Playing with light trails is one of the most gratifying photography tricks out there. An unexpected, spectacular shot can actually be quite easy to achieve. You only need a little technical information, and the rest is all luck!
This past summer, I headed to San Francisco for a fabulous night photography class. One of the exercises was to photograph car lights on the crookedest street in San Francisco, Lombard. The street, although lit up with lamp posts, is pretty dark. To see the zig zag of the car lights driving down the curves really captures the feeling of the street. It also provided a creative view of one of the most touristy spots in the City.
We took shots from two vantage points. One from up high on the street, looking down, and one from a bit lower, looking up. This way we could capture two view, one of headlights and one of taillights. Technically, all we needed was a tripod, and a little fiddling with the shutter speed. I stayed in manual mode of my camera, and metered the shot to have a very slow shutter speed, and high f-stop. This way, I could keep the lens open to allow in the passing light of the cars, yet maintain sharpness of focus with a small aperture. So, for the shot above, the settings were f/22, 30.0 seconds, and ISO400. (Not all nights scenes have the same lighting, so of course fiddling with the shutter and aperture is necessary. Under resources you will find links to tutorials on capturing light trails.)
Looking up at the on coming cars provided a whole different view of the scene. When we were shooting, there were not too many cars heading down the street, so sometimes we had to wait a bit. It was important to be all set up and ready to shoot, though. Once we heard the car approach (before we could see it), we took the shot. That way, with the shutter wide open, we’d capture the full light trail as the car passed by. It is definitely a technique that sometimes needs practice to get the timing right.
Sometimes it’s the unexpected light trails in a photo that can be the most fun to see after the shot is complete. In the photo above, there is a short light streak in the middle of the picture. This happen to be a flash of a camera from the passenger in the car as they drove down the street. There’s no evidence of the car, or the person, but he left his mark with his camera flash!
Since this class, I’ve been hauling my tripod with me on every trip. Although it is compact in size, it can still be a bit bulky to pack. It is worth it, though. My adventures at night trying to shoot lights have provided me with unique travel memories. A warm night in Paris capturing the Eiffel Tower and an evening on a rooftop shooting the Istanbul skyline were quite adventuresome and provided wonderful photos too.