I love photographing at night. It opens up a whole new world of photographic opportunities. Subjects and scenes that can be mundane or uninspiring during the day can turn dynamic and exciting after the sun has set. Colours change, lights come and everything takes on a whole new vibe.
Rather than to try to describe it, I think maybe an example could better illustrate this point.
With the lower light around twilight and later, comes slower shutter speeds. With slower shutter speeds, comes the opportunity to add another dynamic element to the photograph, car light trails.
Hopefully these examples have piqued the interest. So what kind of gear do you need for night photography? Fortunately there aren’t a whole lot of requirements and you likely already have the equipment you need.
Camera – Preferably one that will allow you access to control your aperture, shutter speed and ISO. For different low light subjects, you might want a mirrorless or DSLR for its better low light performance, but for car light trails, the shutter speeds will rarely exceed 30 seconds, so pretty much any camera will do.
Tripod – With shutter speeds varying between 1 sec and 30 seconds, you’ll need something stable to put your camera on. A tripod will give you much more flexibility than anything else.
Cable Release – Some might argue this to be optional in favour of the camera’s self timer, but car light trails are generally about timing. A cable release, wired or wireless, give you the ability to trip the shutter exactly when you want it rather than attempting to estimate where that car will be in 2 seconds.
Other Useful Gear
Small flashlight/headlamp – Hopefully this doesn’t shock you, but low light photography means it’s dark out. When it’s dark it is harder to see the controls of your camera. A flashlight or headlamp will help with this.
Large flashlight – Depending on where you are, you may need to find your way in the dark. A flashlight can help you with this. While obviously avoiding ever pointing it at cars, it can also be used to paint some light onto the surroundings.
Intervalometer – Useful if you want to wanted to do a timelapse
Spare batteries – Long exposures and cooler weather at night can both do a number on your camera battery. It’s always useful to have a spare or two with you.
Timer/Stopwatch – With some low light images, you might want to venture beyond the typical 30 second maximum that most cameras have in aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes. You’ll venture into Bulb mode. A timer or stopwatch is a handy thing to have in order to tell how long your exposure is. Many cameras display how long has passed on an exposure, but often the display will dim and you’ll have to touch the camera to light it up again. Ideally with a long exposure, we want to avoid touching the camera.
Light Trail Photo Tips
Shoot in RAW – Car light trails are usually bright, contrasted against a darker background. This can often trick your camera into metering incorrectly. Throw in some buildings with some lights on into the mix as well and the wide dynamic range on both ends can sometimes be difficult to deal with. A RAW image will provide more flexibility in taming some of these extremes.
Look for Buses, Trucks, Transports – Basically anything with lights on the sides or inside. They can provide some more layered interest in your light trails
Head to Traffic Lights – Getting good light trails is a matter of setting up and waiting for the right subject to drive past. Traffic lights stack the deck (and the cars) for you, giving you a much more predictable subject.
Try Stacking – Often times when trying to capture light trails, it might be late and you find yourself without enough traffic actually going past. Instead of light trails, you’ve only got a light trail which may not provide quite enough interest. What I will sometimes do in this instance is to make a few exposures and stack them together later in post production.
Bring a Friend – This isn’t so much a technical tip as a practical, safety one. When photographing light trails, you are often deeply focused on your camera and your subject and perhaps not as much on your surroundings. Bring a friend along to help with some of the situational awareness you might be lacking on your own.
Don’t Forget Composition – When trying a new technique, it’s so easy to get lost in the technique itself. That’s great, learn that and get that down first, but then start thinking again about overall composition. The light trails can be the star of your image, but you still need think of the other elements, like foreground and background, that make up a successful image.
What settings should I use? This is a tricky one because the answer is the dreaded “it depends”. If you want to capture some detail in a vehicle as it’s streaking past, you might only want a 1 or 2 second exposure. On the flip side, if you’ve got your wide angle out and want to capture the light trail from a vehicle over a longer distance, you’ll be veering more towards the 30 seconds and beyond. Depending on the location and situation, cars will travel at different speeds, which will affect the resultant light trail as it moves through your frame.
The most important take from the paragraph above is that you are thinking in terms of time, and thus shutter speed is the most important factor. I tend to put my camera in Shutter Priority or Manual mode and dial in the shutter speed into whatever exposure will get me there. You might not know the speed, but experiment a bit and you’ll get there.
ISO is something I do tend to want to control manually in the dark. Your camera, if left on Auto ISO, will try to be helpful and may push your ISO higher than you’d like it to be and add the noise that can come with it.
Hopefully this has inspired you to head out and explore some light trail photography. Have fun and experiment with it and you’re likely to get hooked.