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Trailing Traffic in Tennessee
December 10, 2020 at 6:57 PM
by Advance Photo Tours

Setting the Scene – The James White Parkway in Knoxville

I often set out on photographic adventures with fellow photographers and friends. You will find that if you have a like-minded person with you, you can bounce ideas off of each other. For example, you may spot something that your friend doesn’t. Or they may suggest an interesting composition you may not have considered.

On this particular trip, we headed into Knoxville with the idea of getting some impressive sunset shots. Surrounding downtown Knoxville there is a jungle of highways, side roads, bridges, and overpasses. It can be daunting to drive through if you don't know the local area!

We drove along the James White Parkway which is a state route that extends from South Knoxville, across the Tennessee River into downtown Knoxville. Along this route, there is a number of overpasses and intersections of multiple roads. You can also see some of the high-rise buildings at certain viewpoints.

The particular spot we chose was an overpass that crossed the James White Parkway, next to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Museum. From this overpass, you can see multiple lanes of traffic, but also have an amazing view of the Knoxville skyline in the background. Also, the sun happens to set behind the skyline from this position – could you find a more perfect setting?

Creating the Composition – A challenging photo due to the lack of traffic

This photo presented several challenges:

1. Compose evenly for the sunset, skyline, and traffic

2. Create the effect of moving traffic when there wasn't much traffic!

3. Use a long exposure to get the light trails from moving vehicles

4. Combine these elements together to make a half-decent photo!

As you can imagine, this was a tricky shot to master! I had to use multiple exposures to get the desired effect with my Nikon D850 and Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. Also, it was a cold winter day in December – sometimes, cold weather can create unwanted condensation on your lens. More about that later.

There were three important elements I wanted to capture – the traffic, the skyline, and the sunset. To do this, I had to take multiple exposures and combine/blend them in post-processing afterward.

As you can imagine, when focusing on the sky, the foreground and buildings became silhouetted. I didn't want this as I wanted some detail retained in the buildings. Alternatively, when focusing on the traffic and foreground, the sky then became washed-out and I lost some of that beautiful color. This is why multiple exposures were required, so I could capture all the relevant detail in the photo.

Using long exposure photography to create light trails

One of the other issues was creating the light trails of the traffic. To achieve this effect, you have to use long exposure photography. This is where you set a long shutter speed and the camera shutter stays open. Whilst it is open, the traffic will move and this movement is picked up by the camera sensor – however, the result is a smooth light trail as the traffic is continuously moving.

For shots like this, you ideally need shutter speeds of 10 seconds or more. To do this effectively, you need a tripod. If you try and handheld these photos, the resulting shots will be out of focus as any movement of the camera is shown by the slow shutter speed.

It didn't help that there was literally no traffic! We couldn't believe it – we chose a busy route in central Knoxville, expecting waves of traffic. Sadly, it didn't turn out that way. As a result, we had to take multiple shots at intervals when traffic did appear.

That is the beauty of using a tripod and post-processing software. You can easily take multiple shots of the exact same composition without any movement. Using post-processing software, you can then combine them to make a single, blended photo!

I was really happy with the end result of this photo. The light trails look amazing. Also, the skyline and buildings are lit perfectly and help to show the bustling nature of the city. This is complemented by the amazing colors of the sky at the blue hour.

What Makes This Photo Stand Out?

There are so many compositional elements to this photo that I love. These elements combine together to make a powerful image that is beautiful and haunting at the same time.

Firstly, in the foreground, we have the amazing light trails from the moving traffic. I love this technique as it shows the chaotic nature of city traffic, but also looks cool. Also, I find it funny that the streets look incredibly busy, when in fact there wasn't much traffic at all – photography can be deceiving!

Secondly, in the background, there is the Knoxville skyline with some impressive skyscrapers looming tall. Behind this, we see the amazing colors of the sunset during blue hour. The way that the sky changes from blue, to purple, to orange is just fantastic.

You can essentially see the immensity of Knoxville and its bustling traffic, with a glimpse of nature hidden in the background as the sun gently sets. Perfection!

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