How To Photograph Light Trails In Motorsport

by Jan 19, 2024

One of the most visually striking photos you can capture in motorsport, especially when it comes to endurance racing at night, is light trails.

Light trails make for some of the most iconic motorsport photos you’ve seen. You know, the ones – underneath the Dunlop Bridge at Le Mans, through Eau Rouge and Raidillon at Spa and down through The Esses at Mount Panorama, just to name a few.

So, how do you start adding these amazing light trail photos to your motorsport photography repertoire? Let’s run through everything you need to know.

Understanding The Basics Of Light Trail Photography In Motorsport

In its simplest form, a light trail photo is just a panning photo at night, but instead of moving with the car, you let the car move through the frame.

Just another term for long exposure photography, light trails require a slower shutter speed while controlling your exposure, to allow the lights of the race cars to draw their way through the photo as they move at speed through your shot.

Obviously, the more steady your camera is, the more success you are going to have in capturing light trail photos. But we’ll get into that shortly.

Essential Equipment For Capturing Light Trails

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The only real essential equipment you need to capture light trails is a DSLR or mirrorless camera where you can control the settings manually.

However, I’m going to suggest bringing a tripod with you is going to help you a lot. I have captured light trail photos completely handheld before, but the success rate wasn’t great, and I was really limited in how slow I could drop the shutter speed. You could also take advantage of any number of solid surfaces around the race track to stabilise your camera, but that really does limit how you compose your shot. So, light trails are one of the few instances where I really do recommend bringing a tripod with you to the race track.

Camera Settings For Perfect Light Trail Shots

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As I just briefly mentioned, manually controlling your camera settings is crucial for capturing light trails. Here are a few of my guidelines on the settings you should use:

Shutter Speed

Using a slow shutter speed is fundament to capturing light trails. However, 3 seconds can be a long time at the start of the race. Depending on the effect you are going for and the amount of ambient light, try to make sure your light trails follow the track right through the frame. This could be as little as 2-3 seconds, or for a wider, more scenic shot, you might want to set your shutter speed to 30 seconds.

I find that for motorsport, 5 seconds is a good place to start, and then I adjust as I need to.

Aperture

Typically when it comes to capturing motorsport action at night, you want your aperture as wide open as possible. However, with the longer exposure time required to capture light trails, you really want to stop down your lens to a narrower aperture.

I find that starting somewhere around f8 is best. This will allow you to get a nice broad area in focus, something that we’ll touch on in a second.

If you find that you have too much ambient light for the shutter speed you want to use, you can progressively stop your aperture all the way down as small as it can go. This has the added benefit of a much wider focus area, but it can also introduce other artifacts into your shots, like bringing into focus any dust and debris on your sensor and creating interesting star effects with any permanent light sources in your frame.

ISO

Keep the ISO at its native low setting; for most camera manufacturers, that is ISO 100.

Increasing ISO adds digital noise to your image, and while that really isn’t noticeable on high cameras until you get into the higher ranges of its ISO capabilities, keeping your ISO as low as possible will give you the best chance at getting a great photo. Use adjustments in the shutter speed and aperture to get the exposure you are looking for first.

Focus

In motorsport photography, we tend to lean on the auto-focus capabilities of our cameras quite a lot. However, when it comes to capturing light trails, I recommend that you switch to manual focus instead.

The movement of the cars, the changing of the light, and even the complete lack of ambient light, depending on how and where you are composing your photo, can all cause your autofocus system to hunt for focus while lining up your shot, especially if your camera is still configured in its continuous autofocus mode (AI Servo on Canon cameras).

Instead, what you want to do is prefocus your camera and then switch to manual focus. What I do is look for something (a wall, tree, sign, etc.) roughly where I want my focus to be that is either lit up enough that I can lock focus on it and that I can light up enough with a torch to get focus. Then once I’ve got that spot dialed in with focus, I switch over to manual focus and don’t touch my lens again while capturing those light trail photos.

Stabiliser

If your camera is set up on a tripod, make sure you turn your stabiliser off. Sometimes, particularly in poorly lit scenes, it can bounce around because it’s got nothing to lock on to.

That said, if you are trying to capture a light trail photo handheld, definitely take advantage of your camera and lens stabilisation system. It’ll give you the best chance of getting the shot.

Tips For Capturing Dynamic Light Trails in Motorsport

Tips For Capturing Dynamic Light Trails in Motorsport

Now that you know the settings you need to dial in to capture light trails, here are a few more things you need to consider to capture dynamic light trail photos during motorsport events.

Positioning

The best light trail photos in motorsport showcase movement through a series of corners, usually including some sort of elevation change. Look to set yourself and compose your shot so that you can showcase this movement throughout your frame.

Timing

Again the best light trail photos showcase movement throughout the entire frame. So you want to make sure you anticipate the action and start the capture just before the car/cars enter the frame. Always remember, you can always adjust your shutter speed a be a bit longer to ensure that you get the shot you are looking for.

Taillights Look Better Than Headlights

This might just be my personal opinion, but taillights make for much better light trail photos than headlights. The colour and intensity just make for much better photos. Often, for endurance races at night, cars are fitted with high-intensity driving lights, which are great for the drivers to be able to see further down the road, but they are just too much for light trail photos.

Conclusion

Capturing light trails is one of my personal favourite things to do in motorsport photography. It’s a unique way to showcase speed and motion in a photo. As with all motorsport photos, when it gets dark, they can be harder to capture than you might be used to, but the resulting image is well worth the extra effort.

Want to make your nighttime motorsport photos pop… Check out my Lightroom preset specifically for your night shots. Or check out my bundle with all of my Lightroom presets to speed up your workflow.

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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