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[Part 1] Nightscape Photography – Light Trails

Nightscape photography allows you to enjoy different styles of expression by varying the camera settings. For example, "light trails" can be captured when the shutter remains open for a long time. In this article, I will explain the techniques for capturing the light trails of vehicles beautifully. (Reported by: Takuya Iwasaki)

Shutter Speed Determines the Length of Light Trails

Nightscape photography allows you to enjoy different styles of expression by varying the camera settings. With the shutter left open for a long duration, you can capture the light from vehicles and trains in colourful streaks, which is often referred to as "light trails". Length of the shutter speed setting determines whether light trails created can help to accentuate your photographic works. If the shutter speed is too fast, light trails may be too short. To capture lights such as those of vehicles that drive past you, choosing a low ISO speed and a slow shutter speed helps you to produce a dynamic shot of the light trails. In particular, you are recommended to choose an elevated location that overlooks an expressway or highway with a high traffic volume.

Camera Functions to be Used

Shutter Speed

The streaks of light created shorten when the shutter speed is faster, and lengthen when the shutter speed is slower.

Light Trail Technique: Long Exposure Time

What is interesting about photographing light trails is that you can express the movement of light in a single image. Besides the lights of vehicles, light trails can also be created by trains, airplanes, and boats. In the following, I will introduce techniques for capturing attractive light trail shots of cars. First of all, choose a location with a high traffic volume, and set your camera on a tripod at a location that allows you to overlook the road, such as a pavement or an elevated spot. Select either Shutter-priority AE or Manual Exposure as the shooting mode, set the shutter speed to about 15 seconds, and select a low ISO speed between ISO 100 and 200. For the white balance setting, the [Daylight] option is recommended, as it helps to reproduce the colour of the street lights beautifully.

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF17-40mm f/4L USM/ FL: 17mm/ Manual exposure (25 sec., f/11)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

To capture a dynamic shot of lights from the moving cars from a position that overlooks the expressway, I stopped down the aperture and selected a slow shutter speed.

Light Trails at Different Shutter Speeds

1/4 sec.

At 1/4 second, each of the vehicles remains identifiable, and the shot expresses very little movement.

2 sec.

At 2 seconds, light trails become discernible, but they still remain discontinuous.

15 sec.

All the light trails are connected, adding a highly realistic feel to the image.

Takuya Iwasaki

Born in 1980 in Osaka. After graduating from the Faculty of Economics, Hosei University, Iwasaki became a nightscape photographer in 2003. He works as a guide for All About ( as well as a lecturer for Tokyu Seminar BE's "Night Photography Course".

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