The Blue Hour is a magical time as dusk arrives and the light of the day fades out of the sky. The lights and movement that is there during the day can be used to create magical scenes at night. After an evening of sunset captures under Westminster Bridge the move was made to the top of the bridge. A buzz of tourists, late night commuters and evening adventurers made it a living mass of humanity. Stood on the curb with traffic flying by, my tripod balanced and rippling as the larger vehicles motored onwards time stood still. Waiting for the magical night bus to come past, the intermittent lights of an ambulance or the self propulsion of a cyclist.
How to Take Photographs of Light Trails
For night photography to work it is essential to find safe and suitable locations in daylight. Planning is essential. To capture the London buses as light trails a spot on Westminster Bridge chosen. During the day it is busy and the buses mask the Palace of Westminster making longer exposures difficult. Come the night, however the movement of buses makes for a magical feel to images.
To capture the long exposure shots of the buses and Palace of Westminster (or anywhere else for that matter) a number of things should be considered.
Essential to get things right. The camera may think it knows what you want, but by setting the exposures manually you can control exactly what the camera does.
This can be as small as possible. f20/22 will give beautiful starbursts to any lights. It will also enable the camera to achieve longer exposure times if you are working in shutter priority mode.
Keep this low. A low ISO (50 – 200) will again help to achieve a longer exposure time. If the ISO is low the camera will need a longer exposure to give a similar image to one taken with an ISO of 800 or 1600.
This needs to be long! The buses will move across the frame and time is needed to capture the full movement. If the capture is started too late or finished too early then there will be a visible end to the light. On the bridge it was easy to see buses coming and after a few attempts it was possible to see where they needed to be when the shutter was released.
This can be manipulated in post-processing, but getting it right in camera is really satisfying. I found that a white balance set between 4000K and 5000k highlighted the colour of the sky perfectly without compromising the other features of the image.
Use a tripod
A tripod is essential for long exposures. This needs to be placed as close to the kerb as is safe. Westminster Bridge now has safety guards so you need to ensure you stay the right side of the however tempting a little step over the barriers may be.
Ensure everything is level
No-one like a squiffy image. Use a hot-plate measure or the balance on live view to ensure that the camera is horizontal.
Cameras don’t know what they are doing in the dark. Manual focus is needed to ensure the camera gets the focus right! Manual focus means that the focus can be set before any buses come into the scene and can remain sharp and crisp. Auto focus would delay shutter release as the lens searched for what it thinks is the focal spot of the image, not useful in this situation.
Touching the camera to press the shutter causes movement which affects the image. A cable release enables the shutter to be released without touching the camera. An alternative is to set the timer to 2 second so the shutter can be released without touching the camera.
Shoot in RAW
As always if your camera has the ability you should shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG. This gives you the ability to process the image yourself later. JPEG files have processing carried out by the camera and with this type of photography it doesn’t always get it right!
Moment of Truth
Once the camera is set, it is time to play. The size of the bus, the lights on the bus and the combination with other vehicles can be used to paint a variety of images.
Why not add this location to others along the Thames as post of a walking photography tour – see my guide for lots more locations.