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Crash Course on Long Exposure Photos
Start using slow shutter speeds in your photography for magnificent effects!
|By Simon Davies|
Getting to grips with long exposure photos is one of the most fun things about learning photography! You must have seen lots of examples of images that feature beautiful smooth, misty water, or long traffic lines snaking through a city road?
Well, the purpose of this article is to enable you to create those same effects in your pictures. I'm going to guide you through all the steps involved in taking this kind of shot.
But let's start at the very beginning: what is long exposure photography? Well, there's no strict definition as to what comprises a 'long exposure'. But, as a rough guide, any photograph taken with an exposure time (or exposure value) of more than a second or so qualifies.
'Long exposure photos' could be produced with a 1 second exposure, or even a 1 hour exposure!
What Equipment Do I Need?
- A camera with manual controls (including a lens with aperture control).
- A tripod that is sturdy enough to comfortably support the weight of your camera. Manfrotto, Vanguardand Gitzo all have an outstanding range of tripods. Here is a guide to choosing tripods.
- A remote release device
, either wired or non-wired. Alternatively, a camera with a self-timer mode.
- A Neutral Density filter, when taking long exposure photos in daylight (usually not necessary at night time).
What Subjects Can I Shoot?
The subject matter for this kind of shot is almost as limitless as your imagination! Results will vary from subject to subject, so experimentation is needed.
Some great subjects to "cut your teeth on" are moving water - ocean waves, waterfalls, streams - and made-subjects like fairground rides, road traffic and fireworks.
Basically, play around with anything that you can imagine looking interesting when blurred - either a little or a lot.
(Above image: 4 second exposure)
(Above image: 10 second exposure)
What Effect Do Long Exposure Photos Produce?
You'll get a great feeling when you look at the results of your first long exposure photo, because the effect is so striking and different to what the naked eye is able to see.
You are essentially stretching time by capturing all the movement that took place over several seconds in a single frame! It often creates a very peaceful, calming effect. If that makes no sense to you at all(!), review the basics of shutter speed here.
(Above image: 6 second exposure)
Another possible effect is to make things disappear! Moving objects - like people and cars in a busy town square - can simply disappear when captured as part of a long exposure shot.
Setting Up Your Camera/Tripod
Right, let's move on to taking the actual shot.
- Set up your tripod on level and steady ground. Although your camera will be held fast to the tripod, the tripod itself can sometimes move slightly over the duration of an exposure.
This is an easy problem to encounter when shooting, for example, on a beach, with soft sand close to the water's edge as the surface the tripod is standing on. Take some time to ensure it is as securely positioned as possible.
- Mount your camera to the tripod and set the mode to Manual (M). Make sure any 'auto' functions like auto ISO or auto-focus are turned off.
- Frame your scene within the viewfinder in the normal way. If you're shooting a waterfall or flowing river, make sure you give plenty of attention to the 'white water' as this will become the really interesting bit! (You may find this article on photography composition helpful.)
Setting Aperture, Shutter Speed and Focus
Now you need to make your adjustments to aperture and shutter speed.
- Typically, long exposure photos tend to feature landscape subjects (urban or rural). So for these, we want a nice big depth of field with all the details in sharp focus.
That means selecting a small aperture. Remember - the higher the F value, the smaller the aperture. So, try to set an f.stop of between f.16 and f.22. (Need to review the basics of aperture? What is Aperture?)
Some zoom lenses give sharper results at an aperture value sightly less than their maximum (highest f.stop). Experiment with this to find the best results.
- Now, on to setting the focus. Although you have a large depth of field, ensure the main focal point, usually somewhere in the middle section of the frame, is focused on.
- Time to set the shutter speed. This is the key part that determines
the final appearance of the image. You'll have to experiment with different times to build up a feel for the different effects that different speeds have on various subjects.
For blurring water, a bare minimum exposure time would be about 1/4 second. Usually you'll be working to several seconds though. Choose a a shutter speed, and double check the meter reading to ensure you are close to optimum exposure. Make any necessary tweaks to the aperture size.
- Finally, using a remote release device, or the self-time mode of your camera, take the shot! Check your LCD screen for the preview and make any further adjustments to the exposure that are needed.
(Above image: 10 second exposure)
What was once a chaotic surge of water is now a serene, milky flow through your image!
Using a Neutral Density Filter
Now, earlier I mentioned ND (neutral density) filters. These little things can be invaluable to the landscape photographer, and are essential for taking long exposure photos in daylight. They allow you to open up the shutter speed in broad daylight without over-exposing an image.
ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera. The 'neutral' part of the name refers to the fact that they have little or no colour cast. In other words, they reduce the amount of light without influencing the appearance of colours in a scene.
They come in several incarnations, but mainly fall into 2 categories: screw-in filters and square system filters. I really like the square (or sometimes rectangular) variety because they come with a holder that allows you to stack numerous filters to increase their strength or combine different effects.
ND filters are graded by the amount of light they prevent from entering the camera. This is measured in 'stops'. So a 4 stop ND filter will reduce the light entering the camera by...you guessed it, 4 stops.
Each stop represents a whole single unit on the exposure value (EV) scale. The strongest ND filter that is easily obtainable, and the one that's often the most useful to photographers, is the 10 stop. This has quite an extreme effect, and in some conditions would even allow you to draw out the exposure time into the minutes - enough to produce other-worldy effects for seascapes.
Taking Long Exposure Photos at Night
With the right subject, night time long exposure photos can bring incredible results, and don't require the use of ND filters. (This article on night photography techniques will give you some useful hints.)
The city is a great place to start exploring this, where there's lots of traffic and every car, truck or bus has variety of bright lights to paint the scene.
Set up and compose your shot as above. But this time you have to anticipate the direction of the traffic lines. Be sure that the vehicle lights flow through your scene, as though they were a stream of water.
Because of the limited available light at night time, you will often need to use a slightly wider aperture. Focusing and checking the meter reading is always a bit trickier at night, but you'll soon get the hang of it.
Shutter speeds can often get up into the tens of seconds when capturing traffic lines, so make sure that you get the timing right. Also, make sure the traffic is flowing before you fire the remote shutter (otherwise it will be burnt out in one area).
(Above image: 6 second exposure)
The same approach can be applied to all sorts of night time situations, like fairgrounds and fireworks. Fireworks are really fun to capture because you can trace the whole course of the display as it illuminates the sky, rather than just freezing it at one moment.
It's worth just giving a quick warning to be careful when heading out into a city at night with lots of expensive photography gear. It can sometimes be wise to take an 'assistant' with you. This guide to night photography techniques offers some more useful advice.