Capturing movement with long exposures: tips from the Redline Challenge winner

Piotr Skrzypiec, the winner of the 2021 'Light in the Dark' Redline Challenge, explains how to make your landscapes more dynamic by shooting beautiful light trails.
Car light trails in evening light across a curved bridge. Thick, cloud-like fog obscures the bridge supports and the ground below.

Tourist guide by day, light trail photographer by night, Piotr Skrzypiec uses his knowledge of beautiful locations and long-exposure techniques to create stunning landscape photography in Slovenia and beyond. It's unsurprising, then, that he was named the winner of Canon's inaugural Redline Challenge.

The photography competition aimed to push the skills of amateur photographers with the brief, 'light in the dark'. Three of Piotr's images made the judges' final shortlist, and his atmospheric shot of a fog-cloaked viaduct was selected as the overall winner.

Piotr used a longer exposure to turn the sharp headlights of the moving cars into sinuous streaks of colour. Long exposure refers to shooting with slow shutter speeds, which can range from seconds to hours, and results in the blurring of moving objects. The technique doesn't require a specialist camera or lens, and the results can be bold. As well as blurring motion, long exposures are good for maximising the light coming into the camera for the purpose of reducing ISO, which improves image quality.

Here, Piotr revisits the locations of his other shots and offers his tips on how to take similar light trail photos.

1. Don't shoot at night

Light trails at night on a road that winds up a snowy, forested hillside towards a collection of white buildings with grey roofs.

Piotr says that taking light trail photos is relatively straightforward. "You only need standard camera equipment, a tripod and a good location," he says. "It's not complicated to take this type of picture, and the result that's visible on your LCD is always fantastic. Sometimes you don't even need to edit these pictures because they look great as they are." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 18mm, 25 sec, f/11 and ISO1000. © Piotr Skrzypiec

Twilight is a far better time to take light trail photos than the dead of night, as the sky will be dark but still hold enough colour to keep things interesting. If it's black and featureless, the photo can feel 'bottom heavy', so start to shoot when there's enough ambient light to record buildings, hills and other parts of the scenery. "It's all about those 20 minutes at the end of the 'blue hour'," says Piotr. "Any later than that, and the shadows will be too dark and the lights too bright to create a balanced shot."

2. Do your research

Light trails on a heart-shaped road, with gold and red lights from both headlights and taillights

Traffic is an essential ingredient – but be prepared to provide your own. "When you are on the highway, it's obvious that there would be cars passing regularly. That's not the case with this particular heart-shaped road, though. When I was shooting this road in 2014, I waited for two hours, praying for a car to come. So, for this shoot, I asked my wife to drive our car along the road!" Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 50mm, 30 sec, f/8 and ISO800. © Piotr Skrzypiec

It may sound obvious, but make sure the road you've chosen is visible at the time of year when you want to shoot it. A scene might look promising in winter, but in summer there could be trees blocking the best view.

"It's always good to find an elevated place to shoot from that will allow you to see the road clearly," suggests Piotr. "A few years ago, I returned to this location in the middle of summer. Although you could make out the heart shape of the road at night because of the trails, it was hard to see it clearly because of the vineyard. Since then, they have made a lot of improvements. There's a new platform for photographers, which has enough space for at least 10 tripods. And they have also cut back the vineyard that was in the foreground, so the road's beautiful shape is more visible."

3. Plan your composition

Light trails on a winding mountain road in evening light, clearly visible far into the distance.

Safety is a priority when it comes to shooting by a road in the dark. "Put on a high-visibility vest and use a torch to make sure that you are visible," says Piotr. "No picture is worth getting injured for, so make sure that you position your tripod safely, especially if you're shooting from a bridge or other elevated spot." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm, 562 sec, f/9 and ISO200.

Even though you'll be taking your pictures as night draws in, set up in daylight so that you have plenty of time to frame your shot. "When you want to take a good picture, you have to think about the background and the foreground and how you will fill these areas," advises Piotr.

"It's also a good idea to think of the traffic trail as a guiding line that leads the eye from the foreground to the background. The best opportunity to do this is if you are lucky enough to find an S-shaped road that snakes through the scene to, say, a church or a mountain or an equally obvious focal point."

4. Keep your images sharp

A young boy using a Canon camera on a tripod, photographing a vineyard from a raised vantage point.

