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Long Exposure Insights

Tips and tricks to make long exposure photographs special

Long exposures are a wonderfully unique photographic effect. They reveal things we can’t see with the naked eye, such as colors after dark and the effects of motion and time condensed into a single image. Long exposures are, ultimately, one of the techniques that’s truly unique to photography. Whether you want to blur moving water or the rotation of the stars in the sky, here’s a look at five techniques to help you find success with long exposures.

The Basics

For long exposures, you should expect to use small apertures such as ƒ/22 in order to minimize the amount of light let into the camera, thereby increasing the duration the lens should be open. You’ll also, perhaps obviously, want to use a tripod and a cable release (or a remote trigger, or your camera’s timer function). Job one with long exposures is to keep the camera steady. That’s a tripod, of course, but in a pinch, you can get by with setting the camera on a wall or a backpack or anything that will hold it still. If you do that, though, it becomes even more important to use a cable release or smartphone app to trigger the shutter. This way, you can be hands off while you open and close the shutter in order to keep the camera perfectly steady during the exposure. If you really want to keep motion to a minimum and you’re using a DSLR, consider using mirror lockup to eliminate even the tiniest camera shake—in this case, the shake caused by the mirror flipping up and down. And now that your camera is steady and you can release the shutter without touching the camera, what about the exposure? A long exposure, technically, is anything too slow to handhold. So that’s typically something in the neighborhood of 1/30th of a second or slower. To get long you need to get small—a small aperture, that is. So unless you have a depth of field reason to do otherwise, set your camera to its smallest aperture (the largest f/ number) and limit the amount of light that enters the lens. This will make it easier to lengthen the shutter speed. If you really want to maximize exposure length, be sure the ISO is set to its lowest available setting—often ISO 50 or so.

Neutral Density Filters

Neutral Density, often abbreviated simply as “ND,” is like sunglasses for your lens. Much like a side effect of a polarizer is that it cuts the amount of light entering the lens, a neutral density filter is designed specifically for that task. ND filters are available in fixed opacities—such as one-stop, three-stop or six-stop filters—as well as in “variable ND” versions. These rotating filters can be dialed into a setting between, say, one stop and 10 stops, depending on the filter. The “N” in ND is for neutral, and that signifies that the filter will cut light without affecting the color, neither shifting it warmer nor cooler. So what’s special about ND filters? They allow you to use longer exposures, which is incredibly handy if you want to make a long exposure during daylight hours. If you want to photograph a flowing waterfall, for instance, on a normal sunny day you’ll be faced with a fast shutter speed of 1/15 of a second even at ISO 50 and ƒ/22. So if you want to slow that shutter speed down to four seconds, for instance, you can use six stops of ND and suddenly you’re able to make a long exposure even in bright sunlight.

Use Manual Exposure Controls And Test, Test, Test

There’s no standardized formula for long exposures that works in every situation. After all, light levels vary dramatically even on a normal sunny day—much less in low light situations that are typical for long exposures. So by first setting the camera to manual exposure mode, you’ll be able to dial in specifically the aperture you want, as well as the shutter speed. If, for instance, you believe a one-second exposure will achieve the desired effect, start there. After evaluating the results you might determine that the exposure is correct but you’re seeing too much—or too little—motion. If it’s too much blur, you’ll want to shorten the shutter speed and open up the aperture (or increase the ISO) accordingly. If it’s too little blur, you’ll want to stop down in order to lengthen the shutter speed. Regardless, the standard protocol for long exposure photography is to test, then evaluate, adjust the settings and test again. Repeating this process will allow you to achieve specific effects you’ve envisioned, whether that’s maximum depth of field or shallow depth of field, lots of motion blur or little, a higher-key image or a darker one.

Try Some Special Effects

There’s no limit to the subject matter that can be made special given enough exposure time. A rough sea can be made to appear smooth and cloud-like with an exposure several minutes or hours long. Take a look at the work of photographers such as Rolfe Horn and Michael Kenna for inspiration in this regard. What might otherwise appear to be a fairly mundane scene can be transformed by the magic of motion blur in a very long exposure.

Maybe you want to try breaking one of the basic rules of long exposures to see what happens? What if instead of holding the camera steady for the duration of the exposure you put the camera in motion? This can be useful when the camera is in a moving object, like a car or a bike, and the motion makes the surroundings appear blurred while the subject the camera is affixed to appears tack sharp. Another approach is to let the image be deliberately blurry because the camera is moving. Photographer Caleb Charland made one of my favorite photographs this way, by strapping his camera to a canoe and paddling across a lake for hours. The resulting image of a sharp canoe, blurry water and streaky moon isn’t anyone’s definition of sharp, but it’s most certainly beautiful and unique.

Another Great Special Effect Is Light Painting

Light painting is the process by which a camera is fixed and its lens is opened—in a dark room or outdoors at night—and then a light source is used much the same way as a painter might use a brush and pigment to “paint” illumination on a subject. Some photographers do this with flashlights, strobes or mirrors, but anything that creates illumination can be used for light painting. You can add gels to the light sources to change their color or you can even aim the light source at the camera to draw with the light source itself. If you’ve ever seen a long exposure of a street or highway at night, you’ve probably seen the effect I’m describing. When a light source is visible as it moves through the frame, it will blur itself into a streak of light for the duration of the exposure. There’s a famous series of pictures featuring Pablo Picasso painting with a pen light 70 years ago, which was one of the first to popularize the technique. Today artists such as Dariustwin and Dennis Calvert make beautiful, colorful, surreal light paintings after dark through the magical combination of long exposures and moving lights.

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