Essential tips for getting started with light trails

Set up your light trail shoot for success with these handy tips.

Once you know what time of day is best for shooting, which circumstances will get you the best results, and how to maximise your existing photography setup, it becomes remarkably easy to get those classic, bright streaks travelling through your image. Here are a few things we recommend before setting out.

Know your equipment

Light trails are almost entirely about shutter speed, so your most important requirement is a setup that allows you to shoot in manual. After that, stability is the top priority since even the tiniest movement can cause camera shake in a long exposure. In most cases, that means you’ll need a tripod, ideally a rugged one that won’t be susceptible to wind even if you have to crank it up to view over bridge railings (more about locations below).

Although a good Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless is ideal for long exposures, your smartphone can get above average light trail shots with the help of a third party app, such as Camera+ 2 for iPhone or Camera FV-5 for Android, which allow for slow shutter speeds. You’ll want a tripod for your phone, just like you would have for your dedicated camera. Look for one that features octopus legs so you can use your surroundings to position flexibly.

Another factor in your light trail photography is your lens. For thin, precise trails shoot with a wide angle lens. For thicker, heftier ones shoot with a telephoto lens. This is a purely artistic choice; you can get quality results with either type.

Scout the right location

To get light trails you will need to either create light-based motion or find a place that already has it. That sounds more limiting than it actually is. There are many different types of light trails you can try if you know where to look for them:

Cities and streets

City streets are a favourite because there’s guaranteed motion at almost all times. It’s the perfect setup for getting started because you can just shoot, make adjustments, and reshoot continuously without waiting for the right moment. A higher vantage point gives your viewers a better idea of what is happening, so look for roof access points, walkover tunnels, bridges, and hills. It’s also good to have a little distance from your subject matter so the vibration of cars or trains whipping past doesn’t interfere with the stability of your tripod.

The con of a city location is the same as its pro: there’s a lot of traffic. If you’re down in the action, pedestrians might bump into your equipment and jostle it around. Visually, even if you have a great vantage point, heavy traffic can get messy. Cars are turning and indictors are blinking, muddying up the direction in your composition. Once you feel confident getting the ‘guaranteed’ shot, it might be time to find an interesting road with fewer drivers.

Carnivals, fairs and amusement parks

There’s a lot of eye candy at these locations for a light trail photographer; you can get unique patterns from different rides. There’s also a glow of ambient light from the surroundings. The downside is that these locations are often packed with people who aren’t on the lookout for a tripod. You’ll

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