33 Auto Headlamps and Other Streaming Lights

Auto Headlamps and Other Streaming Lights

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You can energize your night shots by including streaming lights, such as cars passing through your composition. Just make sure you're not standing in the flow of traffic at the time.

The flow of traffic provides a great opportunity to add motion to your compositions. Automobiles are light-painting machines, and it's easy to put them to work for you.

The key to success is to find a location with ambient light—such as a well-lit street, a bridge, or a large building—to serve as your main composition. Yes, you can go stand out on a dark highway and photograph cars as they whiz by, but images of streaming lights against a pitch-black backdrop aren't really worth the danger of being there in the first place.

Think of streaming lights as an element that you add to an already interesting composition, not the sole subject of the picture itself. If you were shooting a quiet little neighborhood, you probably wouldn't add this element to the shot; you're trying to convey solitude, comfort, and a feeling of being off the beaten track. But if you wanted to show the hustle and bustle of rush-hour traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge or in Manhattan, including lots of streaming lights adds a sense of energy and activity. For example, take a look at Figure, featuring the Empire State Building rising above the activity on the street. By including streaming car lights as they drive by, you get a feel for the energy of New York City.

Streaming lights beneath the Empire State Building

1 Your Equipment

The first thing you need to do is find your tripod. This type of photography requires exposures that are too long for even the steadiest of hands. If you don't want to lug around your big three-legged beast, buy a handy pocket tripod that you can set on top of newspaper boxes and ledges.

If your camera accepts a remote release, use it. Not only do you need it to trip the shutter without jarring the camera, but you also want to start the exposure just as cars are driving by. You can also use the self-timer, but you won't have nearly as much control over when the exposure begins.

For example, say you're standing out there in the cold and you see a group of cars approaching. You activate the self-timer and...wait. 10, 9, 8 (hurry, hurry), 7, 6, 5 (come on, shoot already!), 4, 3 (the cars go whizzing by), 2, 1, click! (Nothing but darkness and a missed opportunity.) However, cameras that provide the option of a two-second delay of the self-timer do help minimize this frustration and dramatically reduce the profusion of swearing.

Another thing that's really helpful for these types of shoots is a little pocket flashlight. One of my favorite (and most dangerous for my credit card) web sites is GlowBug.com (http://www.glowbug.com). They have just about every type of flashlight you could dream of, and many that you never imagined.

When shopping for a flashlight, keep in mind that red bulbs will help you retain your night vision. Personally, I like the blue LED lights when night vision isn't an issue.

2 No Need to Increase the ISO

Now that you have your equipment in order, let's check your camera settings. You might be tempted to fiddle with your ISO settings, since this is a night shoot. But don't! In fact, increasing your ISO setting beyond the default 100 is the last thing you want to do. You don't need more speed, because your camera is securely mounted on a tripod. Actually, you want nice, long shutter speeds, because that allows more cars to pass through your composition and enables you to capture more streaming lights.

Also, when you increase ISO speed, you increase the likelihood of image noise, which is something you don't want for these shots. Speaking of image noise, if you have a noise-reduction setting on your camera, use it for these shots. Long exposures often produce some unsightly artifacts, even if you keep the ISO setting to 100. Cameras with noise-reduction systems help fight this problem.

So, use a tripod, set the ISO to 100, and turn on noise reduction if you have it.

3 Time to Shoot

You've found a great location and are ready to shoot. What camera settings do you use?

If you're shooting a scene with lots of ambient light, you can use Program mode as your starting point. Today's cameras are remarkably good at handling these types of lighting conditions. Many of my cameras have what's known as Long Shutter mode, which keeps the shutter open for a longer period of time in dark conditions. You might want to play with this setting and see what results you get.

If your exposures are too bright because the camera is overexposing the scene, use your Exposure Compensation option and set the scale to -1 or -2. That should help restore darkness to your composition.

You can also use Shutter Priority mode and set the speed to one second or longer. Once you have the right shutter speed to produce the amount of light streaming you want, you can use the Exposure Compensation option to darken or lighten the scene.

Some cameras have a Nighttime Shooting mode [Hack #29], which is fun to play with. Many point-and-shoot digicams don't give you other modes, such as Shutter Priority, so you'll have to make the Nighttime mode work in these types of situations. Hopefully, you have some sort of exposure compensation to darken or lighten the scene.

As you try to figure out how to use the passing cars in your composition, keep in mind that red taillights produce much different results than oncoming headlights. So, set up the picture to suit your tastes. This might be the one good thing ever to come out of being stuck in heavy traffic.

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