It’s the light trail, man. It’s where all the lights crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains back before the trains started…
LOL! Sorry, that was crazy talk.
Light trails! — those pictures with the long lines of swirling light that look a little fantastical and science fiction. They’re created by keeping the camera shutter (the “eye” thing that opens to let light into the lens) open longer than usual.
And nowadays you don’t even need a giant fancy camera to create them. A lot of smaller cameras let you adjust the shutter speed (in this case, increasing it up to a full second or longer). I used a point-and-shoot (the Sony DSC-RX100) — actually, my favorite point-and-shoot of all time.
You want to look for the setting on your camera that controls the shutter speed. On my Sony, it’s the “S” setting on the dial.
To get this shot, I set the shutter speed for 20 seconds.
That’s a while, and the key is to keep the camera as still as possible, ideally setting it on a tripod or windowsill (an improv tripod), which is what I did.
Normally, the shutter opens and closes in a fraction of a second, usually a fortieth or sixtieth of a single second, but by leaving it open a full 20 seconds while the camera itself remains still, the static objects in the shot, like the buildings and highways, appear to be still, while the moving objects in the shot, like the lights on the cars, are captured as beautiful trails of light. Everything also appears brighter (making it a great way to capture stars in the night sky).
(Side note: conversely, by setting a quicker shutter speed, like to a thousandth of a second, time appears frozen. That’s how photographers do things like capturing a baseball player’s swinging bat, or a flying hummingbird with wings that aren’t blurred, or capturing a single drop of water, or a certain blogger girl jumping in her dress.
To keep the camera as absolutely still as possible, I also used the two-second timer feature. That way I didn’t even have to press the shutter button, which would have caused the camera to move a little.
I was also sitting in a pitch black hotel room like a psycho creeper, LOL! But there was a method to my madness… I turned off the lights so they wouldn’t interfere with the final pic (I also turned off the camera’s built-in flash).
The end result? Light trails of LA cars on the freeway!