How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

Photographic light trails are a beautiful effect. You’ve no doubt encountered them before. Photographers perch over a vantage point and trace the trajectory of cars navigating an urban landscape using a slow shutter speed. The result renders a fluid trail tracing around the environment in a variety of shapes and colors.

Think of this project as a new take car light trails. We’ll still be recording passing light sources – but we’ll be capturing them from inside of the car instead. The result is just as striking inside as it is outside. You might have an old car or a fresh new one – it doesn’t matter! You get an impressive effect regardless.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

Safety

First, a little caveat. Safety is the priority here. As we are going to shoot from the back seat of the car, you will need a pal as the driver. Do not try and take photos while driving – it can only end badly. Having a buddy as a driver will allow you to concentrate on what you are doing while the driver can focus on driving. It’s strictly a team effort.

Another safety point, try not to obscure the rear-view mirror. Hunch down a little to save the obstructing the driver’s view. For the best effect, photographing at night is ideal – so be extra aware of the limited visibility.

Equipment

What you need to do this:

  • Camera
  • Sturdy Tripod
  • A friend
  • A car

Setting up

It can be a rough ride trying to get everything set up in a moving car, so set up before hitting the road. First, clean the glass. Give your windshield and windows a good clean to avoid spending countless hours cloning out unfortunate bugs in post-production. Next, set up your tripod in the car. You’ll have to do some adjusting to get the camera level with the windshield.

Just keep in mind, the tripod just adds extra stability. It’s impossible to take a sharp slow shutter speed image while driving along in a fast car. But the tripod is far more stable than photographing by hand. I use a Manfrotto tripod because it’s nice and heavy to keep things a little steadier.

Sit the tripod so two legs rest against the front seats, with your camera peeking through the gap between the headrests. Be sure your camera is securely attached before heading out. You don’t want a camera bouncing around in a moving car.

Method

Once you are packed and ready,  it’s time to set off. Take a few test shots on your camera. As I mentioned before, this project works best at night, otherwise, you won’t get much of a result at all – just blown out exposures. In addition, the variety of lights will be much more apparent at night, with a good mix of color and shape.

Next, try to familiarize yourself with the car’s handling so you can expect certain lumps or bumps and the car’s response. I’m not saying you have to become a car-psychic, but higher cars behave differently from one to another. The interior of a car also has an impact on how your photographs will turn out. You may have to incorporate a dashboard or interior lighting too. I chose to keep the dashboard lighting in my images to maintain the process of the photograph.

The next step is all experimentation! You’ll get an endlessly diverse result with every exposure. I recommend setting your camera to ISO 100 so you can use shutter speeds between 10 and 30 seconds. If you have a shutter release, give the B (Bulb) setting a try too. Just take a few moments to find a comfortable position. You can keep your tripod a little steadier if you brace yourself against the legs of the tripod and the front seat.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

In this image, the driver is making a turn which creates the horizontal lighting effect.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

You can choose to include your friend in the review mirror. Just make sure you warn them in advance and don’t obstruct their visibility for too long.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

You can tell how rough this section of road was due to to the jagged lights. You can also see the illuminated settings on the dashboard. I felt that including them adds to the final image and the process leading up to each photograph.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

By swiveling the camera to focus on a different area of the car you can record light sources from two angles of the frame.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

On a rainy night, the windshield gets a little fogged, diffusing the lights at this interchange.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

By unfocusing your camera, you can create some colorfully abstract patterns and bokeh.

How to Photograph Light Trails from the Back Seat of a Car

Conclusion

Photographing light trails inside the car is a quick and easy way to capture a unique perspective. We know the world outside the windshield is a wonderful one, but sometimes it takes an abstract project like this one to truly bring it alive. While I’ll admit it ain’t Top Gear, it does have some pretty amazing results.  I would love to see some of your results below!

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