night photography

Best Camera Settings For Photographing Traffic Trails

Photographing Traffic Trails

Have you tried light trail photography before? If you've never shot light trails before, this your first experience will be an amazing one especially if you plan to go into night photography sometime in your career as a photographer.

The secret of getting the best traffic trails lies in your camera settings. You must learn how to obtain the correct camera setting even before you go to your location. In this short guide, you will learn how to get the best camera settings for photographing traffic trails and cityscapes at night.

Photographing Traffic Trails

What You Need to Set in Advance

Traffic trails photography is one of the most advanced and most challenging night photography because it is composed of darkness and bright lights. You will need a way to bring these two components into the right mix.

To achieve this, you will need to set your camera to "manual exposure mode". Using automatic mode won't do you any good as the camera will struggle to capture the correct exposure in this condition.

Once you have set your camera to manual mode, dial the shutter speed to 30 seconds and set the camera's aperture to f/8. The ISO should be at 200.

These settings will help you to get enough exposure in most conditions. Apart from these settings mentioned above, you will also need to adjust your white balance. This is because night photography can lead to various kinds of odd colors casts. When you are shooting traffic trails and cityscapes, your primary source of light which is the orange glow of street lamps could produce harsh orange tones as will the headlights of oncoming traffic. To avoid this situation, you will adjust your white balance setting to Tungsten/Incandescent setting.

You will also need to shoot the traffic trails in raw file format as this will give you more flexibility to correct unwanted color cast when you are editing the images.

Photographing Traffic Trails

Finally, in your camera's main menu system, enable the long exposure noise reduction option. Once done, you are ready to shoot traffic trails.

So Here is the Best Setting Summary Again
  • Exposure mode: Manual
  • Drive mode: Single shot
  • Focus Mode: Manual
  • File Format: Raw

Shutter speed

Aperture

Traffic Status

Weather

Filter

10-30 secs

>f12

Very active

Clear and dark sky

No need

>30 secs

>f16

Very less

Clear and dark sky

Yes

10-30 secs

>f16

Very active

Twilight and cloudy or clear

Yes

>30 secs

>f16

Very less

Twilight and cloudy or clear

Yes

Focusing on Traffic Trails

You will need to get the right focus before you can get the best traffic trails shot. You are most likely to be working in the city center so there should be adequate bright light to help you focus manually.

Mount your camera in a tripod to achieve enough stabilization and secure your camera in a fixed position. If your camera has Live View feature, use it to focus. It will allow you to zoom into any area of your scene. When you have gotten the right focus, take a few test shots; determine if they are sharp by opening up the image in playback mode.

Check to Know Your Exposure

Checking your test shots in playback mode will also enable you to know whether you have the right exposure or needs adjustment. However, you will have better chances of determining this if you use your camera's histogram.

The histogram will tell you your level of exposure. The right exposure is when you see a tail-like shape trailing off from those bunched shadows on the left and extending all the way to the far right of your histogram.

Your image is underexposed if this tail does not extend the entire way across. If you find yourself in this situation, you will need to increase your ISO or adjust to a longer shutter speed to remedy the situation.

There also need to be a 'tail' which shows the small amount of highlights in the image. In the right condition, this tail should reach extreme right of the graph. If this is not the case, it means that your image is under-exposed and you will need to either increase the ISO or adjust to a longer shutter speed.

Note that you are over-exposed if the tail goes over the end of the graph. To remedy this situation, you will need to dial in a faster shutter speed or simply reduce your sensitivity.

Conclusion

There you have it! With the above camera settings, you will get the best traffic trail photography. Indeed, this is fun and exciting way to take your photography skills to another level. Try traffic trails photography today using the best camera settings suggested above.

** NOTE ** If you’d like to know more about this subject, learn more about the new course by Jim Hamel on night photography here, so you can take stunning night photos too!

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