Streaking In The Dark

We are pleased to present Kevin Adams as our guest blogger!  Kevin will be giving a lecture at this year’s Expo! 


Streaking In The Dark

By Kevin Adams



Someone once asked me what you can photograph at night. I was dumbfounded. That’s like asking what is there to shoot during the day. The answer is everything! If you can see it, you can photograph it. But the really cool thing about night photography is that you can also shoot things you can’t see!

 Night photography is unique in that many subjects look totally different in the photo than they do when you shoot them. The long exposures typically used at night cause any moving lights to record as abstract streaks. The key to making the best images is to previsualize the effect for any given subject. In fact, with many night subjects, planning ahead is the ONLY way to get the shot.

 I enjoy all types of night photography, but streaking is my favorite. (Light streaking, that is!)  If an object emits light and it moves, it’s a candidate. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.


Vehicle Lights

Recording lights from moving vehicles is the easiest type of streaking you can do. Like most nighttime lights, vehicle streaks do not normally make good photo subjects by themselves, but they can make a strong compositional element in any scene. Cars are the obvious sources, but think about other possibilities. Set up near an airport and catch the lights from arriving and departing planes (watch out for the terrorism police!). Shoot boats in a busy harbor. Catch a train crossing a trestle or coming out of a tunnel. Get the neighborhood kids to ride around on their bikes with a headlight attached.

Optimum exposure varies according to the brightness and number of the lights. Typically, you will choose aperture first, based on depth of field requirements, then balance the ISO and shutter speed.  In some situations, even with the smallest aperture and lowest ISO, you can’t set a shutter speed long enough to record the light streaks without overexposing the overall scene. Try using a polarizing or neutral density filter to cut the light and allow longer shutter speeds. Also, shoot during the magic light of twilight, when skylight is balanced with the lights of the vehicles.

Star Trails

Back in the film days, we could load ISO 100 film in a camera and open the shutter for hours, never worrying about noise. Try that with digital and you’ll hit the delete button afterwards. However, pro digital cameras are fully capable of producing noise-free images at shutter speeds of several minutes. By shooting a lot of exposures and stacking them, we can achieve an even better result than we could with film.

A photo of nothing but star trails might look cool at first glance, but it becomes boring quickly. You need something interesting in the foreground. Try campsite scenes, lighthouses, bridges, and striking buildings. I typically shoot star trails at ISO 200 and f/4. Shutter speed is based on the sky-fog limit, the point at which light pollution or skylight causes overexposure. At very dark sites, you might get by with 30 minutes or more, which would allow you to shoot a star trail scene in one exposure if noise weren’t an issue. In a heavily light-polluted region, you might not get a minute before it blows out. At reasonably dark sites, I’ve found that an exposure of 4 to 6 minutes works pretty well.

Stacking star trails can be extremely simple. Download the free Startrails application Just load your images and let it do all the work. Or you can stack nearly as easily in Photoshop by loading the files into layers and setting the blend mode to Lighten.


Handheld Lights

I think of light painting with handheld lights as photographer’s graffiti. The idea is to shine a light into the camera and move it around to spell letters or make interesting shapes and lines. Any type of light will work; the key is to have fun and let your imagination run wild.

For most light painting, I use a Mini Maglite LED flashlight. It’s cheap, powerful, runs on AAs, and you can get it at the Man Store (Lowes or Home Depot). To alter the color of the light, I use Rosco gel samples mounted in a GelGripTM, a special holder that I designed myself.

With apologies to Forest Gump’s mother, light painting into the camera is like a box of chocolates. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you try it. Expect to go through several trial runs before you get the result you’re after. Typically, an ISO of 200 and an aperture of around f/8 are sufficient to record the light from an LED flashlight with a gel attached. A cool exposure trick is to create one exposure for the light painting and a second exposure for the background.


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