Piotr took his son Jurek on the Dreisiebner's Farm shoot, where he explained the importance of using a sturdy tripod. Without practice, handholding a camera with a slower shutter speed can produce a blurred image. Using the two-second timer, as Piotr does, will avoid any camera shake as you press the shutter, but you could also use a remote shutter release, such as the Canon RC-6 Wireless Remote Control, Canon RS-60E3 Remote Switch, Canon BR-E1 Wireless Remote Control or through the Canon Camera Connect app.

To ensure that the stationary parts of your image remain sharp in the final shot, you'll need to lock the camera in position on a tripod and avoid touching it during the exposure. "I simply use the camera's two-second self-timer," Piotr reveals. "So, I just check the composition, press the button and two seconds later the exposure starts."

Canon's range of mirrorless and DSLR cameras offer a self-timer function. Piotr also uses the mirror lockup function when shooting with DSLR cameras that have this feature. Once activated, it locks the mirror out of the way and delays the start of the exposure, reducing the chances of any vibrations inside the camera robbing the image of sharpness. "With a mirrorless camera you don't have this problem, though," says Piotr, "as you don't have a mirror!"

5. Shoot even longer

A close-up shot of light trails on a heart-shaped road, with a red-tiled building and the surrounding vineyard clearly visible.

"On this particular heart-shaped road you need an exposure of at least 30 seconds," says Piotr. "That's because 30 seconds is the time that it takes to drive its length, assuming you are not an F1 driver! For your own light trail photos, time how long it takes a vehicle to travel the length of your target road and set this as the shutter speed. Then adjust the aperture and ISO until you get the right level of brightness. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 88mm, 30 sec, f/9 and ISO1000. © Piotr Skrzypiec

The ability to control the length of the exposure is essential. All EOS cameras – from the Canon EOS 4000D to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – allow you to record an exposure that's up to 30 seconds long. Shutter Priority (Tv) mode lets you set a precise exposure time (shutter speed), with the camera automatically adjusting the aperture. You can then set your ISO according to the scene.

Shooting in Manual (M) mode gives you control of the aperture in order to achieve the perfect level of sharpness, too. To further customise your settings, Canon's range of full-frame mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS RP also feature a Flexible value (Fv) mode. This is essentially a fully automatic mode that lets you take control of the shutter speed, aperture and/or ISO at any point.

You'll need to use Bulb mode for exposures longer than 30 seconds. Some EOS cameras have a 'B' option on the mode dial, but on others you need to select Manual mode and scroll past the 30 seconds shutter speed setting.

6. Setting an exposure

While you obviously need a relatively long exposure to render the car lights as long trails snaking through the picture, the precise length varies. Piotr explains, "It all depends on the type of road and the density of the traffic. Usually on a highway, you don't need an exposure of 30 seconds because there are a lot of cars and a lot of light trails. But there are some quieter spots where only a very long exposure will do.

"I always try to use an aperture of f/8 or f/11. It's usually not good to go wider than f/8, as parts of the shot may not be sharp. If you have to increase the ISO to something like ISO800, that's fine. If the image is a little bit noisy, you can work on that when you edit the picture. On the latest cameras, such as the Canon EOS R5 I received as my prize, ISO800 is nothing, and I don't see any noise in the picture at this setting." The EOS R5's ISO range runs from ISO 100-51,200, so ISO800 is a relatively low sensitivity that delivers excellent image quality in low light.

7. Choose the right kit

Light trails on a dual carriageway, red in one direction, white-gold in the other, passing through bare winter trees beneath a snow-capped mountain range at night.

A common problem is seeing breaks in the light trails, where cars have stopped or haven't travelled the full length of the road. "You can fix this by using a longer exposure," says Piotr. "If 30 seconds is not long enough, switch to Bulb mode and use a remote release to keep the shutter open for as long as you need." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM at 100mm, 30 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Piotr Skrzypiec

You don't have to use an L-series pro lens to take professional-looking light trail pictures. A compact, lightweight lens such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM or the RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM is going to be easier to carry, while still giving you sharp, detailed pictures.

"You'll usually be using quite a small aperture in order to get a sharp picture, so you don't necessarily need a lens with a fast maximum aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/2.8," says Piotr. "I always use zoom lenses as they give you more options for framing a scene, but really the choice of lens is not as important as other aspects, such as using a tripod and the volume of traffic. It just has to be sharp, that's all!"

So there you have it. Shooting light trails is a great way to learn how to take control of exposure and to use photography to capture something that isn't visible with the naked eye. It's quite undemanding when it comes to camera equipment, too, but the rewards can be immense – just ask Piotr!

Visit our Redline Challenge hub to see the shortlisted entries and for more tips and advice from the pros.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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