The art of capturing light trails is nothing new, but has noticeably become a popular subject matter. Maybe it’s because the season brings shorter days and longer nights. For me, that allowed more opportunities to capture the one and only good thing about Austin traffic. In this post, I’ll provide some tips on capturing light trails using a long exposure and some of my favorite spots to find them in Austin, Texas.
A tripod. It’s not a must, but highly recommended. If you won’t be using one, make sure your camera is securely situated on a steady surface. The smallest bit of motion will cause your photo to turn out blurry.
This brings us to the next recommended item, a remote shutter release. Believe it or not, the camera shakes when we press the shutter button down with our finger. If we’re trying to keep the camera as still as possible, you should use a remote control to execute the shutter. If you don’t have one, then I recommend setting the self-timer for the camera.
ND filters. Since our shutter is closing at a very slow speed, we’re giving our lens the opportunity to let in tons of light. The outcome of this image will be over-exposed if we don’t use a ND filter. You can think of these as sunglasses for your lens. There are several different types of ND filters to choose from depending on how many stops of light you wish to take away. Tip – if necessary, you might be able to stack one ND filter on top of another as most filters are designed with that capability.
The basic idea behind this is to position yourself in a space with very low light and frame your camera where cars can be captured in motion.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a hard and fast rule for aperture and shutter speed. Shutter speeds will be around 10- 30 seconds (or bulb if you are experienced with this feature and if your camera has this setting). Cars traveling fewer and further between might photograph better with a longer shutter speed.
Aperture will be dependent on how low the light is in your setting. The larger the f stop, the less light we let into the lens. Stack another ND filter on if you can to be able to balance your exposure at a smaller f stop. This will help to produce a crisper image. ISO should be 100 to reduce noise.
Once you’re all set up, go ahead and give it a try. Don’t be afraid to incorporate some different perspectives into your frame. Austin is known for it’s amazing downtown views which provide ample opportunity for some cool cityscape photos. Below are some of my favorite spots to capture light trails.
Here I shot at hip height and placed the hand rail in my foreground to create depth. I also used the sidewalk to create leading lines to the Frost Bank tower.
The Power Plant
For starters, this iconic building holds one of the best neon signs in Austin. The Seaholm behind the power plant adds an extra layer in your frame along with a pretty violet hue.
This view is awesome no matter the time of day. For night photography, you can use the street lights to create leading lines to the Capitol as shown below. Tip – if you shoot with a high enough aperture, you can create a starburst effect with the stop lights and street lights.
This view never gets old. In the photo below, I used two ND filters stacked together to be able to catch dusk’s last light while still grabbing light trails from the cars. Could I have used just one ND filter? Yes, but I would have needed to wait until it was a little darker outside. For anyone who has made that hike before, it’s super scary in complete darkness. Hence, why I stacked a filter and called it a day while when there was still a little light outside.
In conclusion, light trails are fun to photograph and are great for adding energy to your photos. So get outside and be adventurous with some night photography.