How To Photograph In Car Light Trails

The Quick How To

To photograph in car light trails start by cleaning your vehicle’s windshield, preferably during daylight hours when streaks are easier to see. Secure your tripod inside your vehicle so that the tripod will move with the car as the car goes over bumps. For passenger cars and SUV’s this will likely mean placing two legs on the floor, one behind the passenger seat and one behind the driver’s seat and the third leg wedged into the backseat for stability. The tripod setup may also be easier during daylight hours.

When it’s time to shoot, place your camera on the tripod and frame up the shot. You’ll get the best results using a remote shutter release or the timed release in your camera. Settings will vary and you’ll want to play around with different combinations to see what you get. The photo at the top of the post was shot at ISO 200, f/11 and 3 seconds. I shot with my Fuji X-T20 and my Samyang 12mm f/2.0 wide angle lens.

For more details, including the mistakes I made that you will want to avoid, continue reading.

The Story

I’m participating in a 52 week photo challenge at 52 Frames where each week you’re given a theme to shoot. A couple weeks ago the theme was “Blur the Action” and I knew right away I wanted to shoot from inside a moving car at night. The objective was to keep the car’s interior nice and sharp while capturing light trails through the windshield.

I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to clean the windows on the car during the day, paying close attention to the inside and outside of the windshield. With my glass streak free I set my attention to the mount. It is important to secure the tripod to the inside of the car as firmly as possible. To keep the interior sharp while the car moves down the road requires that the tripod become part of the car.

My tripod isn’t anything special, it’s a Ravelli carbon fiber, twist lock leg, ball head  Light Trails setuptripod. I opened two legs to a medium height, let the tops lock into the first opening position and placed one leg behind each of the front seats so the feet actually went just under the seat. Then I opened the third leg to the next opening position and extended it all the way until it went deep into the crevice of the back seat between the seat back and seat and twisted the lock tightly. Finally, I attached a small sandbag to the hook on the bottom of the tripod. I chose a weight that would pull down on the hook but also rest on the floor of the car. If the weight hung free, it would sway while the car was in motion and cause your tripod to move.

“It is important to secure the tripod to the inside of the car as firmly as possible.”

With the windows clean and the tripod set, I was ready for the night to come. I asked my wife to drive so I could sit in back and see the photos as I took them and make any changes to exposure to get the look I wanted. We jumped in the car, drove to downtown Aurora, IL and I snapped away while my wife circled the area a few times. I made a few changes to exposure by adjusting shutter speed and aperture* in opposite directions to maintain the same exposure while leaving my shutter open longer. After a few trips through town, I was satisfied I had some good images and we headed home.

The Mistake

I made few mistakes on this one. I need to mention that I was using a Samyang 12mm manual focus lens for this photo. I dialed in my focus when I set up the tripod. I focused just in front of the dash with an aperture of f/16. When I started shooting that night, I found the shutter speeds were too long to keep things crisp in the car, even with the tripod securely mounted. I wanted to maintain my base ISO of 200, so I opened the aperture a little bit. Opening my aperture changed my depth of field just enough that I lost focus on the dash a bit. While my light trails were exactly what I wanted, I failed to notice the soft focus of the dash. I will definitely consult my Hyperfocal Distance Table before heading out next time. I ended up combining two images in post which was more work than I intended and the overall result isn’t great. If you’re going to use a manual focus lens, keep in mind that you may have to refocus after changing apertures.

“…check the entire scene by eye, not just by LCD and viewfinder.”

My other mistake was forgetting to remove the two water bottles from my cup holders. Of course I didn’t notice this until I started processing. I could take them out of course but with the rest of the photo already a little less than stellar, I left them as a reminder to check the entire scene by eye, not just by LCD and viewfinder.

This was a fun shoot even with the mistakes and a less than stellar final image. I’m definitely going to try this one again, bearing in mind the lessons learned.

*If you’re not sure how or why to change exposure settings, keep a eye out for my video series on my YouTube channel Dock Dream Media, coming Summer 2018.

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