light trails from city traffic

Shooting Light Trails for some Long Exposure Fun

Long exposure effects in photography are always a good source of fun. One of the most simple and dramatic effects is shooting light trails. In this tutorial, we’ll discuss what you need and need to know to create striking light trail images.

What’s a Light Trail?

Light trails from traffic snaking along a rural road

Light trails are simply streaks of light recorded by your camera as they move across the film plane or sensor. Meteors, star trails and even “squiggles” caused by accidentally bumping a camera are examples. Light painting, too is an example of creating controlled trails with various light sources and methods.

For the purpose of this article, though, we’re going to be talking about trails created by shooting long exposures of scenes with objects like vehicles in them. Cars, of course are an easy choice and planes can be very interesting, especially if you’re close enough to an airport to catch them landing and taking off. Even a space launch can be a great subject!

The fun part is that with the right exposure, the lights will expose as a streak on the sensor or film, while the less luminous vehicles will appear to disappear. The vehicles may also simply blur, creating a completely different effect. You can let the vehicles do the work and concentrate on achieving the effects you want.

What You Need

One of the great things about shooting light trails is the fact that you don’t need a lot of fancy gear. In fact, the equipment list is very basic: A camera (and lens), a means to control the shutter over a long exposure, and a tripod.

Most modern cameras will allow exposures up to 30 seconds without the need for an external release. Most will also provide the option to use Bulb (B) mode along with a remote release, with or without an elapsed time display.

Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone wide angle lens

Irix 15mm f/2.4 Firefly lens
Irix 15mm Blackstone Lens Irix 15mm Firefly Lens

Our favorite lens for this type of shoot is also our original: the Irix 15mm f/2.4 in either the Firefly or Blackstone model. Optically identical, both models offer excellent low-light performance, extreme sharpness and near-zero distortion. Both also feature our unique focus lock, allowing you to easily maintain your focus setting over multiple shots. The 110-degree diagonal field of view is perfect for capturing wide expanses, so you can create more dynamic images.

How to Shoot Light Trails

Let’s start by saying that, like many long exposure projects, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Your exact method will depend on the light source(s), your proximity to them and the effects that you want to create. Put simply, this is a great opportunity to experiment and have fun.

That said, there are some basic starting points that will help you achieve successful results with less effort and in turn, more dramatic images with fewer adjustments:

  • Manual or Aperture Priority Exposure mode
    • Aperture Priority will allow you to simply change the shutter speed.
    • Manual will give you full control but require more setting changes.
  • ISO100 or lower
  • Aperture setting near the “sweet spot” of the lens (often f/8 to f/11)
  • Pre-focused (in daylight if necessary) and locked
  • 15 to 30 second shutter speed to start

The method itself, of course, couldn’t be easier, either. Determine where you want your trails to start and end. You may want to frame up a road so that you can see it disappear on the horizon. You may want your trails to move out of the frame at a corner, or perhaps you’ll want to stop the exposure to freeze the vehicle in front of the viewer. Get creative with your framing and camera angle.

Keep in mind that the light trails don’t necessarily need to be the subject of your image and can add a dramatic background. Here’s a nice example from Irix Shooter Alex Sundowner:

Photo copyright ©Alex Sundowner Photography @alex_sundowner _photos

Take a few test exposures and check the lighting as well as the dynamics. Adjust as necessary. Try to find the right balance of exposure to give you nice, long, clear light trails and not too many “blown out” areas from local lighting. Once you’re getting close to the effect you want, keep shooting so you’ll have plenty of fun images to play with in post processing.

Finally, remember that storing your images as RAW files will give you more room for adjustment in the processing stage. Your initial shots may benefit from a bit more manipulation than you’re used to doing.

That’s About It!

There are many more suggestions we could offer. We think this one is more fun to simply get started on and find the methods that work best for you. You’ll undoubtedly have creative ideas that will help you build your technical skills, and them when the creative muse kicks in, there’ll be no stopping you!

Show Us What You’ve Got!

We’d love to see the results of your efforts in shooting light trails with our Irix gear! Share your Irix light trail images with us by tagging @Irix USA in your Facebook posts, or @irixusa on Instagram and Twitter. We love sharing the work of our amazing Irix users!

More Ideas with Our 15mm

Our Irix 15mm f/2.4 is one of the most versatile super-wide angle lenses ever! It’s an amazing landscape and astrophotography lens and so much more. Check out these articles for more ideas:

This is truly a breakthrough lens! Don’t forget to check out the specs on our website and get one for yourself HERE!

Written by Dana Crandell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Irix Cine Line has been presented with the Red Dot Award!

Lake Lorraine, ©Efren Yanes. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

How to Photograph Reflections on Water