Photographing Light TrailsPosted by Katrina Kennedy on Nov 9, 2011 in Blog, Photography | 11 comments
My husband asked me what I wanted to do on my birthday. I had one request. I wanted to stand over the freeway in the later afternoon and photograph light trails.
Yes, that was my request.
His words to me?
“You are the only person who would want to stand outside next to a freeway and take photos on their birthday.”
I bet I’m not.
You can have dinner any day. And drinks, easy. But guilt free time with my camera and a tripod? That doesn’t come along very often and I need to grab it when I can.
The Perspective Before Photographing Light Trails
So how do I prepare for shooting light trails?
I start by dressing warm. Really warm. We aren’t in Minnesota, but my birthday weekend is the first weekend our tempatures have dipped toward that thirty number. Brrrr. So gloves, hat, heavy sweater. And of course, shoes with no socks because I do live in California. (Minnesotans, go ahead, roll your eyes.)
Lens choice isn’t really that important. I pack my Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L wide angle lens and my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L , breaking my rule of only taking one lens out at a time. This is a special night, remember?! A fast lens isn’t needed for light trails.
My tripod is a must. If I want light trails to be even, without bounces in them, I need the steadiness the tripod provides. I use a Manfroto tripod.
LOTS of space on my cards. Why? I’m going to play a lot. Often in class, and here, I talk about the merits of knowing your settings and setting a correct exposure without relying on your LCD and histogram to see if you got it right. With light trails I am going to use both the LCD and histogram. I’ll use my LCD to make sure I’ve got a good trail across my entire frame. I know it will take some play to get there. I’ll use the histogram to check exposure, making sure I’m not clipping anything on either side too much.
Where will I start with my settings?
I want a narrow aperture so I’ll choose a number around f/11, adjusting all the way to f/22 just for fun. I want to see what I capture at several different apertures.
I’ll also play with my shutter speed. I’ll start in the 10 second range, move up gradually to 20 seconds and throw a bulb shot or two in for good measure. With bulb mode, I’ll push the shutter button to open the shutter, and then push it again to close the shutter.
My ISO will be set at 100. I want it to be as low as possible. The light work tonight is all about the shutter speed doing its part, aperture and ISO get an easy evening.
So, settings will be:
Shutter Speed 10-20 seconds
A remote would be a great item to add to my mix to eliminate the possibility of any camera shake, but since I don’t have one in my bag of tricks for my 5D (and sadly the 30D remote doesn’t work with it) I’m going to go with the self timer. The self timer will provide a steadier shot.
I’m positioning myself above the freeway on a quiet overpass along Interstate 5. I’m going to shoot from three specific locations I can think of right now, but may add a few more along the way. I’ll shoot first from the far right of the freeway, then the middle and then the far left. I want to see the different perspectives from each location.
I want to capture all of this before the sun has gone down completely, but will probably take some in the dark as well, just continually playing with shutter speed to see what I get.
I’ll double check the LCD and then go for a warm adult beverage afterwards to get the chill out of my fingers and cold feet. And then maybe next time I’ll consider putting socks on for the occasion.
The Perspective After Photographing Light Trails
What I really took with me
I forgot a hat. I forgot gloves. I did grab my son’s giraffe umbrella at the last minute, just in case. I wore a few layers and left my socks at home. California style, remember? I discovered while out that the rain coat I wore wasn’t water proof! I grabbed my camera bag with my wide angle and my 70-200 lens, just as planned.
I grabbed the tripod and several empty cards, just in case.
My settings and setting
I used my settings just as I explained, but did find we arrived while there was still a bit too much light in the sky. Unfortunately, I forgot that every freeway overpass has high chain link fence to shoot through. I used it in a few photos, hoping for a creative look. With my longer lens, I was able to shoot at the 200mm end and blur much of the fence out, but not completely.
The angle from the side of the freeway wasn’t great, but I loved the middle.
I’m so glad we brought the umbrella because it poured! I’m sure people who drove by must have thought we were a little off, standing under a giraffe, trying to keep the camera out of the rain. By the end of the night I was cold and regretting my lack of socks. (Go ahead and say it Minnesotans, “I told you so.”)
We walked to a few other nearby spots. This ended up being my favorite. By this time, there was a lot of water on the road creating reflections and even more water seeping through my layers.
It was a great way to spend my birthday, even without socks!
For more tips and examples of light trails check these links: