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The Best Way to Learn about Long Exposure Photography

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Read Time: 10 mins
This post is part of a series called Time-Lapse and Long Exposure.
5 Ways to Experiment with Long Exposures for the First Time
Time-lapse and Long Exposure Control With Your Smartphone

Long exposure photography can create dynamic, surreal images full of motion. This fashionable technique amongst landscape and black and white photographers is characterized by simple composition and exposures up to several minutes long that blur any moving elements like water or clouds.

For me, there are four key reasons for the popularity of long exposure photography:

1. Digital cameras have made long exposure photography much easier. Unlike film, digital cameras don't suffer from reciprocity failure, making it much easier to calculate exposure. You can also check the exposure and the composition immediately by playing back the images you have taken. This makes correcting mistakes much easier, and the learning process much faster.

2. Filter manufacturers have begun making six, nine and ten stop neutral density filters. These allow photographers to use shutter speeds in excess of 30 seconds during the middle of the day, greatly increasing the usability of the technique.

3. Long exposure photography allows you to create good photos in the middle of the day under cloudy conditions, a time that is normally unproductive in terms of landscape photography.

4. Long exposure photography appeals to photographers who see themselves as fine art photographers. By concentrating on seeing the landscape in black and white and creating images with simple compositions, they are improving their design skills and developing an eye for a good image.

Tripod Needed

Long exposure photography may seem daunting, but it's quite an easy technique to try out once you have the correct equipment. Let's take a look at what you need.

You definitely need a good solid tripod with a good ball-and-socket tripod head. An aluminium or carbon fibre tripod is ideal, with a tripod head that is capable of supporting the weight of your camera and lens. It is important that your chosen combination can hold your camera absolutely still for durations of thirty seconds or longer.

Giottos and Manfrotto are among the manufacturers that make good quality tripods. So do Gitzo, but at a price. Really Right Stuff makes L brackets and other accessories designed for landscape photographers to support their cameras.

Jose Antunes has written more about Gitzo tripods here and there is a good article about choosing a tripod here.

Cable Release, Remotes and Self-Timers

These are useful to have, but not essential. You can get by without them, at least to start with.

A cable release or remote control. You use this for firing the camera's shutter without touching the camera body. This allows you to take images free of camera shake.

However, if you don't have a cable release or remote control, you can use the camera's ten second self-timer function to take a photo. The ten second delay is ample time for vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button to fade away. This is an easy way to take photos up to 30 seconds in length (the longest shutter speed available on most cameras). For longer shutter speeds, you need a cable release or remote control.

You can learn more about remote releases here.

Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density filters come in strengths of three, four, six, nine and ten stops. They allow you to take long exposure photos during the day, and extend the period during which you can shoot.

If you don't have one, the best time to take long exposure photos is at dusk, or just after the sun has set. At this time of evening the fading light will let you use shutter speeds of 30 seconds or more without a neutral density filter.

Polarizing Filters

These are useful for removing shine caused by water reflections from rocks and concrete, or to see through water. They can also block one to two stops of light, enabling you to use longer shutter speeds. You can combine a polarising filter with a neutral density filter to take long exposure photos during the day.

You can learn more about filters at the Cambridge in Colour website. They have good articles about neutral density and polarising filters.

Find Good Locations

The next step is finding good locations to take photos. You may know of some already, if not there are plenty of ways to scout for good places. I like to use Flickr.

For example, we have just moved to Wellington in New Zealand and I found a set of photos that has helped me find some good locations for long exposure photography already.

Another useful tool is the Photographer's Ephemeris. This is a free program you can download for your computer that calculates sunrise and sunset times for anywhere in the world. It also shows the direction of sunrise and sunset. There are also iPhone, iPad and Android versions (you have to pay for those).

Finally, if you are taking photos by the sea, you should look up the local tide tables. It is important for your safety to know whether the tide is rising or falling at the time you plan to take photos. There are places in the world where the tide rises rapidly and can cut you off from land very quickly, so please be aware of tide movements at all times and put personal safety first.

Seascapes change dramatically with the tides, weather and time of day. Some locations are better for photography at low tide, others at high tide. Keep a record as you explore so you get know the best times to return.

