Photography News Issue 50

Photography News | Issue 50 | Technique 75 Camera School Here we lift the lid on all things camera related, showing how to get better results from your CSC or DSLR, and providing all the info you don’t find in the manual. So, stick with us and you’ll soon be wielding your camera like a pro. This month, how to master long-exposure traffic trails

Words & pictures by Kingsley Singleton

Shoot a traffic trail

Shooting traffic trails is a rite of passage for many creative photographers, and with good reason. Traffic trails and the long exposures required to record them teach you all about the principles of light and time inphotography; but crucially they do it in a hugely creative fashion where you can see the results right there on screen as you shoot them. For that reason it’s a really satisfying way to learn. What’s more, traffic trail, or any light trail images, have an indisputable cache; they show the world in a way that the naked eye can never perceive, and they’re beyond the understanding of most non- photographers, so for that reason shooting them can be very addictive. Essentially traffic trails (or any light trails), are caused by a light moving across the frame during the exposure; the shutter opens, the light moves, then the shutter closes again, and the distance travelled is recorded as a streak of light; for most of us, this first happened by accident, a mistaken long exposure at night, when the shutter speed was too slow to shoot handheld. But with the right approach and skills you can blur the lights on purpose and create stunning images. And of course this technique works for pretty much any moving light source you want to turn into a trail. What you’ll need Most cameras, be they DSLRs, CSCs or compacts, are capable of shooting traffic trails; they just need to have a mode where you can manually control the shutter speed. You can shoot in full manual mode, aperture- or shutter-priority, but the simplest way to learn is to use the latter. In shutter-priority you can set the shutter speed towhatever length of time you want the exposure to last. On top of that you’ll need a solid tripod to keep the camera still for as long as the shutter is open. The idea is that the traffic passes through a static scene, forming the streaks, but the camera needs to remain still or the streaks won’t be smooth, and the rest of the scenewon’t be sharp. What to shoot and when The next thing you’ll need are some moving vehicles to shoot, so find yourself a good spot overlooking a busy road. Remember to stay clear of danger though, and don’t get too close

Step 1: Set up on a tripod Compose the scene as you want it, preferably with a nice sweep of lights through the frame, then lock off the camera’s position on a tripod. Make sure the tripod’s not in a place where it’ll be bumped, or where there’s vibration; either of which could ruin the sharpness of your shot (shooting long exposures from small footbridges over roads can be tricky for this very reason).

Step 2: Dial in the exposure Now switch the camera to shutter-priority mode (S or Tv), and dial in 15secs as a starting point. Check the aperture that the camera has set to balance the shutter speed. If it’s blinking or reading ‘Lo’ or ‘Hi’, then the scene is either too light or too dark to shoot at that speed. You can try a shorter or longer shutter speed, or raise or lower the ISO setting to compensate. When you’ve got a usable aperture, you can proceed.

Above Shooting with a slow shutter speed – in this case 25secs – allows any moving car lights in a scene to blur into traffic trails.

to the traffic. Bridges overlooking motorways and buildings above city streets are good places to shoot from. The best time to shoot traffic trails is in or just after the blue hour, which falls after sunset. This is for two reasons. First is that the low light levels make it easier to extend the shutter speed of the camera, and second because this is the point that the lights will show up best. Try to avoid shooting when it gets very dark as with no natural light, there’s nothing for the

traffic to contrast with; they’ll just be streaks in complete darkness. Tomake sure youhave good, long, unbroken streaks of light, try timing a vehicle fromwhen it enters your composition to when it exits; that’s the shutter speed you’ll ideally need. And remember that the light will be changing throughout your shoot; you’ll need to change settings as conditions dim. Now follow the three steps on the right, which show how to set up your camera.

Step 3: Focus, shoot and check the results Autofocus on the road, streetlight or traffic sign (or what you want sharp in the scene), then switch to manual to lock it there. Now plug in a cable release, or set the self-timer, so that you don’t jog it as you start the exposure. Trigger the exposure, wait for the shutter to close, and then check the results on screen. If the trails aren’t filling the frame, just go back to step 2 and try a longer shutter speed.





Above The shutter speed you set makes a big difference to traffic trail images; at 0.3secs, the shutter speed is too short and you’ll get stubby lines. 5secs looks better, but the trails are still broken. 30secs gives a pleasing unbroken streak.

Powered by