Mobile Photography: Light Trails Tutorial

Light Trails Viaduct Tunnel - Seattle - iPhone. Brad Puet

There’s nothing more fun in mobile photography than shooting light trails.  The idea is simple:  stabilize your iPhone and photograph cars as they drive by. In photography this is described and long exposure.  It’s probably best to use a Joby Gorillapod to stabilize your device and if you have a cable release for your smart phone then use that too.  The more stable your device is, the better the outcomes of your imaging.  Remember that in mobile photography (in all of photography really) camera shake or handshake can be a very annoying hurdle.

In my earlier article about motion and panning, we learned to create a sense of motion by focusing on a subject while focused and following it.  This time let’s push the “limitations” of your mobile device and create images with some light trails.

At the most general level photographing light trails involves finding a spot where you’ll see the light trails created by cars, securing your mobile phone, setting a long exposure setting on your mobile phone and shooting at a time when cars will be going by to create the trail of light. Of course it’s a little more complicated than this – but the generally behind it is longer exposures that will enable the car/s that create the trails to move through your image. For me, after creating a few trial and error images, I was more than ecstatic to see what I was able to do.  I am sure you will find that once you hit your "sweet" spot image, you are going to feel the same!

So, I suggest picking up “Slow Shutter Cam” from the App Store or an app similar in Google or Windows.  Slow Shutter Cam offers some really cool features, and we are going to play around with it to get those awesome light trails.

  1. Slow Shutter Cam takes a series of photos and stitches them together into a single image.  This single image is what will show that continuous trail of light.  It is pretty important to stabilize your mobile phone so that these series of images don’t produce any anomalies.  Again Joby or a tripod similar to will help in this stabilization.
  2. Turn your mobile phone’s camera flash off!
  3. Choose the delay in Slow Shutter Cam’s settings.  The delay is the time in between how often your shutter will actually fire of the series of photos.  By delaying it, you reduce the risk of bumping your iPhone and introducing extra movement into your images. You really should play around with this when you have time. 
  4. Set Slow Shutter Cam to “Light Trail” mode.  There are other modes but if this is your first time doing this type of shoot with your mobile phone, use these modes.  Once you get comfortable, have at doing things more manually.
  5. Set your shutter speed.  The shutter speed control determines the duration of your capture.  For example, if you set it to 1, you will capture 1 sec of light trails.  If you set it to 2, you will capture 2 sec of light trails and so on and so forth.  For this tutorial, I’d set it to 15 sec of shutter speed to capture longer light trails.
  1. Set your sensitivity.  The sensitivity setting only functions in Light Trail mode.  It controls how rapidly your mobile phone will capture light.  1 sec is the most sensitive and 1/64 is the least sensitive.  Stick in the middle and shoot at 1/8 sec. 
  2. Time to get those lights! Timing is everything.  Once you are ready to take the photo, you will want to activate Slow Shutter so that its ready when the cars pass by.  Once the cars start to come, hit that shutter button.