Learn The Tantalising Trajectory Technique From Photographer Gim Liu

Notice of Liability/DisclaimerThe information in this article is distributed on an “As is” basis, without warranty. While every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this article, neither Gim Liu nor Light Stalking shall have any liability to any person or entity concerning any loss or injury, or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by the instructions contained in this article or by the equipment described in it. All readers are advised to proceed entirely at their own risk.

drone trajectory exercise
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 20 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu

About Me And This Article

My name is Gim Liu; I am 33 and from the UK and Hong Kong. I’ve been a photographer for over 10 years since buying my first DSLR camera in 2009. For me, it turned from a hobby to an obsession and lifestyle. I have always been interested in exploring new countries and have now been to over 50 so far. I took the interest of being a world explorer and combined it with my love for photography. They go hand in hand and are an excellent combination because the possibilities to take photos are infinite.

My perception of photography is that it is like art and poetry. Along with capturing moments, it can and should be used to express yourself. Long exposure photography does exactly that, it gives you the ability to create and capture something unique in an artistic way. This is why it is my favourite type of photography because it brings out my creative side. The beauty of it is that you are restricted only by your own imagination and creativity.

If you are interested to find out more about me, visit my Instagram page here or my website here.

Through improvisation and experimentation, I have invented two new types of long exposure photo styles which are outlining and trajectory. To date, I have not seen photos being created in this way and using my developed methods, let alone teaching them.

The information found in this article regarding the trajectory photo type is exclusive to Light Stalking and is also a stand out feature in my book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery’ which is described when this article concludes.

What Is Trajectory?

A trajectory photo is where the path of a moving object (typically a ball) is displayed in an image. The line or curve resembling the path that the object took is made visible by a sparkler attached to the object. It is thrown/hit/struck/kicked/rolled while a long exposure photo is taken.

The sparkler attached to the object coupled with the action made to move it enables the camera to capture the movement made by the object and show how it traveled. The trajectory photo type is truly unique, impressive, and creative. Undertaking a trajectory photo leads to producing an eye-catching image that has a wow factor about it. Such photos are very unusual to see, which makes them interesting for any viewer to look at. This kind of photo is a great addition to your portfolio or photo collection and also shows your versatility as a photographer.

blue trajectory example
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 25 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
green trajectory example
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 15 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
sparkling trajectory example
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 30 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
tall yellow trajectory
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 30 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
sparkling yellow trajectory
ISO 100, aperture 4, and shutter speed 30 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
sparkling orange trajectory
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 4 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu
creative drone trajectory
ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and shutter speed 8 seconds, Photo by Gim Liu

Tools And Safety

To create a trajectory photo, you will need the following; your camera, a tripod, sparklers, a lighter, a torch, a friend, or a wireless camera remote if you are doing it alone and a trajectory object (which is explained next).

Your camera, tripod, lighter, torch, a friend or wireless camera remote are pretty self-explanatory and therefore sparklers and the trajectory object are the two items which will be explained.

A sparkler is a handheld firework that burns slowly while emitting sparks. With certain photos such as trajectory, using a sparkler is suitable and makes the photo more interesting rather than just using ordinary light sources. It provides a great effect; it is cheap, readily available, and creates spectacular patterns. Photos have been added below to show a typical sparkler and the packaging they come in.

Next is the trajectory object. A trajectory object needs to be prepared in advance before you set out to create a trajectory photo. It requires three different components to be made. The three components needed are

  • any ball, such as a football
  • duct tape
  • sparkler

To make it, take a strip of duct tape and stick a sparkler to the center of your ball. Ensure that only the bottom half of the sparkler is stuck to the ball, the part where there is just the metal stick. Ensure that the actual sparkler part is not touching the ball, as it will burn it. The following is a photo of a trajectory object that I have previously used.

duct tape and ball
Photo by Gim Liu

Before explaining how to take a trajectory photo, the safety precautions needed to be taken are discussed. When these safety precautions are not taken, there is a risk of harm to yourself and/or others and also damage to property and/or possessions.

Bring Several Litres Of Water With You

This can be used to put out your sparklers when you are finished with them. It can also be used to extinguish the start of a small fire in the unlikely event that this occurs.

Choose A Sensible Location

The location must have no flammable materials nearby. Somewhere with a concrete floor that is also away from the general public is appropriate. Doing it where not many or no people are around is important because you do not want to injure anyone and also you do not want to be disrupted by law enforcement due to their curiosity of wanting to know what you are up to.

The Later At Night, The Better

The trajectory photo needs to be taken when it is dark for effect to work. Taking photos like this will attract the curiosity of people, so avoid times when people are out and about which is typically between 5pm and 9pm.

Going out after 9 pm will lessen the chances of getting interrupted by anyone. Additionally, an advantageous time to go out would be when the ground is wet such as just after it has rained or early in the morning. When the environment and its surroundings are wet, it is much safer to reduce your risk of causing a fire.

Common Sense Is Key

Drawing upon your common sense to make good judgments will not only ensure everything runs smoothly but also help keep you and others safe. Finally, always be considerate of others and your surroundings. Being considerate will help prevent causing trouble or harm to others and the environment.

Don’t Try To Catch The Trajectory Object

The movement of the object will be unpredictable, making it very dangerous and having the potential to injure you.

