Long exposure photography is a lot of fun and a great way to achieve some amazing photos. You can make rushing, mountain stream water look soft and milky, make a lake look perfectly flat, and ocean waves look like surreal fog.
Long exposure photography is also a lot of fun at night. You can create streaking automobile lights, star trails, or cool light patterns from lights shimmering off of bodies of water.
You will need a camera that will let you adjust your shutter speed to control the amount of light that enters the camera. Basically you will need a DSLR camera.
Neutral Density Filter
Neutral Density (ND) filters are a must for long exposure photography. ND filters come in a variety of types, but adjustable filters work the best for long exposure work. With an adjustable filter you simply turn the filter and it gets darker or lighter depending on which way you turn the filter. Long exposure photography requires a lot of tinkering to get the timing just right. Adjustable ND filters will allow you to tinker without changing the filter. It would be a real pain in the butt to work with fixed darkness filters, because you would be constantly changing filters.
One word of caution when using adjustable ND filters. Make sure you stay within the parameters of your adjustable ND filter or you will get some strange looks. Normally adjustable ND filters have a series of marks on the side of them for reference. Just make sure you stay inside the marks to achieve the best results.
A good, solid tripod is a must for long exposure photography. The camera can’t move at all while the shutter is open to keep from blurring the photo.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I was in Cairns, Australia trying to get a cool photo of lights shimmering off the harbor water at night from a pier. There were a lot of people walking on the pier at the time, which was shaking the pier just enough to blur my photos. After a frustrating hour trying to get the shot I finally realized that I would have to come back to the pier when all the tourists were in bed.
The jarring of pushing the click button is often enough to mess up a photograph. To achieve crystal clear photos you will need some help triggering the shutter hands free. Cameras generally have a timer built into them that will allow you to click the button, wait 5 seconds for the camera to stabilize, and then the shutter will move.
Although the camera timer works in a pinch, I prefer a remote device. With a remote device you can trigger your camera totally hands free eliminating the chance of any movement to mess up your photo.
Movement Emphasis vs. Movement Smoothing
Now that we have our gear figured out it is time to get to work. When we approach a subject we want to determine what effect we are going for to achieve a spectacular photo.
Emphasis is normally used on subjects that are constantly moving like rushing water, clouds, or automobile lights. To create a look we normally don’t see we will use movement emphasis to make the water, clouds, or other moving subjects really pop.
Sometimes movement in the subject is distracting and does not add to the overall look like waves on a lake. By smoothing the waves we can create a look that is different than what we normally see and allows us to focus on other subjects in the photo. For example if you want a lake in the bottom third of your photo and a beautiful mountain on the top 2/3 of the photo and the lake has waves, you may want to use long exposure techniques to smooth the lake and allow the viewer to focus on the mountains.
Finding The Right Shutter Speed
How can we find the right shutter speed? Basically the more aggressive the movement the more shutter time you will need. For example if you have ripples on a pond you want to smooth perhaps ¼ second is a good starting point. For a strong running stream or strong ocean waves you may need 10 seconds or more.
Setting Up For The Shoot
When using an ND filter you will want to focus the camera on the lightest setting. Dark settings will often make focusing impossible.
Next set your ND filter based on the amount of light. If it is a cloudy day perhaps a light ND setting will be a good starting point. If it is bright day start with your darkest ND filter setting.
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Next set your shutter speed based on how aggressive the movement of your subject and the desired effect you are trying to achieve. If you have a strong mountain stream you may want to start around 10 seconds.
Try a shot and see what you get. The goal is have your shot on the right side of the histogram to achieve the maximum amount of detail without blowing out of the histogram. You want to be slightly overexposed, but not too overexposed or the shot will be ruined.
Long exposure photography requires a bunch of tinkering. At least 90% of the shots you take will be deleted. Thank goodness we are in the digital age. Back in the film days long exposure could get very expensive.
If you don’t get the results you want move you shutter time either direction to get the look you are after. If the shutter time is not achieving the look you want try moving your ND filter either lighter or darker depending on what you are trying achieve.
If neither the shutter speed nor the ND filter is providing you with the look you are after try moving your exposure compensation up or down to get you the shot your after. The exposure compensation button on most cameras is labeled with a plus or minus sign.
The more experience you get with long exposure photography the faster you will find the desired combination of shutter speed and ND filter setting.
Long exposure is a lot of fun. It will take a bunch of tinkering and you will delete a lot of photos, but you will be able to create looks that a person normally does not see that will lead to amazing photos.