Know your Camera Settings

Long exposure photography requires a firm mastery of many of your camera's settings. The best way to take a long exposure image is to use the Raw format. This has a number of advantages:

1. The extra bit depth enables you to capture more highlight and shadow detail.

2. You can adjust white balance in post-processing, instead of deciding which setting to use during the shoot. To start, I normally set white balance to the daylight setting. This enables me to see the true colour of the light, which may be warm during a sunset (the golden hour), or cool at dusk (the blue hour).

3. You can easily convert to black and white. The extra bit depth makes black and white conversion much easier.

4. You can adjust the Picture Style in post-processing. I normally set the Picture Style to landscape, but again I can change it in post-processing to suit the image.

If you are new to Raw processing, you can find out more about it on Phototuts+ with this article collection: Camera Raw for Beginners

Experiment with Bulb Mode

The longest available shutter speed on most digital SLR cameras is 30 seconds. As your confidence with long exposure techniques increases you will want to move beyond that and take photos with shutter speeds of several minutes of more.

The main advantage of ultra-long shutter speeds is that you can use them to blur the motion of the sea, and it is with seascapes that you will most often see this technique used. The two photos above show you the difference that long shutter speeds make to the image.

The bulb setting on your camera lets you take photos with a shutter speed of your choice. You need a cable release or remote control so that you don't disturb the camera. Press the shutter button to open the shutter and let it go to close it.

Your camera may display a timer in seconds so that you can see how long the shutter has stayed open. You can also use your watch. Check your camera's instruction manual to verify how it works.

Your camera may also have a "T" shutter setting, "B" usually indicates bulb. The "T" setting allows you to press the shutter button to open the shutter, and then it will stay open until you come back and press it again.

Work on Exposure

When shooting long exposures, it's important not to lose detail in the highlights caused by overexposure. It's also helpful to avoid underexposing the image, as this increases noise in the darkest tones. You may also lose important shadow detail. You can get started by reading this article.

Work on Composition

Part of the appeal of long exposure photography is that it helps you practice your composition skills. This is especially true if you work in black and white as there is no color to distract from the composition. In black and white, the fundamentals of composition (line, texture, tonal contrast and so on) matter far more than they do in color.

One of the tenets of long exposure photography is that simplicity, or even minimalism, are best. Study the work of some of the long exposure photographers mentioned in the last section to see this in action.

There is a collection of articles about composition on Phototuts+ here.

Know your Light

Light is an important element of any photo. These are the four lighting situations you will most often see used in long exposure photography:

1. Sunset or sunrise. It's fairly obvious why. These are beautiful times to take photos. A good time to take long exposure photos is when the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset) as there is less contrast and the light levels are lower, allowing longer shutter speeds.

2. Twilight. Also known as the blue hour because of the color of light at this time. This is the period between sunset and night (or night and sunrise) when light levels are low and the fading light illuminates everything in a ghostly glow.

Twilight is a good time for taking long exposure seascapes as the water reflects the fading light, creating contrast between the water and the sand and the rocks. This is a good time to take photos if you don't have a neutral density filter.

3. Overcast days (for landscape photography). This is popular with photographers who use nine or ten stop neutral density filters to obtain long shutter speeds during the day. If the sun was out, especially during the spring and summer months, the light would be too harsh for good landscape photography. But on a cloudy day, moving clouds add interest to the sky.

4. Sunny weather (for architectural photography). Some photographers take long exposure photos of buildings during the day. The hard sunlight is good for illuminating buildings, especially in black and white (it may look a little boring in color).

A requirement is that there are clouds in the sky. Moving clouds create the contrast between the buildings and the changing sky that you need for a successful long exposure photo.

There is one notable exception to the above guidelines: infra-red photography. For this you need specialist equipment, either an infra-red filter or a camera converted to infra-red.

To learn more, read Luca Cesari's excellent article about infra-red photography.

Find Some Inspiration

Now that you understand the basics of long exposure photography, it's time to get some inspiration. Here is a list of photographers known for their long exposure photography, and the best articles I could find about the topic. The work of these amazing photographers will inspire you to try out this exciting technique for yourself:

Websites and Articles

Long Exposure Photographers on Flickr

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