The beginner photographer often finds the idea of long exposure photography daunting. The concept of creating mysterious and surreal looking images may seem beyond a new photographer’s capabilities, but the truth is, the process is not at all difficult to master. A few special tools may be necessary, depending on the situation. But with a bit of practice, in no time at all, you’ll be creating dramatic photographs that take your viewer outside the realms of reality.
Let’s first discuss “What is long exposure photography.” In its simplest terms it is defined as a genre of photography whereas the camera’s shutter is left open for a period longer than would be needed to obtain a correctly exposed photograph with the intent to create an effect on any moving object. In other words, it’s not the duration of the exposure that qualifies it as a long exposure photograph, but the intention of capturing moving objects with longer exposure times than would otherwise be necessary. These types of photos are especially appealing because they allow the viewer to see something that cannot be perceived by the naked eye.
There are so many options available for photographers to practice the art of long exposures. The first that comes to mind is the iconic shot taken in train stations around the world. The photographer stands on a balcony or upper level of the station looking down on the quickly moving crowd. Using a slow shutter speed, the photographer can create ghost-like images of the people moving about.
Long exposure effects can also be created by the movement of the moon or stars. Blurred skies with streaks of clouds, waterfalls that look like cotton candy, light trails created by moving vehicles, spinning burning steel wool or a fiery poi. Flashlights used to write messages or draw images in the dark. Dancers or athletes portrayed in slow motion. Landscapes with waving grass, leaves or tree branches. Seascapes that look silky smooth or fireworks that show multiple explosions or long trails of light. And the list of possibilities goes on and on…
The tools you will need to produce quality long exposure photos will vary according to the situation. Here is a list of the most often used tools and helpful camera accessories.
Tripod - Some type of solid mount is necessary for long exposure photography. Obviously a good quality tripod will serve you best. But there are some locations when tripods are not allowed (museums, train stations and other public places). In these situations, a bean bag or a rolled up jacket balancing on a solid platform can work. Remember to turn off the image stabilization on your lens when using a tripod. Depending on the lens brand this may be denoted as IS, VR or OS.
Remote shutter release- This helpful tool enables you to capture the shot without touching the camera. Touching the camera creates what is known as “camera shake” which can introduce blur. If you don’t have a remote shutter release using the camera's 2 second self-timer will also work.
Neutral Density Filter- An ND filter is key for taking long exposures during the daytime or in any location where there is too much light. An ND filter can be compared to putting sun glasses over your lens. It reduces the amount of light entering the lens and enables the photographer to select combinations of aperture, shutter speeds and ISO that would otherwise produce an overexposed image. The filters are available in varying degrees cutting out from 2 to 24 stops of light.
Black gaffers tape- Use it to cover the viewfinder to prevent light from leaking into your camera. Some cameras come with a built in viewfinder cover.
The correct camera settings will vary depending upon your subject matter. In most cases you will need to be in manual mode. Although there are some situations where shutter priority or TV mode will work just fine. Determining shutter speed for this type of photography often requires several attempts of trial and error. However, when you can’t predetermine the shutter speed (such as photographing multiple bursts of fireworks) or when you know you will need to keep the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds, set the camera into BULB mode. When you use this mode, you simply press the shuttle button once to open the shutter (its best to use a remote, not your finger). Then press it again to close the shutter.
What makes long exposure photography special is that each image is unique. Long exposure photography lends itself to fun and creativity. While the process may take some trial and error to figure out the best settings for your envisioned photograph, you’ll also be leaning as you go. So grab a few friends and maybe a bag of steel wool, a kitchen whisk and a dog leash and get out there to create something amazing!