06/02/2007

Light trails and Zoom Technique


Images of light trails can be made quite easily by photographing the headlights and tail lights of any moving vehicles including cars, trucks, motorbikes, etc.
This subject does not include star trails or those from lighted sparklers or fireworks, but can include a zoomed image of heavy vehicles at a busy intersection. I will explain more about that later.
To photograph vehicle light trails, it is best done with a camera that is capable of being set manually on the "B" or "T" setting and after sunset obviously, but particularly before the sky becomes black, so that there is still enough light in the sky to allow surroundings to be seen in the image. This is important, as it eliminates blacked out areas and negative space around the image.
The light trails themselves should be of reasonable length, of a minimum of 5 seconds, but exposures of up to 10 seconds may be needed, depending on the distance you are from the light source, or how long it takes for the vehicle/s to travel from one point to the other.
Bridges, buildings, hilltops, or any high vantage point should be suitable for getting a fair result.
Suggested sites might include traffic lit intersections, from bridges over motorways, speedway meetings, or night motor cross events, or any place where there is a lot of activity with moving vehicle lights.

For best results, your equipment should include:
A sturdy tripod, or some device for stabilizing your camera through lengthy exposures.
A camera that is capable of taking exposures of 5-10 seconds or more, with a zoom lens in the range 25-200mm to cover most situations.
A remote shutter release would be an asset, but not essential.
A suggested all purpose film for this would be Kodak Max 400.
Digital users could set their ISO ratings at 200 or 400, as an example.
A small torch and extra batteries would also be handy.

The zooming technique:
This is best done with the camera fully stabilized at a location where there are a lot of lights of various colours. Like for instance, a major traffic lit intersection that has a heavy flow of traffic. A high vantage point would help.
In contrast to photographing light trails, this is best done when the sky and outer surrounds are black.This will accentuate the light's colours as they are zoomed out across the image.
Using the "B" or "T" setting and aperture set at f16 or smaller. Aim the camera at the centre of attraction with the lens at its shortest focal length.
Work on an exposure of about 5 seconds and as soon as you release the shutter, very carefully zoom the lens out for that 5 second period, then immediately close the shutter. There is no need to use a stop watch for this, it is not critical, but that time is merely set to give you an idea. After a bit of practice you will soon get the hang of it and find your own way of doing it and it can produce some pretty unique results too. "Good Luck!"

I have included some of my light trails below and some zoomed exposures.
For those who are unsure about how to find the "B" setting on their camera:
Firstly, you must be able to set your camera manually. Turn your mode dial to manual "M", then adjust the shutter speed right back till you can go no further. You should be on the "B" setting. Now you can adjust the aperture setting "Av", to what ever you want. For light trails, about f16 should do. this would also apply when photographing fireworks.

The street in the image below is where I did my bomb bursts. Looking straight down the centre into that group of lights in the centre background, using a 28 - 200mm zoom starting at 200mm, opening the shutter for about 5 seconds, whilst zooming back to 28mm. Manually set on "B" or "Bulb" setting @ f16.

The following are some of the results. A few of them I have touched up in Photoshop, others are original shots, but all taken on the above exposure settings.





Now a couple of vehicle light trails from a different view of the same intersection. It's a great pity that it hadn't been raining, or that would have increased the light reflections. But it can't always be perfect.