I originally wrote this post for The Matador Network. I also supplied the images. Click here to see the original or read on for a slightly updated version
It is that time of year when the days are getting shorter and the nights are longer. Personally I love it, as I have more time to play with long exposure photography.
Long exposure photography is fun and probably one of my most favourite things to shoot. A whole new world opens up, full of motion and movement — the image feels alive. From rolling waves to passing cars to the night sky, there are many adventures to be had keeping the shutter open. Since so many of us are hard at work keeping our images sharp and clear; figuring out how to attempt a long exposure for the first time can be a bit daunting, here are my nine steps to get you started.
To start with, pick a location that you are familiar and comfortable with. There are potential long exposure images everywhere; all you need is motion or movement. Think about your finished image: capturing a waterfall, steam or waves this way, will give you smooth silky water; an urban scene with cars will capture “light trails” that streak through the image; the night sky can come alive with stars and colours even our eyes cannot see; a busy marketplace can have a blur of humanity passing through it. What kind of motion inspires you? Plan on trying to capture that. Even better, if you can, check the location out beforehand, since most long exposures have to happen after sunset or before sunrise.
For long exposures you have to use a tripod, though you could rest the camera on a flat surface in a pinch. The key to a good long exposure image is to highlight a movement while retaining sharpness in the parts of the images not moving—if everything else in the image is also blurred, it will not have the same effect. That’s just a blurry image, unless you’re absolutely doing it on purpose. It is also best to use some sort of a remote trigger to avoid any camera movement as you press the shutter. If you do not have one yet, you can use the timer on the camera, such as 2 or 10 seconds, which will give you a count down after pressing the shutter.
You should shoot in RAW for the best results—do you have enough space on your memory cards for that? Will you have enough battery life shooting for a couple of hours? Do you have the clothing you need? Bug spray or rubber boots? If you’re spending the night, bring a tent. The right equipment will depend on just how much darkness you’ll be working in. After sunset, you might still be blocking light with a high aperture, so even a basic kit lens can work; however, to capture the stars, which are so dim, you’ll want a lens with f/2.8 or at the very least, f/4. Do you want a wide scene, or some more zoomed in and possibly abstract? If you don’t have a fast enough lens, can you borrow or rent?
Check the weather forecast. I have spent hours shooting in ski gear to save me getting cold, and I generally carry an umbrella. The umbrella is to cover my camera gear and not for me. You’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable and the camera is fairly dry. If you’re working with the night sky, you’ll want to consider if the moon is rising and/or full because that can get in the way of shooting stars.
What do you want in the scene? This can be tough at night as it is difficult to see through the viewfinder or in live view – come in the daytime to look around if you can. If you can’t, and it’s quite dark, you’ll have to somewhat blindly take an image, and adjust based on the result, until it’s what you like. What do you see and what do you want to capture? If you’re going into nature and can’t visit during the day, bring a powerful flashlight; if you’re going into the city, you’re probably okay to just play around until you find something you like.
If you’re doing an urban scene, there should be enough light to autofocus. If it starts to take a long time for the camera to figure it out, then focus it manually—you might want to practice doing this at home if you don’t trust your judgement. But if you’re working in the dark, out in nature, you can shine a powerful flashlight on something (like a tree) and autofocus; then, switch the lens to manual, and the correct distance should be set—but always zoom in on the result and see. For stars or the night sky, if there’s no foreground to autofocus on with a flashlight, you’ll need to manually set your lens somewhere between infinity and 3, shoot, and check the results, and repeat until it looks sharp (or recompose so there is something you can focus on).
Time of day
You really cannot take a long exposure during a sunny or bright daytime unless you have special filters (and a few of them). Heavy clouded days, or very shaded areas can allow for a long shutter during the day—so hike into a wooded area, or go shooting under an angry looking sky. Most of us do long exposures around sunset (after the sun is gone from the horizon), dawn, dusk, blue hour, and after dark. You want some light, but not too much, or the photo will be white/blown out. (On the other hard, if it’s too dark the image will be mostly black).
Making the images is when you really get to play. If you are not comfortable shooting in manual mode, then set your camera to Time or Shutter Priority (S on Nikon, Tv on Canon, S on Sony, etc) and set the ISO to 100. Choose the shutter speed you want to try. It depends on how fast (or slow) the motion is happening, or how dim the situation is. If it’s water moving really fast, even 1/4th or 1/10th will reveal motion to the water. If it’s light streaks from cars, you’ll want 10 to 30 seconds in order to get a long streak rather than a short one. If you’re trying to shoot the stars, you actually will want ISO because stars are very very dim—something like ISO 2000 to start. Bare in mind that if it’s still bright out, or the street is well lit, you might not be able to obtain 30 seconds right away (it is letting in a lot of light). If you’re not comfortable with light and settings, just play and enjoy! The connections will start to come together soon enough. If you shoot on manual already, do all of the above but select an aperture to try along with the shutter, and the ISO at 100. If it’s still bright, try f/22 to block light. If it’s dusky, try f/8. If it’s quite dim, try f/4 or f/2.8. Go from there!
Review, rework, reshoot—and enjoy!
Once you have made your first image, review it on the screen. What do you think? Do you like the composition? Is it too bright or too dark? It is time to be your own worst critic and do what you can to improve the image. Play with the settings—on Shutter Priority you can use exposure compensation to brighten, or darken as best you can—you may want to switch the ISO to “Auto” if you’re really struggling; on manual, you could open or close the aperture, lengthen or shorten the shutter speed, or add/remove ISO. Is the focus good or is it off? Consider your vision for the photo. Explore your creativity and what the camera is capable of doing. Ultimately, you are the photographer and the camera is the tool. You are telling the camera what you want it to produce. Most importantly, have fun and do not forget to share your images.
I hope you find these tips helpful. Please head over to The Matador Network and give them a follow, or sign up for their courses like I have.
If you have any further questions, let me know and I would be happy to help. I am also keen to see what you come up with. Leave a comment below or you can post them to my Facebook page here.