Light trails are created by the rotation of light as it passes through water, fog, smoke, dust, or other substances. They are often used in film and television photography for dramatic effects, but can also be found on nature and landscape photographs.
The main trick to shooting great light trails is to find a good location that allows you to create a variety of shapes. This usually means finding a dark setting where you can set up lights to illuminate the surface of the water, or setting up a strobe system to create the effect. If the location has a lot of natural light, it’s much easier to create the trails.
Here’s how to shoot fantastic light trails:
Select A Good Spot For Your Shoot
The first step in creating stunning light trails is choosing a great location. There are plenty of places that work well for this type of photography, but there are also some locations that don’t work well at all. For example, if you’re hoping to capture the Milky Way or a meteor shower, it’s important to get away from city lights as much as possible. You’ll also want to avoid locations with lots of trees and vegetation because they will block out the sky and prevent you from seeing stars clearly through your lens.
You can find a place that has a good amount of traffic. A highway or freeway is perfect, but you can also use a busy city street. You’ll want to shoot in the evening, when there are plenty of cars on the road. If you’re looking for the best results, try to pick a time when there isn’t too much cloud coverage.
Set up the lights and camera
Position a long focal length lens, such as a 70-200mm zoom, and set the camera to manual focus. (If you use automatic focus, the camera will follow the light as it passes through the subject.) To produce a dramatic light trail, use lights with low power settings (i.e., 1/4 to 1/8 of maximum power). Also, use a remote release with low settings to avoid shaking the camera. A wireless shutter release is also useful.
Choose a focal length
Use a long focal length lens so that the water or other substance travels across the image in front of you as you move around the scene. It’s best to use a zoom lens so that you can change the focal length as needed.
Find a dark setting
To get the best results, the background should be very dark. You may need to set up lights inside a building, or in the surrounding shrubbery or undergrowth. However, you will usually get a better result by using a bright moon, cloudy skies, or twilight.
Choose a subject
Try to find a subject that has lots of variation in terms of shape and texture.
Experiment with different positions
Experiment with different angles, tilts, and levels. The best results come from shooting at a 45-degree angle to the subject, with a slight upward tilt. Shooting from below will create a lower light trail, while shooting from above will create a higher one.
Adjust the shutter speed
Shutter speed is the amount of time it takes the camera to expose the image. If the shutter speed is too slow, the light will appear as a blur, and if it’s too fast, the light will appear as streaks. You can adjust the speed by changing the shutter release time. For example, you can increase the time by half to double the exposure. You can also use a flash to freeze the light, or try using a slow shutter speed combined with a remote release.
Try different shutter speeds
Using a wide range of shutter speeds will create different light trails. Start with a slow shutter speed, then increase the speed as needed. This will give you greater control over the final look of the image.
Or, you can keep your shutter speed at least 1/15th of a second or slower to get longer light trails. A slower shutter speed will also give you more control over how long your light trails are by allowing you to capture multiple cars at once, or even just one car in multiple intervals if you’re trying to capture movement through multiple frames. A faster shutter speed won’t allow for this kind of control over motion and may result in shorter light trails than desired because it’s harder to predict where each car will be at any given moment when using faster shutter speeds like 1/1000th of a second or faster.
Take advantage of natural light
Natural light sources, such as the sun, moon, or clouds, can give you a variety of light trails. If the natural light is coming from a single direction, it can give a very strong and dramatic light trail. But even if the sun is in a completely different part of the sky, it can still give a great light trail.
Experiment with strobes
Strobe lights can be used to produce a more realistic light trail. Use a strobe to light the foreground, and then set the camera to Manual mode. With the shutter release still on Manual, raise the power to about 1/8 or 1/16 of maximum power. Adjust the power to get the desired effect.
Experiment with colored gels
Colored gels can be used to produce more vivid and saturated light trails. The best results will come from shooting on a cloudy day. Place a red gel on the lens, and another one in front of the camera to block the ambient light.