Light Trails

EurekaPassingBoatSpeaking in practical terms, our camera sees and records moving objects differently than our eyes perceive them, especially during long exposures.

The camera, like the human eye, sees light, and only light. That’s it, pure and simple. But in night photography that is where the similarity ends.

During an expanded moment the camera and the human eye register light differently in two significant ways.

First, the human eye is sensitive to a much greater variation in light intensity, aka dynamic range. Unlike our eyes, our camera can only capture a narrow range of light.

Secondly, our eyes perceive motion as distinct momentary snapshots. But our camera accumulates change as a single continuous event through an open shutter.

You see it here,
You see it there,
Your camera sees it everywhere.

Traveling light sources leave a wake of light trails behind them, written across the image. Reflected light from objects appears as fleeting flickers along the path of movement.

“So how come no dark trails?” you might ask.

Well, moving dark sources, that is low lit objects, pass undetected, invisible to the camera, even if seen with the naked eye. Any dark trails will just be gaps between the light trails.

We can witness both the light and the dark elements of passing objects, but the camera can only capture the most obvious light from objects in motion.

For example, during a long exposure, people can walk in front of us in the dark and remain unseen by our camera, unless they are carrying a light source like a flashlight.

In simple terms, moving light is seen, and moving dark is unseen.

Be sure to use the suggested aperture setting to capture light trails.

IMAGE : Dock & Passing Boat, Eureka, CA

  • Mouse over the image above to view the scene without the passing boat. If mouse over does not work, go to Light Trails on my blog.

Long story short. I was on this dock with my camera and tripod looking for some photo opportunities. I had to step gingerly past holes in the decking, then climb back around the “no trespassing” fence extending over the water, to get back to shore. I set up this shot and opened the shutter just as the fishing trawler entered the scene. Whew!

The site was very dark, much darker than it appears in the image, lit only by some distant street lights behind me.

I left the shutter open for several minutes after the boat passed to guarantee a decent exposure of the dock to go along with the light trails. I then bracketed a series of shots afterward to capture the scene without the boat lights.

The overall exposure for this image is 4 minutes shot at f16 with TMAX 3200 film. The light trails are thin due to the small aperture. The boat crossed the frame in 15 to 20 seconds.

Even with the long exposure, the resulting negative was very thin, i.e. under exposed.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryCool

A cool tint was applied to the image to match the look and feel of the cold ocean air.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile generated from my Mac App SuiteProfiler. The Profile was derived from the “GalleryCool” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Light Trails

Find a night scene with moving cars, boats, trains or airplanes. Compose a shot to capture an expanded moment containing the light trails left by the movement.

Notice the difference in how you observed the movement of light and how your camera captured the light. Also compare how you saw the darker portions of the moving objects versus how your camera handled the lack of light.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

FEEDBACK : Light Trails

Leave comments on this post to share your ideas and experience, or ask questions.

NEXT TIME : “Selective Exposure”


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4 thoughts on “Light Trails

  1. amazing. I was wondering how the light seemed to hang in the air as in your train pictures. and it makes me think of the beautiful analogies…teaching moments of light and of cameras “seeing” versus our eyes seeing things. Thank you!

    • I like your description of light hanging in the air. Night photography is very much about learning how our camera sees, and sees differently depending on the length of the exposure. Notice the difference in the water reflections from the dock and the passing boat. I will discuss the topic of reflections, and how they change in time, in a future post.

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