Austin Light Trails

There is a perch I have been thinking about using to take sunset photos or long exposure light trails over Austin. It was a relatively clear evening and I wasn’t expecting much of a sunset show, but I thought that it might be a good night to get headlight and taillight trails along Interstate 35 during blue hour.

I got to my place just before sunset, set up my tripod, and took a few sunset pictures just to see how they would turn out for the future. In the picture below you can see downtown to the left, the capitol rotunda just left of center, some of the University of Texas to the right, and Interstate Highway 35 coming across.

Austin Texas skyline at sunset
Nikon D750 + 16-35mm, f/4; 16mm, f/8, 1/60s, ISO100

There was a lightning rod in front of me and I didn’t bother moving my camera because I didn’t expect this to be much of a picture, just a reference shot for the future. As it turned out, I kind of like the photo. Perhaps on an evening with a more exciting sunset, I will come back here and make a panorama.

After the sun set, I kept an eye on the sky. Sometimes you get an interesting effect 10 or 15 minutes after sunset with light high in the sky; this is often called second sunset. There weren’t many high clouds to put on a show, but there were beautiful rays of light reaching across the sky from the horizon and I tried to capture this against the deep blue sky in the photo below. You can see the University of Texas tower and football stadium prominently in the foreground.

Sunset over University of Texas at Austin at blue hour
Nikon D750 + 16-35mm, f/4; 35mm, f/18, 1/6s, ISO100

I wasn’t sure that this photo would turn out well enough so see the light streaking across the sky, but I think it worked well. I wasn’t happy about the thick hazy clouds on the horizon, but I think that is what caused this light show. I will definitely have to come back to this place on an evening with a brilliant sunset, especially later in the year when the sun sets farther South.

About this time I started taking test shots to find the best conditions for the car light trails. It is still a bit too bright in this photo taken at 8:52PM, but it does provide a reference. The round building just across the highway is an arena for basketball or concerts. The bright sign would be an annoyance as it really dazzled the sensor.

Long exposure of Austin Texas downtown skyline at sunset
Nikon D750 + 16-35mm, f/4; 35mm, f/18, 4.0s, ISO100

I made a few attempts with the 10-stop ND filter, but I found that even at wide open aperture, the headlights and taillights were just not bright enough to leave much of a trail, even with an exposure longer than a minute, and it was wasting a lot of time to take these photos. Perhaps I will purchase a 6-stop filter at some point and that will work better.

The next photos were taken at 9:08PM and 9:13PM as the sky transitioned through twilight to dark allowing me to stretch out the shutter speed to get light trails. I tried to time the traffic light below to get good action in the near intersection with IH-35 turning into a red and white river to the distance. And eventually the sky got the desired shade of dark blue. My focus point was generally the capitol building right of center.

Austin Texas skyline at night with car light trails on IH35
Nikon D750 + 16-35mm, f/4; 30mm, f/18, 15s, ISO100
Austin Texas skyline at night with car light trails on IH35
Nikon D750 + 16-35mm, f/4; 29mm, f/18, 20s, ISO100

Shooting at such high aperture meant that the lights from the buildings was kind of twinkly, which I didn’t really like, but I needed the long exposure for the car lights.

When the sky got truly dark, I could go for really long shutter speeds, but without any color in the sky, I don’t think that the pictures came out to be very interesting. The sky is black and the lights kind of hazy. The interstate highway is the white and red river I wanted, but I think that the earlier pictures are more interesting. The below picture was take around 9:34PM.

Austin Texas skyline at night with car light trails on IH35
Nikon D750 + 24-120mm, f/4; 24mm, f/18, 80s, ISO100

To get longer than 30s exposure, I put the camera in manual with the shutter set to Bulb and used a remote shutter release and my phone to time the exposure. Bulb modes lets you just hold the shutter button down for as long as you want the exposure, but it is far easier with a remote shutter release and you are less likely to shake the camera.

Well, that’s Austin looking to the Southwest at night with car light trails on the highway. I do think I got better results than when I tried this previously from a different location. I am also considering this vantage point at the predawn blue hour as I think that the sky may be interesting with some high clouds while not being overwhelmed by the brightness of the Western horizon.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please leave a message below.

7 thoughts on “Austin Light Trails

  1. Nice, light trails at night are one of my favourites. I found that it’s always useful to have some ambient light as well otherwise you just get streaks of light in a black frame which is not so interesting. I like the last but one photo the best I think.

    One of the key points is to find a suitable vantage point which you seem to have done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. There was a building blocking part of the highway. I was also shooting around a lightning rod.

      I was thinking that I might go perch on the sidewalk of the street overpass down below some time for a different perspective, but I get a bit nervous around all that traffic. I think that most of downtown would be blocked from that vantage point though. I may need to go down South and try to find somewhere down there to look the other direction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.