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Light Trail Photography Tips

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I remember looking at a travel magazine and saw incredible pictures of city skylines at night. In the streets and highways I could also see trailing lights that made the cars appear like they were traveling at high rates of speed. I saw yellow lights for oncoming traffic and red lights for cars going in the opposite direction. After looking at the photos for some time, I became fascinated and wondered how I could create similar pictures.

I owned an older point and shoot camera (Nikon Coolpix 5700) and questioned if I needed something new and fancy. I’ve read quite often that the camera doesn’t take the picture but it’s the eye behind the lens.You’ll be amazed by how many incredible shots were taken with “simple cameras” and disappointed by “so so” pictures taken with professional dslr’s.

Owning a dslr is one thing but taking the time to review the owner’s manual and to understand all the features and nuances is another! I guess it can look cool walking around with a camera that has a huge lens to catch the action at the kid’s soccer or basketball game. You’ll have a real problem though if the cool camera takes nothing but blurry shots because you chose the wrong settings.

Digital Camera Shooting Modes And Accessories

To be able to shoot creatively, you want to make sure that your camera has at least these shooting modes.

  1. (M) Manual
  2. (S) Shutter Priority
  3. (A) Aperture Priority
  4. (B) Bulb (This may be a part of the manual setting)

These modes are standard on dslr’s and advanced point and shoot cameras.

Most newer digital cameras have many preset modes like portrait, sunset, snow, action, etc. If you know how to use the settings listed above, then you’ll see how preset modes may be convenient but can inhibit your creativity.

The trailing light effects requires the camera to be in “bulb” mode because you need to control how the long to keep the digital camera shutter open. A slow shutter speed at night creates amazing pictures!

You’ll also have to use a tripod and shutter release cable. These are very important tools to make sure the pictures stay sharp and crisp.

If you hold the camera with your hand or press the camera’s shutter release manually, this will create very blurry pictures as you keep the shutter open for an extended period of time.

If you hold the camera with your hand or press the camera’s shutter release manually, this will create very blurry pictures as you keep the shutter open for an extended period of time.

After I researched the correct camera settings, equipment, and accessories it was time to practice and have fun.

Picture Time

I live about 15 minutes from the highway and luckily there’s an overpass. I got there about 7:00 pm to make sure that I had traffic from rush hour. I remember that it was a hot humid South Florida night (that means 85-90 degrees) and I parked my car about two blocks away from my intended location.

I secured the tripod and made sure it was properly balanced. I fastened the camera to the tripod mount then attached the shutter release cable. At this point it was time to fire away! Let’s just say that most of the cars were traveling way beyond the 55 mph speed limit which provided some interesting visual effects.

I used the (B) bulb mode and had these additional settings.

  • Aperture: F/6.3
  • Focal Length: 8.9mm
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter Speed: 4-6 seconds
  • White Balance: Incandescent

I tested both horizontal and vertical shots and preferred the vertical angles better. Unfortunately, I tend to forget about vertical angles when I’m shooting.

I pressed the shutter release button on the device and began to count “1… 2… 3… 4…” then release! I saw that a 4-6 second shutter opening gave me the best effects. I spent the next half hour taking more pictures.

Here’s a small sample:

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