Photographing Traffic at Night in the City

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Moving traffic is like a city’s bloodstream—it’s always moving, pulsating through veiny streets, which can bring your photography to life if you know how to capture it. When it comes to traffic moving in the evening, you have a few technical options to catch a cool scene. It all boils down to shutter speed: a slower speed will blur the traffic more, while a faster speed will blur it less. That much is obvious. But what’s less obvious are the qualitative associations we make about blurring traffic.

traffic photo at night

How Much Motion is Too Much Motion?

People often assume that more motion blur is better, but that isn’t always the case. Using a super-long exposure against a small amount of traffic won’t make the image look better—it’ll make it look desolate. (Which might be what you’re going for, of course, but if your intention is to show a bustling city, that won’t be the best way.)

how much motion

Whatever shutter speed you choose will largely depend on the time of night and what other settings you’re working with. If you have a set aperture in mind, you’ll need to wait for the time of evening to match your desired ISO speed. Try waiting a while for the sky to change colors, and you’ll find your traffic blur will necessarily change, too. There’s no “right” or “wrong” exposure—just what you’re going for.

Great Places to Find Traffic

Finding the right location for heavy traffic can be tricky. You’ve got to know a city pretty well, or at least have an idea of where the congested thoroughfares will be. In general, though, I find these areas to be wonderful locations for photography in the evening:

  • Intersections
  • Bridges from above or below
  • Highway overpasses
  • Road corners
  • Forks in the road
  • Tight uphill switchbacks
  • Stop signs
  • Bus stops

intersection long exposure

The common theme here is movement—traffic in a straight line can maybe be interesting if you’ve got some variety in the shot (maybe skyscrapers or a city icon nearby), but failing that, you’re going to want to see some movement, leading lines and curves. That’s why bent roads and intersections work so well—you can create light lines out of conflict, movement and chaos.

Shutter Speed Comparisons

In the following three images watch the effect of shutter speed length on traffic moving across a bridge as it gets darker in the evening. All other settings constant (f/13, ISO 400) shooting in aperture priority.

0.6 second shutter speed:

half second shutter

Shutter Speed Duration: 0.6 Seconds

3.2 second shutter speed:

three second shutter

Shutter Speed Duration: 3.2 Seconds

10 second shutter speed:

ten second shutter

Shutter Speed Duration: 10 Seconds

None of these shutter speeds were “right” or “wrong”, it just depends what lighting conditions and lighting effects you like best. Get out there and try it for yourself!

Don’t Forget Pedestrian Traffic

When it comes to intersections, some bigger cities—New York, Tokyo, Toronto—will have four-way crosswalks, where pedestrians stream across in all directions, stopping cars on all four sides of the intersection.

pedestrian traffic

These make especially great hectic shots, with cloudy masses surrounded by headlights and condo lights.

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