Long exposure photography is becoming increasingly popular in photography. The most important element is patience. You carefully have to set up the tripod, compose carefully to get any distracting elements out of the way. When you press the shutter button, you have to wait…for 30 seconds, …or 1 minutes, ….or 2 minutes, ……or even 5 minutes. If the exposure is not exactly right, you have to try once more. However, even though it can be time-consuming it is also very rewarding.
With the right frame of mind, you wind down, get a break and de-stress doing this kind of photography. And when done right you get images that ooze of calmness and serenity. Photos that nudges you into a moment of mindfulness every single time you look at them.
With this post, I want to help you get over the initial challenges in getting great results with long exposure photography.
What Gear to Use For Long Exposure Photography?
In long exposure photography shaking camera gear or vibrations are your enemy number one. A sturdy tripod is essential. The legs should have no more than three sections, otherwise the lowest section becomes too thin and wobbly. Furthermore, rubber feet/spikes will help secure the best contact with the ground, whether it be rocks, sand or a wooden floor you are placing the tripod on.
When shooting long exposure photography it is not the lightest tripod that is the best. A lightweight tripod is easier moved by the wind. So is a fully extended tripod with all leg sections and center column at their max position. So when selecting a tripod have in mind, which height you generally want to take photos. The maximum height of the tripod should be quite a bit higher than your usual operating height. Alternatively, if it doesn’t hurt the composition try a lower angle point of view for more stability.
A hook underneath the center column to hang your camera bag can help increase the stability, but the bag can get caught by strong wind and induce vibrations to the lens.
There are two types of ND filters. Threaded circular filters that screws on the lens. These types fit a specific lens filter size like for instance 77ø. So if you intend to use your ND filters with multiple lenses with different diameters you would be best of using the second type of filters which are square filters that are mounted with a separate filter holder and combine this with adapter rings for each lens you will be using. I use Formatt-Hitech filters, but I am not fanatic about it. You can get good results with most filters, but in my experience the cheapest ones don’t deliver on sharpness. It is no good if you spend a bucket of money on a great lens if you place a crappy filter in front of it. Most professional photographers will tell you to use either: Lee filters, Cokin, Formatt-Hitech ProStop ND filters or Singh-Ray. Remember to check that the square filter size fits the holder and the size of your largest lens.
Cable release or remote control
When taking photos of over 30 seconds most camera models will switch to bulb mode. This means that you can hold down the shutter button as long as you wish. However having your finger on the shutter also means that you will transfer any slight movement to the camera resulting in blurred shots. If you are smart, you would think, why don’t I just set it on a 2 seconds timer delay? At least on my Nikon this only works as long as the shutter speed is below 30 seconds, which is not really a long time when we are talking long exposure photography. The reason for this is that bulb mode begins when you press the shutter and stops taking the photo when you release. In timer mode you press and release in one go, so after 2 seconds, when your camera starts the exposure it would have no end signal.
Anyway, this works differently with a cable release or a remote. When you push the remote button in bulb mode, you begin the exposure and when you press it again you end it. Remotes are fairly cheap, and the brand of the remote does not affect photo quality, so there is no need to go for the high-end on this one.
Viewfinder cap or tape
Another common issue you will come across in long exposure photography is false light hitting the sensor during the long duration when the mirror in your DSLR is lifted up. False light shows itself as strange light streaks across your photos. It can come either from a wrong mounted or poorly designed ND-filter holder or light finding its way through the viewfinder and in this way hits the sensor. However, there is an easy solution to solve this.
Many cameras come with a viewfinder cap that shuts all light out. If you don’t have one, you can either buy one cheap or use a piece of black tape. Even though hanging your cap over the back of the camera would work, I don’t recommend it as mentioned before it can act as a sail that causes the camera to move.
6 Tips To Get You Started With Long Exposure Photography
Avoid any shaking you can
Avoid movement of gear due to wind, your tripod sinking into sand, or a bypassing bus, train or car that causes the ground to shake. It will result up in blurry photos. When taking exposures between 2-5 minutes who knows what will happen during that time. A sudden wind or bypassing bus can and will ruin your shot sometimes.
Prepare the best you can and just be patient if it happens and take the shot again. You can do your best to avoid it, by removing the camera strap before shooting long exposures as it can act as a sail in the wind. Furthermore, if possible place yourself at the side or back of the camera and tripod to shield it a bit from the wind.
Unwanted movement of your subject
If you are taking a long exposure of clouds sweeping over a landscape, you might want the flowers, bushes and grass to stay sharp and unmoving, to avoid that everything on the ground becomes blurry. To achieve this take one exposure with a faster shutter speed, no filter and maybe even a higher ISO if it is dark to freeze the moving part and blend this with the long exposure.
Apps that will help you succeed
Apps like PhotoPills or PlanIt can help you calculate the correct exposure. Based on the exposure settings without ND-filter these apps can help you calculate the exposure time you need with the ND-filter that you want to use for the shot.
Get rid of that nasty color cast
Color cast is an unintended addition to an image caused by some ND filters. This means that your entire photo will look e.g. green, magenta or blue. Often this can be easily removed in Lightroom.
With the filter I am currently using, I get a magenta color cast. Before I begin working on my photos, I just go to (color correction panel) and turn down the magenta luminosity slider. If I feel that I have lost magenta color in places, where I actually did want it, I add it later in Photoshop or use Nik Viveza 2 or Color Efex Pro 4 (Pro Contrast Filter) to control colors cast.
Keep it simple
Simple compositions and subjects work best. Simplify by excluding any disturbing elements in the composition if possible. This makes your photos look more serene which compliments this genre very well.
Timing your shot for the best light
Make use of the blue hour or golden hour to get the best lighting. During the blue hour, you will get long exposure even without using ND-filters. So if possible go shooting before sunrise or after sunset, so you can get really great looking photos.
Remember that even with these tips, a great composition is still essential for amazing photos.
What is your experience with long exposure photography?