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Traffic Free Photography

Have you wondered how some photographers get scenes of market towns with no traffic, London streets when no traffic or people are present, photos of empty motorways, or photos at attractions with no crowds.

You might think that each has its own story, for example motorway closed for some reason leaves it with no traffic, or special permission to enter an attraction when its closed allows you to get photos with no people, or perhaps you think the photographer is a retired police officer who got his mates to close a road or hold up the traffic. In most cases none of this occurred, its just a matter of the photographer having the knowledge, skills and taking the actions required to produce the photo he or she required.

There are a range of approaches that can produce the results required:-

  • Planning to take photos at a specific time

    • early morning

    • weekends

    • others

  • Causing an obstruction

  • Arranging a community project

  • Use of filters

  • Multiple images

  • Editing

  • Combination of methods.

Not all are practical in all situations, for example you could not hold up the traffic on a motorway, but to have someone stall a car to plan in a towns one way system could give you a minute of traffic free street.

You can apply these techniques to panoramas and 3D photography as well as your normal photographs. It just needs a little thought and perhaps some experimenting.

Planning to take photos at a specific time

Early Morning - During the summer, June and July are best, an early start allows you to get out and take photos before most others are up and about. This is a particularly good approach to photographing market towns, and picturesque village locations, at this time of day there is only the occasional car and usually no pedestrians out and about. You will also find at this time of day a lot more wildlife is about, including birds of prey flying down roads looking for road kill carcases. This does work for towns but not as well, as many towns have a night life and in the early morning the streets are a mess with a lot of rubbish everywhere, then you have the street cleaners out and about in your shots. You may still find taking the photos in towns early and then editing out all the rubbish is a practical if time consuming  proposition. Some years ago I visited a number of the fruit and vegetable markets in the London area, so it was a very early start. At this time of day you had wide empty multi lane roads in most of London, so this approach may work in many places.

Weekends - Central London particularly is a ghost town at weekends, particularly before tourists are about. Business estates, and many commercial rather than shopping districts can be very quiet. Residential areas however can have loads of parked up traffic.

Others - There are times when roads are shut, perhaps pipes being laid or construction work. There may also be regular obstructions such as bin collections in narrow streets that create traffic free times that can be expected. Most councils have their bin collections by street on their websites. A builders skip being delivered or collected, cars being delivered or even a large vehicle backing into a supermarket can cause a few minutes of traffic free road, and in many cases you can predict when it will occur. Pedestrian crossings and traffic lights also cause traffic to flow in pulses with times when there are none.

Causing an obstruction

In a friendly village this is a very practical proposition, if you are holding things up for few minutes at most you are unlikely to get objections.

Similarly most are understanding of the person who stalls their car, and has to then get it going again or takes few back and forths to get into a parking place. Even stopping to ask directions can hold things up a minute or two. The objective if you choose this option is to do things in a way that creates no objection, and causes no one a major delay.

Arranging a community project

Let us suppose you have a picturesque area and you want to take a photo of a particular street, but there are never times when traffic is not present, perhaps its a residential area. This occurs a lot in country towns and villages and yet postcard producers and many others get traffic free photos.  The solution to this is to have a local project, you decide a convenient time for you and the residents when you request that everyone moves their car, and they like you can get photographs of their street with no traffic. You need then to produce a handout explaining this, dropping in a copy several days before and a reminder the day before. It may also be worth putting a copy of each mailing on all the cars as some people may not live in the street but elsewhere nearby. As it benefits everyone and few will want to be the odd one out who don't comply, most will have moved their cars, and you will be left with knocking on the doors of a few people to ask them to move their cars. You will probably find other local residents are out with their cameras and only too pleased to help you knock up those who have not moved their cars.  Before planning this check out the area, the light at the time of day you propose to take photos and chat to a few local people to make sure there are no unexpected problems. Avoid the day the bins are collected or they will all be in your shot. Sunday mornings early but not too early are a good time, as you are not likely to have a lot of others who are trying to park in the area you have cleared. Don't ever offer to pay people to move or not park where you don't want them to or the news will get around and all their relatives arrive with their cars as well.


All the pictures on this page were taken early morning, you can see the clock in the picture above is showing 6.45am and in clock in the top image is at 6.10am. The pictures except for the one immediately above are taken what is normally the very busy but picturesque town of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds. The picture above was taken at Broadway a major tourist attraction usually packed by people and traffic.

All pictures on this page

Use of filters

If you have a time exposure that is very long running into minutes, moving items do not show. The problem is that you would have an over exposed shot, unless you choose the middle of a dark night, to overcome this problem, you put in effect very strong sunglasses on your camera. The filter used is a Neutral density filter with a high value. You can stack up neutral density filters as long as the mounts don't get into the corners of your shots, so you don't necessarily need to go and spend a fortune. We have an article on ND filters  that looks at the values and effects on exposure. You can get ND filters with a filter factor ND400, or NDx being darker still. I use an ND64, and some times combine this with an ND2, 4 or 8 which are far more common everyday values. When you combine them you just multiply them so a ND64 and ND8 = ND512.

You can extend the Exposure by using the lowest ISO, perhaps ISO 100 and smallest Aperture for your lens, perhaps F32. With wide angle lenses just do some tests to make sure that with a very small aperture the filters are not coming into focus, or they will have to be super clean, not that you would use a dirty filter at any time.

You won't be able to see through a very high value ND combination or set your camera exposure metre with this on, so you will need a tripod and a little thought on setting the exposure manually, although many do it by trial and error, staring with a shorter time and doubling the exposure until they have the results they require. Once you have done this you can see the difference from the cameras normal exposure and the exposure with the combination of filters in use. If you, like me, would rather be in control and work it out then think in terms of EV, see EV and the EV Table  and we have an EV Guide, 3 fold handout which you can download, print and use, making this process easier.

With a high value ND filter you can take photos of motorways with no traffic, you can take photos at any time of tourist attractions with no tourists, all you need to do is to make sure that everything is moving, and take few photos just in case.

Multiple images

Let us take an example of a tourist attraction and we have people walking through the area of interest, now each person is in a place only for a part of the time. If we put our camera on a tripod and take a number of photos, and then in something like Photoshop we stack these images up as a number of layers, all we have to do is in effect go down the pack rubbing out sections of the top image where there is a person, to show the area underneath on the next photo in the stack, and so on until we have no people or other items we don't want. If we still have a problem we can just reorder the stack and start again, in a different combination will probably work.

In Photoshop in practice you can use masks so you don't actually rub out the photos but select the areas that you want to appear to be transparent, as you can add or take away from the masks you can finely adjust them if the need arises.

You need to take the images while the lighting and shadows are the same, so it won't work well if you take a photo an hour, to allow parked cars to move about, unless you do it on an overcast day.

Its best, if you can, to use manual settings and set a white balance as you would with a  panorama, so when parts of different photos come together they have the same exposure and colour balance.

If it's just a single person  or group at a time walking through your shot you may only need two photos in your stack. The larger the flow of people the larger the number of photos you will need to have every area clear of people in at least one photo. I suggest you always take too many images just in case.


The clone tool allows you, within most editing programs, to copy an area from part of the photo into another area, and is useful for removing rubbish, and maybe other items you don't want.  Its time consuming and patterned items like walls can take a lot of time.

Combining a number of these ideas together

In some situations you may chose to combine these ideas together for example selecting a method that has a lower flow, like early morning or other time and then taking a stack of images. With motorway traffic using ND filters at a time of day when there is a lower and faster flow works better than in the rush hour when traffic can be nearly parked.


By: Keith Park   Section: Photography Key:
Page Ref: traffic_free_photography Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 06/2010

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