We have all gawked at those intriguing nighttime images where the car headlights look like streams of light and the stars appear to be spinning around the sky. Long exposure night photography has the power to illustrate the unseen movement of our world in the most ethereal of forms.
What exactly is long exposure night photography? Quite simply, a photo fits into this category when the frame rate is notably lower than what is used to view the sequence. More obviously, the photo is taken at night.
Your camera takes in the scene for a longer period of time, thus creating the effect we’re looking for. Fortunately, you can achieve fantastic results with some time, patience, and effort.
1. Twenty-five seconds
Please understand that you might have to adjust this number, but I always start with a 25 seconds-long exposure. The water always appears silky, and car headlights will look smoother than fog.
Always use a low ISO and an aperture around f/7 or f/8. If the photo turns out too bright, change it to f/14. Darker shots should be switched to f/4. Regardless, make sure you check your focus to ensure a sharp background. Try different exposures for each scene to ensure you captured the right shot.
Star shots, such as the one above, will require a longer exposure because objects in space take longer to move when viewed from our perspective.
2. Fatten up your tripod
Popular subjects of long exposure night photography require shooting on bumpy terrain or from high vantage points to capture cities at night. Each of these scenes will most likely greet you with an extreme condition, whether it be strong wind or uneven ground from atop a rocky cliff.
Regardless of the specific condition, make sure you bring the correct tripod. (Don’t even think about attempting this technique without one.)
I’m not talking about those lightweight carbon things that fall when breathed on.
Grab that heavy metal tripod nobody wants to carry, experiment with different adjustment options, throw it into your car, and thank me for putting you on a path that won’t lead to a shattered DSLR at the bottom of a creek bed.
But seriously. Extra support from sandbags might also help you out. If you’re in the market for an ideal tripod, I recommend the Vanguard Auctus Plus 283AT, found here on Amazon. At 7.2 pounds with special gripping feet, your camera will be bolted in place.
3. Compose thoughtfully
Before you decide on the frame, walk around the scene and take in the environment. You might discovery a unique way of capturing the shot that you never thought of before.
Most importantly, take note of the moving aspects of the shot.
If your goal is to capture a fast-moving river on a windy night, the clouds might also blur depending on your camera settings.
Without thorough understanding of the scene, you might run into some complications and find yourself frustrated when you can’t seem to “get it right.”
4. Settings (the fun part)
Don’t let anybody tell you that decent long exposure photos can be taken on automatic mode. The camera will constantly adjust to different changes in light and temperature while the photo is being taken, which you don’t want. To achieve a professional result, use manual exposure and RAW files. This setup will allows greater control over your camera, both before and during post-processing.
Live view is also a good idea for this type of work. By using this feature, you can visualize the shot in real time and ensure that no issues are occurring. You can save precious time in this regard, especially if you’re waiting for the stars to start spinning.
5. Shoot Toward the Sun
First, try to avoid using a neutral density or polarizing filter. There will be very little light without the sun in the sky, so there’s no need to give your lens a pair of sunglasses. Furthermore, your pictures will have an awful color cast when you use either of those filters.
Now that you’re filterless and ready, point your camera toward the sun. When our favorite star is behind the horizon line, the sky above it will have lots of soft colors and stunning gradations. The further from the sun you point your camera, the less of these details you will capture.
If the cityscape or mountain you want to capture is set against the wrong horizon, try planning your shoot early in the morning before the run rises.
Many photographers shoot long exposure after sunset, but the location you have in mind might call for a different time.
Summing it up
Long exposure night photography is a dense world of experimentation and patience. A professional long exposure photo requires careful planning, thoughtful attention to detail, and vigilant execution. Through your effort, however, you will undoubtedly find yourself with fantastic results!