The Art of Light Trail Photography


Discover how to create striking light trails by capturing the motion of cars or fireworks in the sky. 

Light trails can add a magic air of surrealism to your work. We’ve all seen those streaking car light trails that appear to illuminate the night sky. They capture the movement of light that cannot be seen with the naked eye, and the results are otherworldly.

Light trail photography might seem difficult to pull off, but it’s much easier than you’d expect. To get you started, we’ll go over the best settings and gear for shooting light trails.

Light trail of cars streaming down the mountain like lavaImage via ilyeosve01.

What Is Light Trail Photography?

Light trails are a form of long-exposure photography. They capture the movement of light that can’t be seen with the naked eye. You can achieve this by keeping your camera’s lens open longer so that you capture as much light—and the movement of light—as possible. 

The most common depiction of light trail photography is on the roadway. Such images depict the paths of illumination created by the headlights and taillights of a passing car.

But, any movement of light can produce striking results. Perhaps you’ve seen a performer spinning fire at Burning Man, or fireworks illuminating the sky on the 4th of July.

Both are perfect examples of moving light that can serve as the ideal source for light trail photography. 

Colorful bursting light trailsLight trails on winding road with stars above

Light trail photography creates art from moving light. Images via Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova, Kan Kankavee, Pete Saloutos / Image Source, Dana and George, and Mizin Roman.

Light trail from cars in Monument Valley, UtahImage via Maciej Bledowski.

Camera Setting Basics

Shutter Speed 

As you might expect, longer exposure times produce longer trails, and shorter exposures produce shorter trails. Starting out, you can experiment with two seconds, three seconds, or four seconds to see the results.

Simply increase or decrease the shutter speed to get more (longer exposure) or less (shorter exposure) light trails.

Trajectories of burning sparks at night

Images via Thais29, Thais29, Thais29, and Thais29.

ISO 

The ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower ISO value means less sensitivity to light, while a higher ISO means more sensitivity.

Since you’ll be working with longer shutter speeds (to gather more light), you can set your camera to as low as ISO 100 or 200. This will help you reduce camera noise.

Winter landscape and trail lights on Snake Pass in England Winding rural road with light trail from headlights leading through British countryside

Capturing streaks of light adds a beautiful element to your city or landscape photograph. Images via robertharding and Daniel_Kay.

Aperture 

As for the aperture, the lower the f-stop—the larger the opening in the lens—and the less depth of field, the blurrier the background. A higher f-stop—the smaller the opening in the lens—creates a greater depth of field and a sharper background.

For light trail photography, you’ll typically want to keep as much of your image in focus as possible. Close your aperture down to around f/8 to f/16, which will provide a relatively wide depth of field so that most of your shot is in focus. An f/9 is a good aperture value for shooting fireworks.

If you find that your photos are overexposed, start off with a mid-range aperture. Close the aperture by increasing the f-stop to reduce the amount of light entering the lens and hitting the sensor.

Alternatively, if your photos are underexposed, open up the aperture by reducing the f-stop to increase the amount of light hitting the sensor. 

Manual Mode 

Shooting in manual mode is best for light trails. You’ll be in complete control of the ISO, aperture, or shutter speed to turn your vision into photos. 

RAW 

It’s also important to remember to shoot in RAW, which will give you much more control if you run into any white balance of exposure issues. You’ll find it’s much easier if you need to recover any details lost in any underexposed areas.

Lastly, make sure to take test shots, and adjust the aperture and shutter speed settings accordingly. 

Long exposure captured at the Royal Stock Exchange in LondonExperiment with shutter speed and aperture settings when taking test shots. Image via Andy Shiels.

What You’ll Need 

Fortunately, light trail photography isn’t demanding in terms of photographic gear.

You’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of long-exposure photos and a tripod to keep your camera stable and prevent blur.

For the same reasons, you’ll also need a self-timer or remote release to fire the shutter. A wide-angle lens can also come in handy to capture as much of the scene as possible.

Set up the Shot 

It’s also important to consider the background. Trail lights can be used as leading lines toward a point of interest such as an iconic building, cityscape, mountain, or a windy road.

A featureless horizon is less compelling.

Sunset over Bixby Creek Bridge and car trail lights, Big Sur, CaliforniaImage via Robert Harding World Imagery.

One of the best ways to capture light trails is from an overpass or bridge over a busy road. Busy junctions, crossroads, and multiple-lane roadways will produce intersecting, dynamic lines.

Roundabouts and winding roads create impressive circles and swirls of light. Multiple lanes of traffic will give you headlights coming towards you and red tail lights driving away.

When shooting a fireworks display, a hill or roof terrace is a perfect vantage point. If you’re near water, firework photography looks even more breathtaking in reflections.

Colorful fireworks explosion with marvellous reflection on the seaImage via Renata Apanaviciene.

Keep in mind that it’s typically best to get to a fireworks display early. As the show progresses, more haze will be in the sky. Sure, the finale typically provides the biggest bang, but earlier fireworks appear more vibrant since they’re not competing with as much surrounding smoke in the sky.

Cover image via Mumemories.