Long exposure photography is a style of photography that produces impressive-looking images with an otherworldly quality. Think of cascading waterfalls caught frozen in time, or stars leaving light trails across a midnight sky. While long exposure photography may seem like a complicated, advanced technique, there are a few basic principles to follow to shoot your own stunning photographs.
Contemporary long exposure photography, also known as slow-shutter photography or time-exposure, has its roots in the early days of photography, when the rudimentary technology made it so that photographers had to keep an image exposed for several hours to get any sort of result on film. Modern-day long exposure photography uses the same technique, which relies on keeping the shutter open for an extended period of time. Thanks to advances in camera technologies, the resulting images feature stationary subjects in clear focus while moving subjects appear blurred.
Long exposure photography works off the pairing of static objects and subjects in motion. If you have a still object placed within a still environment, no one will be able to tell if you exposed the image for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. However, if you capture a still object, like a lighthouse, during a passing storm, the transition of the clouds from clear to dark will create a blurred sky that shows the effect of time passing (and really lets the lighthouse pop).
Motion is an essential element for long exposure photography; without motion, there is nothing in the image to distinguish the passage of time. For this reason, long exposure photography also has a vibrant, almost tangible energy to it. Think of the light trails that car tail lights leave as they speed down a highway. The time requirements for nailing these shots vary from 15 seconds to 15 minutes to many, many hours (for longer exposures). There is a general rule, called the 500 rule, that states the minimum time required to differentiate a short exposure from a long exposure is 500 divided by the focal length of your lens; the belief is that the resulting number is the number of seconds you can expose before starting to create light trails or other types of motion blur
A DSLR camera with manual settings, including bulb mode, is essential to long exposure photography that exceeds 30 seconds. Advanced smartphones, like iPhones, do offer manual cameras; the Adobe Lightroom app, for example, has a built-in camera with PRO mode that produces RAW files, allowing greater control over long exposures.
A tripod is a mandatory tool for long exposure photography. It is not humanly possible to hold a camera completely steady, especially for longer than a few seconds. Even a subtle shake will distort the intended effect of the image. A tripod does this work for you so you can expose an image for as long as you’d like--hands off. Don’t forget to carry some bags of dried rice or sand with you; these are useful in weighing down the tripod in windy conditions.
A remote shutter release or a cable release is also helpful during extra long exposures. Remote shutter releases or cable releases allow you to remotely press the camera button down without having to physically stand above the camera and hold your finger in place for the required time.
While low-light scenarios are ideal for long exposures, sometimes you’ll end up in a sunlit environment. When shooting in bright light scenarios, carry a neutral-density filter, or ND filter, which lessens the amount of light going in through the lens.
Once you have arrived at the scene, the first step is to compose your photograph. Set up your tripod and camera and, using your viewfinder, fill the frame to your liking. After this point, you will take a series of steps to ensure your photograph is properly exposed.
1) Focus: Lock focus on your subject. If using autofocus, press halfway down on the camera button first to automatically adjust, then all the way down to lock.
2) Expose: In manual mode, take test shots experimenting with the shutter speed and aperture. If you are using ND filters, you can adjust your shutter speed to a longer speed without sacrificing other qualities. A 10 stop ND filter lets you use a shutter speed that is 1,000x faster. Standard aperture is between 7 and 13, while ISO should stay low, hovering around 100. Check your test shots to ensure that the static shot is exposed to your liking and log your settings before you proceed to the next step.
3) Bulb mode: Once your exposure is set, it’s time to switch the camera into bulb mode, which will extend the shutter speed past 30 seconds. Bulb mode is a setting available while in manual mode.
4) Take your shot! After you’ve set up your camera and camera settings, you’re ready to take your shot. Click down on your remote shutter release or cable release button, which will lock open the camera’s shutter. When you are ready to shut the shutter, simply click the button again.
Here’s the slightly tricky part: the length of time that the shutter is open depends on a few things. There are helpful apps that automate the calculation for you based on the numbers you got from your test shot, like NDCalc.
Location, location, location: in long exposure photography, location is everything. Most long exposure photography is landscape photography with an added touch, like star trails or cloud swirls or blurred waves and soft waterfalls. It’s worth exploring different environments, from forests and deserts to urban cityscapes, to find stunning vistas to shoot. Look for sources of light that will turn into light trails, like an endless flow of vehicles during rush hour, or other interesting sources of motion.
While long exposure photography may seem daunting, most of the skills are built upon simple principles of photography. With just a little practice (and a lot of patience!), you too can create dreamy photographs that show the beautiful dichotomies found here on earth.
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