dark image with the light trails, over exposed and it’ll likely take on a brownish hue and look false. Get the scene correct and let the light trails take care of themselves!

This shot was taken on a bridge on top of a 2 lane dual carriageway, the trick here is to time the shot when the most traffic is in the scene, try to make sure there are cars on both side of the road to get a balanced shot.

Light Trails and Light Pollution

Another option is to get right down to the roadside and take the shot from the pavement. Don’t be tempted to do this with a motorway for obvious reasons. A squashed photographer doesn’t take many good shots! This is best attempted in an urban area where there is something of significant background interest.

This shot was taken at the top of the Mound in Edinburgh, the technique is mainly the same as above. Expose the scene correctly and then wait for the traffic before you open the shutter. Don’t just give it one go, once your setup, take loads, you’ll get all different results. Emergency vehicles with flashing lights give unusual results too.

Once you’re in an urban setting buses are your friend. As the bus is lit inside as well as having headlights you get a stronger trail from a bus. Double deckers are even better as it gives you some nice high trails in the shot.

Light Trails on the Mound

Be careful though, this is a failed attempt at side of road light trails, the reason it failed? Too much ambient street lighting. The junction was simply too well lit and the trails just don’t stand out enough.

Failed light trails

This is an example of putting the roadside and central technique together. Here I’ve placed the tripod directly in the centre of Edinburgh’s famous Princes Street. Luckily, this location has a small thin traffic island running the length of the road providing a safe area to take the shot.

This example was taken with a very wide lens at 10mm. There’s a lot of ambient light here but it’s out to the sides of the shot and doesn’t affect the trails. As there’s a LOT of bus traffic it’s a near perfect location. This is a 20s exposure at f22. The scene is correctly exposed, there’s sufficient background interest and because the traffic goes along in a straight line we get very definite straight light trails. By far the best method but choose your location carefully and above all, be safe.

Princes Street light trails

Princes Street Light Trails - Explored

You can also just about do this sort of shot at dusk or dawn. This was meant to be a sunrise shot with the big wheel and Scott Monument, in the event it was dull and overcast. There was too much light to get a 20s exposure but even the shorter exposure has added to a not very dramatic scene adding a much needed burst of colour.

The wheel at dawn

So there you have it. It’s not that hard and it’s 90% about choosing your location wisely. Do experiment when you find a good location, different densities of traffic provide very different shots. Don’t be afraid to rattle off hundreds of shots if need be. Every one will be different and you never know what might be the best when you download the results.

Feel free to leave a comment below or show us your best light trail examples!

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One response

  1. Excellent photos and some great advice. Thankyou.

    November 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm

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