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How to shoot light trails on a mountain

How to shoot light trails on a mountain

We venture beyond the city to take light trails a step further – all the way from the top of a mountain to the bottom!

How to shoot light trails on a mountain

Capturing light trails is a fun technique that most of us have tried at one time or another, but they are at risk of becoming somewhat overdone. One way to give new life to long-exposure light trails is to create your own by getting someone to run up and down a hillside with a light at night.

This technique requires a lot more planning than shooting your standard car trail in a city centre. We recommend that you practise on a nearby hill to get to grips with this technique before heading out into the hills to photograph your finished masterpiece.

Scout out the location and the best vantage point for your final shoot in advance, too, as navigation can become a challenge in the dark.

You don’t just need to find the right location for setting up your camera; your assistant, who’ll be creating the light trail, will need to have some idea of the route you want them to follow.

You also need to be completely sure that whatever method of communication you’re using will work in that location, as some rural areas have poor mobile phone coverage.

We chose to send our obliging assistant along the ridge line of Pen y Fan in South Wales, the red bicycle light they carried outlining the landscape in a single coloured line.

If your landscape isn’t one you can outline (because of access limitations, say, or trees and other structures), play with the features you do have: get your assistant to loop around trees, or run in and out of buildings to weave the light between them. Own the landscape!

How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 1

1 Find a vantage point
Plan your shoot across a valley, so that you can shoot from one hill, looking over at the other. We travelled to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, where our walker could climb up and over the hills, highlighting the ridge line along the tops. Aim to get there well before nightfall, to get set up.


How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 2

2 Get down low
Set up your camera in an area sheltered from wind. Mount it on a low tripod, weighted down with a bag to prevent any chance of movement. Disable your lens’s Vibration Reduction if needed, and set mirror up (MUP) mode to prevent unwanted vibration from mirror slap.


How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 3

3 Take a test shot
In manual mode, set your aperture to the sweet spot of your lens – typically f/8. Increase your ISO as high as it will go, and then fire off a test shot at the shutter speed suggested by your camera (ie with the exposure-level indicator lined up with the ‘0’ on the exposure scale).


How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 4

4 Calculate the exposure
Check the histogram to make sure it’s to the left, but not ‘clipped’. If it is, set a slower shutter speed. Once you’re happy, proceed to halve the shutter speed while halving the ISO until you reach the exposure time required for your assistant to come back down the hill.


How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 5

5 Take your time
When you get above 30 seconds, your Nikon will default to its Bulb mode. In this mode, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter release is held down, which is why a lockable remote release is so useful. For our final shot, we needed an exposure time of about 20 minutes.


How to shoot light trails on a mountain: step 6

6 Keep the noise down
If you’re shooting for longer than five minutes, you may find that your images look a bit grainy. This is caused by the sensor struggling with the length of the exposure. Go into your Shooting menu and enable long exposure noise reduction to counteract this.

Quick tip
It might seem obvious, but if you want to capture someone traipsing up or down a steep hill or mountain, it makes sense to shoot them 
on the way back down, rather than on the way up, as the exposure time will be much shorter. Plus, any light will be pointing towards your camera, rather than away from it.

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