The Most Important Thing To Remember When Creating Light Trails In The City

pittsburgh, light trails, fine art, cityscape, urban landscape, leica, long exposure, christmas tree, christmas

It’s hard to boil down a type of photography to one key ingredient, but I suppose you can certainly choose “one of” the most important ingredients in any genre.  For instance, street photography can be boiled down to the story.  Landscape photography is easily the light.  Portrait photography is the soul.  City light trail photography?  Well, that’s what we are here to talk about.  I’ll share the key to creating the best city light trail images and share a few of my own creations along the way.

street photography, light trails, long exposure, leica m10

This image was created with the Leica M10 and Leica 35mm f/2 lens

What are light trails?

Light trails are simply the trails of light that are left behind by brightly lit objects as they pass your open shutter.  The longer your shutter is open, the further the object moves, the longer the trail of light in your image.  The light source creating the light trail should be lighter than the environment you’re shooting in.  For instance, if you’re trying to create light trails (from cars) in the middle of the afternoon you’ll simply get dark blurs where the cars are (below).

This image was created with the Leica M10 and Leica 35mm f/2 lens

Now, any old camera can create light trails so long as it’s got manual control over the shutter speed.  In fact, there are even apps on most smartphones that will allow you to adjust your shutter speed and capture light trails.  Most photographers will wait until its relatively dark or use a neutral density filter to slow their shutter speed down to 20 or more seconds in order to create the longest trail.  That is the first mistake photographers make whilst shooting light trails in the city.  You see, there are plenty of traffic lights in the city and you end up capturing ghost images of cars and an over concentration of bright lights which makes for an image with too much going on.  Which brings us to the key of city light trail photography…  Continuous light trails!

Light Trails, Leica M10, Street Photography, Urban Landscape

This image was created with the Leica M10 and Leica 35mm f/2 lens

The Challenge

Most photographers who set out to create light trail photography in the city typically desire to create exactly what I’m talking about, consistent streams of light through the image.  The challenge they run into are those pesky signal lights at just about every intersection.  The light cause traffic to stop and often right in the middle of your 15 or 20 second exposure.  Why do traffic lights hate photographers?

The Solution

Shorter exposures.  Many, many, many shorter exposures.  I generally aim for anywhere from four to ten second exposures in order to capture moving traffic and avoid inconsistent light trails.  I also take roughly 20 or more exposures of varying length to capture multiple light trails at varying positions throughout the frame.

Once I’ve created my exposures I meticulously pour over each exposure and only select the ones that have the best light trails with the least amount of distracting elements (like stopped cars) and move them over to Photoshop for merging.  Once in Photoshop I selectively merge the images together in a way that I believe best represents a continuous light trail without an over concentration of light (think large washed out area of white as opposed to thin trails).  Then, back in Lightroom I put my finishing touches on the image and do all of my lens corrections.

The End

There, you now know my secret to creating continuous light trails in the city where traffic lights stop 99% of photographers from doing the same thing.  Is it more work?  Sure.  Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  I believe that a continuous light trail is the key to creating the best light trail images in your city.  Next time you’re on Instagram, or wherever you consume your eye-candy, do a search for light trails and notice the difference between the inconsistent looking patchy light trails of some photographers versus the professional quality continuous light trails of others.

The image at the top of the page was created with the Leica M10 and the Leica 35mm f/2

Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.  You can also follow PhotolisticLife on Instagram where images are posted well before they make it here.  Instagram is also where I post images from long term projects that may never make it the site (future books, magazines, etc.).  Thank you for visiting.

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