One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a photographer is not to limit myself to the immediate reaction I have when looking at a scene or subject.  There is potential in every situation, even those that to the human eye and the camera initially look like disasters.

A friend of mine invited me to join her to try to shoot car light trails from a highway overpass at dusk, achieving both the capture of the sunset and the movement of the cars through light trails.  Here’s what happened.

First of all, we decided to do this at the end of October, when sunsets in our area occur to the southwest and are relatively early in the day.  At this time of day, traffic is typically at its height, and if you know Toronto traffic, is considered to be some of the worst in North America.  Luckily traffic was NOT backed up or moving slowly from our vantage point.  First hurdle overcome.

Henry Street Bridge2The location we selected was in the heart of an industrial area – mostly because that’s where the overpass was located.  It was easy to access, with residential sidestreet parking nearby.  But as we arrived on the scene and assessed the angle of the sunset, we were horrified to discover that there was construction equipment directly in our line of sight across the highway toward the sunset.  What could we possibly do with that?

The sunset itself was also not particularly interesting – luckily the sky was neither clear nor overcast – wispy clouds were moving in to signal an incoming rainfall later in the evening.  That at least made the sky marginally interesting.

But being October and in an industrial area, there was absolutely no surrounding scenery of interest.  If we were going to do this, the sunset and the highway had to save the day.

The technique involves taking photographs of the sunset, waiting until dark without moving the camera, taking slow shutter speed photographs of the highway (hopefully with interesting tail lights visible) and blending the two in post.

My heart slumped when I captured the sunset.  I took about 30 frames and selected the one below.  Luckily there was some colour in the sky, but not much else.  Luckily as well, the construction equipment was hidden by the darkness of the scene.  Whew!  But turning this into magic?  No way.


We then waited, chatted and started to capture the car light trails.  Of course in my usual fashion, I messed things up by kicking one of the feet of the tripod by accident and changing my framing.  Repositioning as best I could, I wasn’t happy.  And car tail light trails are easier said than done.  You want enough cars in the scene, but not too many and not too few.  Another 30 frames and I selected this one.


But these just looked like streaks of light, with overexposed areas to the west.  How do you make this look like cars heading home?  Now what?

RAW images are amazing things.  With any of the many processors available today, you can easily recover highlights and shadows, take up or take down saturation and completely balance what might be a thowaway image.

Then some simple compositing to bring the upper half with the sunset together with the car trails, a few layers to blend and adjust both and voila, I sat back and was stunned at the result.  I love this image, with sunset, cars and tail lights all playing a role.  The sunset turned out to be magnificent, with even a jet trail keying directly off the sun.  It could not have been better.


The final image will get a bit more attention over time as I learn more about brightening the car light trails without overpowering the ghosts of the cars below.  But what an incredible start – at least I think so.

I discover new things every day with photography, both about the art and about myself.  Without being overly dramatic, we all should have some form of hobby that helps us make these discoveries.  I certainly have found the right one for me.