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Westminster Bridge: Streaking Lights

This photo was taken on Westminster Bridge in London.

Westminster

You’ve probably seen plenty of these, and I have too, but I never get tired of them.  You can do these sorts of shots anywhere.  Since it is nighttime you don’t have to hope for the perfect light.  You just set up with a good background and then trip the shutter whenever there is some traffic coming through.

These are not that difficult either.  They require almost no post-processing.  All you do is keep your shutter open a long time while the traffic comes through your frame.

So read on and I’ll tell you exactly how I got this one, then you can apply it to your own location and get a great shot.

The Settings I Used

Here are the settings I used for this particular picture:

  • Shutter speed:  5 seconds
  • Aperture: f/8
  • ISO: 200
  • Focal Length: 35 mm

Obviously, given the long shutter speed, you are going to need a tripod.

How to Get the Picture

The name of the game here is timing.  You have to catch the traffic just right and to avoid pedestrians.

Setting Up

Set up your tripod just off the street.  You will probably want to stay right next to the street though so that pedestrians can walk around you on the sidewalk without going in front of your camera (some will seemingly go out of their way to walk right in front of your camera, and I will never understand it).

You will also want to be a bit low for this shot.  That will make your foreground look better, but it will also put you lower than the streaking lights so that they will fill up the frame.  If you set up your tripod at full height, most of the lights will be below you and only in the bottom part of the frame.

If you are going to be in this exact spot (on Westminster Bridge in London) you will obviously want St. Stephen’s Tower (Big Ben) in the picture, but otherwise set up the background of your composition how ever you think best.

Exposure

Once you are set up, take a few test shots without regard to traffic to get your exposure and your composition set up just right.  You will want to make sure your shutter speed is at least a few seconds long.  I used a 5 second exposure, and I could see going with a longer shutter speed, but I wouldn’t go with one much shorter.  Since it will be nighttime, you should be able to use a good long shutter speed without resorting to a neutral density filter or other trickery.

I went with a middle of the road aperture (f/8) and a relatively low ISO (200).  I could see a case for a higher aperture figure (meaning a smaller aperture for a wider depth of field) to make sure the Houses of Parliament are sharp, although it seemed to work fine for me at f/8.  If you do, just increase the ISO a bit.  But be careful about going to high with the ISO.  Dark areas in your picture tend to show a lot of noise, so a higher ISO could lead to a problem there (since it will be nighttime and you will invariably have some dark areas in your frame).

Taking the Picture

Once you are set up and dialed in, just sit and wait for a while.  In this particular location, every minute of so the traffic light on the east side of the bridge will turn green and traffic will head your way.  When traffic is approaching, but before the traffic reaches your frame, trigger the shutter.  The traffic will go through your frame while the shutter is open.

Try to get a few shots with a bus coming through the frame.  Busses are taller and have lots of lights, so they are the best.  Since this one was taken in London, there are busses coming past all the time, so you won’t have to wait long.

Odds are you will have to repeat this several times until you have the streaking lights just right.

After the Shot

There is not much you should need to do to edit this picture.  Personally, I just increased the contrast (globally, and locally in certain areas) and slightly increased the saturation.

If you do decide to increase the contrast in your picture, don’t be afraid to let darker areas in your picture go all the way to black.  It is nighttime, they are supposed to be black anyway.

Be careful, however, to keep your streaking slights from getting too bright.  If they start turning white during your overall contract adjustment, pull the Highlights slider (assuming you are using Lightroom) to the left to bring them back.

Conclusion

If you happen to be in London, this is a pretty iconic shot you will want to get.  Plus it puts you right in a major area with lots of other interesting night shots.  Obviously the Houses of Parliament are right there, but so is Westminster Abbey and the London Eye (which is lit up at night).

But you don’t have to be in London to get a picture with streaking lights.  You can try it out anywhere there is traffic and lit up buildings at night.

Have a picture you think would make a good example?  Don’t mind explaining how you did it?  Send it to me!
You can email me at jim@outdoorphotoacademy.com.
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