Light Trails – Photography Experiments

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Light Trails

Today’s experiment is a fun one and I hope it gets you thinking of light differently, because there are a lot of things that can be done with this one. Just to be clear, Light Trails, as I talk about them here, are different than what most call “light painting”. Light painting, in my mind, is shining a light on something to illuminate it in a particular was to gain a particular effect. Like this: Light Trails Experiment

In this case my friend Michael and I used flashlights to paint in the rocks. Otherwise they would have been very dark, like this:

Light Trails Experiment

Light trails are capturing the light directly emitted from the source while light painting is usually concerned with light reflecting off of surfaces. Here’s an example of Light Trails.

My fancy with light trails started with maybe my tenth roll of film about 28 years ago. I worked a swing shift and got home in the wee hours, around 3am. The streets were deserted then (fun fact: There were 5.2 billion people on the planet in 1990. In 2019 there are 7.7 billion. That could be part of the reason, 2.5 billion is a LOT less people driving the streets) and I took to some overpasses to play around with this technique. The idea was to record a set of taillights heading off into the distance. And it’s quite easy with any subject you choose.

Here’s the experiment you can run:

  1. Light Trails ExperimentWait until it is dark. Or find a large enough dark space if you’re impatient.
  2. Set your camera on a tripod or stead surface. The shutter is going to be open for a while so it has to be rock steady.
  3. Switch to Manual mode. Now set your aperture to f/8 as a starting point. ISO should be 200 or so. You can play around with these once you see the effect.
  4. You will want some moving lights. I suggest cars as they are predictable. Strapping a glowstick to your cat’s collar can also work (someone please do this and post the results). You can also walk around with sparklers or a small LED light. Or even a candle.
  5. “What about the shutter speed?” you say? That is going to depend on what you’re shooting. For starters, let’s go with 15 seconds and you will be able to adjust from there depending on how dark your scene is.
  6. Focus on a known element in the frame, like a lamp post or anything not moving. Manual focus works best.
  7. Release the hounds!! I suggest using your camera’s self-timer function (either in 2 second or 10 second mode….or better yet, use a remote control) to help you not wiggle the camera at the start.
  8. Once the shutter is open, move the light source (give the cat catnip just before this point).


Your first attempt might be odd. But hopefully this gets you thinking. If you ever used sparklers on the 4th of July (or your country’s firework blowing-up holiday) you know what to do next. You can write words, trace outlines or just go crazy.

Are your lines took dark? What do you think you should change to make them lighter (there is more than one right answer)?

Is the scene too bright and you can’t see the trails? What should change?

For more info on this technique and some examples, check out my post in Photography Basics: A 43 Day Adventure.

Please post your attempts in the comments section below, either directly or as links. I’d love to see them (especially the cat-glowstick ones).

Here’s a sample from a few summers ago.

Light Trails Experiment

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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