You don’t need us to tell you there’s no need to pack away your digital camera just because the sun’s gone down. Night photography is one of the more thrilling genres of taking pictures, and one of its more popular sub-genres is capturing the effect of light trails.
Traffic trails are a classic example of how a long exposure can pep up a dusk shot. Finding a good spot near traffic lights or where the volume of traffic increases is key. A low and wide composition will take in the buildings (see our 7 night photography tips for the architectural photographer), the streetlights and the light trails – shoot just before the cars move off for the best dynamic effect.
When shooting at dusk or in darkness, metering is effectively redundant, so use Manual mode. Select the lowest ISO possible and take lots of test shots. Start with a shutter speed of about ten seconds and use the aperture setting to vary the exposure. Check your LCD screen for composition, and keep an eye on the histogram (find out How to read a histogram).
Burnt-out highlights are distracting, so expose for them – turn on the highlight warning function to show any burned-out areas and compensate with a small aperture to reduce the light hitting the sensor (learn the 12 common errors of night photography – and how to fix them).
Chances are the trails and bright street lights will be over-exposed, but the general scene should not be. Check your histogram for information throughout the range from left to right. Expect some shadow and highlight clipping, with the majority of the information in the shadow to midtone section.
How to get the perfect exposure for light trails
Step 1: Switch to Manual
Manual mode enables you to keep the shutter speed at around ten to 30 seconds and control the overall exposure by changing the aperture.
Step 2: Go low with ISO
Choosing the lowest ISO enables you to get the shutter speed slow enough. It may look dark, but there will be plenty of light available.
Step 3: Shoot RAW
Shoot in the RAW file format. It enables you to fine-tune the exposure and white balance in the digital darkroom and achieve quality images.
Step 4: Use noise reduction
Switching on your camera’s noise reduction function (found in the menu system of most DSLRs) helps pictures appear smoother and less noisy.
Step 5: Minimise shake
Turn on your camera’s mirror lock-up function to reduce vibrations caused by the movement of the mirror just before exposure.
Step 6: Fire remotely
Using your camera’s self-timer can be tricky when gauging passing traffic. Use a remote release instead for better timing and to ensure total sharpness.