Take Care When Launching It

The sparkler attached to the trajectory object will be extremely hot, so ensure it is not sent toward anyone or anything other than your target. This will prevent someone from becoming injured or something getting damaged.

How Exactly To Photograph A Trajectory Photo, With Settings

Here is where the fun begins! The following is a guide for you to follow to create your trajectory photo. It is outlined in four phases which are plan, set up, execute and analyze.

Phase one involves all the necessary planning needed to be done to take the photo. Specifically, you need to consider what kind of trajectory photo you would like to create, where to do it and what equipment you need.

Firstly, you must consider what kind of trajectory photo you would like to create. Using a sport as the concept generally makes an interesting photo. You can take inspiration from the photos found under the ‘what is the trajectory?’ section to develop your idea.

Secondly, you must decide where you can take the photo. It needs to be in a location possible for your idea, which also has low levels of artificial light.

Lastly, you must gather all the equipment needed to create the photo. As explained earlier, you will need the following:

  1. Trajectory object
  2. Multiple packs of sparklers
  3. Lighter
  4. Wireless camera remote or a friend
  5. Torch
  6. Tripod
  7. Camera

Phase two involves setting everything up at the location to take the photo. This includes deciding on the positioning of the camera and where you will be, different settings on your camera, sorting out the camera focus, and taking test shots.

Firstly, decide where to position yourself to launch your object at your target. Once chosen, remember this place or put something on the floor to mark your position. Now decide where you will position your camera to capture the intended image. Your camera should be placed on top of your tripod at least three meters away from your chosen launch position. Your camera must be able to see the entire area of where you will launch your object from and where it is going to. It is important to consider that you leave enough space in the frame to capture the entire trajectory of your object so that it does not get cut off in the image.

Secondly, your camera settings need to be set. First, put your camera into manual mode, then set the ISO to 100, set the aperture to 3.5, set the shutter speed to 8 seconds, and set your camera to self timer/remote mode. The settings provided here are starting points and can be adjusted later.

Your camera screen should look something like this:

camera settings
Photo by Gim Liu

Thirdly, your camera focus needs to be set. Use your camera’s autofocus to focus on the central area of the frame or the general area where the action will occur. After this has been achieved, turn your camera onto manual focus. A torch can come in handy here. If you have a friend with you, you can get them to stand where the object will be launched from with a torch and point it at the camera.

While the torch is being pointed at the camera, use the autofocus button to focus on the light of the torch. If you don’t have a friend with you, simply use a torch to light up the central area of the frame, then use the autofocus button to focus on it.

Lastly, test shots need to be taken to determine that your camera is in focus and to establish the camera settings are producing a photo that is not too light or too dark. After viewing your test shot, if the photo is not clear, adjust the focus until you get a photo that is clear.

Additionally, if the photo is too light or too dark, adjust the aperture from the initial camera settings provided until you get a photo that is not too light or too dark. Before moving on, you should get a photo that is in focus and appears dark but only slightly dark. This is because once you perform the execution, the light given off from the sparkler will make your photo moderately lighter.

Phase three involves performing the action needed to create the photo. First, you need to set off the self timer either by your remote if you are using one or by the shutter button to trigger your camera to take the photo. Once the camera has started to take the photo, be in the position chosen earlier to launch the trajectory object from, ignite the sparkler attached to the trajectory object with a lighter then launch the object at the intended target.

Two important points regarding the execution are:

  1. Be sure to light the sparkler and launch your object after the camera has started to take the photo and not before.
  2. Each sparkler lasts long enough to take about three photos. So, after your object has landed and the camera has stopped taking the first photo, grab your object, run back to your starting position with it, set off the self-timer, and launch your object at the target again. Repeat this as many times as the sparkler lasts.

Phase four involves analyzing your photo. This is to recognize any adjustments needed to be made to the camera settings or any mistakes that can be corrected in further attempts.

Possible adjustments could be a combination of the following:

  1. Distance from the camera – you may need to move closer or farther away from the camera to fit everything in the frame.
  2. Focus – the photo/s taken might be blurry and you may have to refocus.
  3. Too bright – the photo/s you took might be too bright. In order to fix this problem, either slightly increase the aperture or slightly decrease the shutter speed.
  4. Too dark – the photo/s you took might be too dark. To fix this, either slightly increase the shutter speed or slightly increase the ISO. Try to fix this by increasing the shutter speed because images become grainy when the ISO is increased to higher numbers. If you choose to increase the ISO, try not to go above ISO 400.
  5. Attempt too difficult – the position where you are trying to launch your object at the target could be too far away. Move closer so it is easier to hit the target.

If you need to make any of these adjustments, repeat phases three and four until you are pleased with the photo you created.

Further Exploration

If you like what you just read and are interested in exploring the world of long exposure photography further, I have just released my debut book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery’ on Amazon. It enlightens the reader about the discipline of long exposure photography in a way that has never been done before. It provides in-depth step-by-step guides with interactive running examples on how to take five different types of long exposure photos.

Video by Gim Liu

The five photo types are light painting words, vehicle light trails, steel wool, outlining, and trajectory. After reading this book, you will be left fully equipped with the skills to create unique and captivating photos.

If you want to develop yourself further as a photographer, learn new techniques and be able to take epic photos such as those found on the book cover below, this publication is perfect for you!

Click the link here to be redirected to order your copy from Amazon today.

If you like Gim’s work and want to follow him for more, here are the links to his website and social media.

Further Resources: