How can I apply long exposure lighting effects to a road (ideally using Photoshop or Illustrator)? See the image below for an example.

How can this be achieved?

long exposure light trails

  • 2
    People achieve this by taking long exposure photographs of cars going by. I suppose your best bet would be to google Light trail tutorial or maybe Long exposure tutorial. As far as faking this in photoshop goes, You might want to try this with thinner brush strokes graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/17443/… But I would rather buy stock photos than do it all in photoshop.
    – Joonas
    Apr 27, 2013 at 8:39
  • You might find questions related to this in: photo.stackexchange.com
    – Joonas
    Apr 27, 2013 at 8:44
  • @Joonas you mean, its not possible in Photoshop ?
    – Bala
    Apr 27, 2013 at 9:36
  • No. This is what I did with the method I suggested to you in my first comment with the GD.SE link: i.stack.imgur.com/xCJ9L.jpg ( ...I did it pretty quickly and it looks ok'ish. With a fair amount of time and by looking at reference images, you could get a pretty good result.. ). As I mentioned I would totally rather buy a stock photo image than spend my time doing this in photoshop.
    – Joonas
    Apr 27, 2013 at 12:05

4 Answers 4


Assuming you're starting with a nice night photo of an empty road without any headlights...

Badly photographed winter scene including a street

I'd make vector drawing first, to draw several curves where the headlight trails should be. Have some of them start or end in random places - simulating where cars happened to be at the beginning or end of the long exposure. Use the photo as a reference, but don't include in the output. Draw white or lightly colored orangish/yellowish lines on a transparent layer. Give these lines a thickness, whatever is right for the photo - the size an average headlight should appear if it were on a car on the road. If the cars come from very far, perspective will make the headlights appear larger close up, so taper the thickness somehow. Save as PNG (whatever preserves alpha), same size as original image.

My example is bad in that simple straight lines are good, but of course curves would be more dramatic. Curves would be especially dramatic on a straight street, but let's not explore that today.

Winter scene with hard white lines as headlight paths

Then in Photoshop (actually I used GIMP so my terminology may be different) the original goes on the bottom layer, then the headlight trails image, then finally any buildings, trees, whatever obstructing the view of the headlights, isolated from the original photo.

winter scene in gimp, color adjusted Just the hard vector-drawn trails layer by itself Car on near side of street, isolated in transparent layer

(to make it obvious for illustration, the isolated car was made blue-violet)

So far, it looks terrible, but we have the right stack. Blur the headlights slightly - a few pixels at most. Set the opacity of the headlights layer to somewhere 30% - 50% maybe more. Use Addition compositing mode, not the default blending mode.

It'll still look fake due to being too uniform in brightness. Use an eraser gently make the headlight trails more transparent in places. They should be the least transparent (appearing brightest) where the cars are closest to heading toward the viewer - this effect shows nicely in your example photo.

winter scene with blurred fake headlight trails

You may want to duplicate the headlight layer, set it to 10-20% opacity, and blur it more - 10-20 px, or enough that adjacent trails start to overlap. This also is Addition not the normal blending mode.

winter scene with more strongly blurred trails final winter scene with fake headlight trails

As an artist, it's up to you to refine the image to look better. Variety in brightness, color (but close to white) Also, some subtle kinks or jiggles make them look real, but this is best dealt with when making the vector drawing.

I didn't mention tail lights yet, but of course the same procedure applies but make them red.

I don't know of any plug-in or built-in lighting effect or feature that can do all this automatically. But then, I don't keep up with new Photoshop paraphernalia.

  • +1. An advantage of not using a plug-in is that a new(er) user gets more comfortable with the tool.
    – horatio
    Apr 30, 2013 at 16:50

Per the asker's request, here's a solution that can be done in Illustrator:

First place the picture in Illustrator and lock that layer. Then, with the pen tool make paths that are similar in shape to what you are looking for.

enter image description here

After you've made a few, you can star picking the colors you need. Unlock the layer with the picture, lock and hide the layer with the stroked you made and choose a color on the light path. Save these colors to your swatches and relock the picture, unhide and unlock the paths.

Select the paths. Make sure you have stroke color selected and select gradient (the middle button underneath the stroke and fill selectors)

enter image description here

Now, select each path individually and open your gradient tool. Make sure you put the color mode in RGB (I think it defaults to Greyscale) by clicking the dropdown in the upper right of the tool window and select RGB. Now select the fist color in the gradient tool and change it to the colors you saves to your swatches and start adjusting where they need to go on the slider. You may have to click the reverse button above it if your colors are backwards on the stroke.

enter image description here

Once you have as many as you want, you can thin out the stroke thickness if they seemed too much.

enter image description here

You should have something similar which you can then copy into Photoshop and create some glow effects and shadowing or anything else that Illustrator doesn't do as well as Photoshop.

enter image description here

Keep in mind that the pen tool which I used in this tutorial has a steep learning curve so it will take a lot of practice to get the lines right if you've never used the tool before. I suggest watching a few tutorials on YouTube before starting, just as a primer.

  1. Draw path
  2. copy paste it + adjust
  3. once done, stroke all paths with medium soft brush white color all on same layer.
  4. apply layer mask, and make close some transparent while further or center being the most dense/apparent.
  5. apply inner glow and outer glow, in blending options select layer mask hides effect.

A major point to remember when doing light trails, which is exhibited on your example image, is that they are from car lights and so the road is affected as well as the lights themselves. Although the light emission itself draws the trail, the light is cast on the road.

You need to ensure you (on a layer underneath your trails) appear to 'light up' the road.

The trails can then sit on top of the lit-up road, giving you an extra degree of realism.

Another tip is to ensure that the trails also vary in size, brightness and slight offsets of colour. Think the difference between a truck, a car and a motorbike; a road would feature all of these, and if you are doing something similar to the example image, they could each be in any lane.

Colour variations stay with the bright, but some vehicles have a pure white light, some show a slight yellow tint, and others show a blue-ish tint. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction have red lights as well, so keep this in mind. Indicators (turn signals) between lanes are orange!


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.