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Taking a photo that holds the viewer’s interest is becoming more and more difficult. Everyone has a high-quality camera in their pocket that creates great snapshots. These snapshots have forced photographers to become more creative in order to create compelling images.
The best advice I ever got was to try and create images that the eye doesn’t normally see. Like: try to take your images from a point of view that we don’t see every day? This is where long exposure photos come in.
Long Exposures are an image that the human eye cannot see. These capture the passing of time in one location. Different than the slice of time that photographs typically capture. Some examples of great subjects for long exposures are flowing water, moving clouds, traffic at night, light painting and fireworks! So get thinking.
Long Exposure Photography Gear:
- Camera with Manual Settings
- Warm Clothes
- ND Filters
- Remote shutter release
What are long exposure photos?
A long exposure photograph is a photograph that captures motion over time. The shutter is open for a longer period of time than usual. This can range from 5 seconds to as long as a year! The length of time depends on the amount of light that is in the scene and the aesthetic you desire.
Long exposure photos are usually taken at night because there is less light around. Therefore, it takes a longer shutter speed to capture enough light for a correct exposure. They are possible during the day. But, the amount of light that falls on the sensor must be reduced by filtering it.
What to look for when taking long exposure photos?
When you are searching for a subject, look for an area with some movement. At night, moving lights will turn into streaks of light across the scene. The more time the shutter is open the more blurred the motion.
Water is always a great subject for long exposure photos. Different speeds have drastically different looks to them. Slow shutters turn the water silky smooth. But slightly slower shutters accentuate the movement of the water.
Tourist hot spots can be made to look empty with long exposure photography. Here is a shot taken from a bridge in London in which hundreds of people walked past. The addition of a dark ND filter allows an exposure time long enough to make the tourists all but vanish. However asking people to stand still for 20 seconds is hard.
Hint: Run over to them and test fire your flash on them to make them stand out and look less blurry!
Light painting is where you use a light source in order to paint patterns onto an image. Here the shutter was open for 25 seconds exposing for the stars. Then we had someone walk across the frame twirling an illuminated hula hoop. This lead to the patterns that you see in the image.
Hint: Any light source will work. Just make sure you never point a torch directly at the lens as the image is exposing. You will get a bright white image!
How to take long exposure photos?
By far, the most essential tool for a long exposure (aside from the camera) is a tripod. You could use a stable platform such as a bean bag or a ledge but the versatility of a tripod will really allow you to capture great images.
Check Your Tripod
If you are in the market for a tripod I recommend the Three Legged Thing Brian. It is the best (fully featured) tripod that you can buy without breaking your bank account.
Frame Your Subject
Start like any other photography by finding your subject. This example will be taken at a classic London landmark: The London Tower Bridge. Put your camera Manual mode with a nice handheld shutter speed of 1/100. Use a middle aperture of f8 or so and crank your ISO as high as you need to for correct exposure (ISO6400+). Now walk around your subject until you find a composition that you like. If you have any questions about exposure, you can read my article on Exposure
Remember: A long exposure shot is not an excuse for a crappy composition. Make sure your frame looks good before you take the time to set up the tripod and slow down time. Because slowing down time, takes time.
Long Exposure Settings
Once your camera is set on the tripod you can begin to slow down time. Follow these steps:
Remain on Manual mode and start by reducing the ISO to it’s lowest setting (typically ISO100). Remain at f8 for now. Put your camera on a 2s timer delay. This allows you to push the shutter button and let the vibrations stop before the shot or use a remote shutter release. Just search your camera model here. Get one with adjustable settings on it so you can grow into time-lapses later!. Now check the meter on top of the camera. Increase or decrease the time the shutter is open until you have correct exposure. Take the picture.
If you only have a second of exposure (or less) then you can close the aperture down further. This will allow you to increase the time the shutter is open. Increase the aperture towards the maximum (f18-32) and adjust the shutter speed to expose the image. Repeat this balance of aperture and shutter speed until you achieve the desired effect.
In this example, I didn’t want to close down the aperture too much because the images can become soft. So I set my lens to its optimum aperture (f8-f11) somewhere in the middle of its range. At ISO 100 I could only get 15s of exposure.
Long Exposure Filter
I wanted more. So, in this case, I need to use a filter to further reduce the amount of light coming into the camera. I put on a 3 stop ND filter to lower the light down. You can pick up one here. Just search your lens diameter. Don’t go cheap, as a piece of plastic in front of expensive glass turns it into plastic too!
This filter allows me to get the exposure up to 30s and made the water silky smooth. Showing the reflection of the bridge, exactly the look I was after. So here is the final result that I ended up with. It’s not hard to take decent long exposures. But can take a little time to dial in the correct exposures and get the look you want.
Send me a message in the comments below if you are interested in the final editing process. Also if you have any questions about any of the images above I’d be happy to help.
Remember: don’t start playing with this technique unless you are alone or with other photographers! Any non-photographers will get very bored, very quickly. Trust me the nice light and light streaks will never show up when you are in a rush. It is always just after the shutter closes that you get that good wave of lights driving past.
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New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!