Long Exposure Basics!

Long exposure photography might be my favorite type of photography. It is fairly simple to do if you have the right equipment. The resulting photograph can be stunning.

What Equipment You Need.

You need a camera that will allow you to take long exposures. In other words you must be able to set your shutterspeed from 1-30 seconds and beyond. Most higher end or middle range dslr’s have a shutterspeed of 30 seconds or less in Shutter Priority mode. And for longer durations you need to go into Bulb mode which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you need using a shutter release. Most mid range camera’s have Bulb mode.

As you become a more experience photographer you’ll experience many low light situations.¬†You’ll need longer exposures in these situations because the only way to get a proper exposure when it’s dark or very little light is to keep the shutter open for long periods of time. Especially if you are using a an ND filter.

Which leads me to the next piece of equipment you’ll need. What you want is one or more ND filters.

An ND filter basically is a pair of sunglasses for your camera.

You can buy them in light shades to dark shades. In more technical terms an ND filter will stop down anywhere from 1 to 16 stops or more depending on the shot you want.

An ND filter is needed in daylight situations when you want to take long exposures like the image of the beach in Carmel above.

I recommend getting a 9 or 10 stop filter to start with. Or you can buy a variable filter which allows you to ‘vary’ the darkness from 1-8 stops, sometimes more.

You also need a shutter Release. You’ll need a shutter release (remote trigger),. You can get them either as a wireless or a regular remote with a cable.

A shutter release is needed if you require exposures longer than what your camera allows. This way you do not move your camera when you press the shutter release button. But if you are doing exposures up to 30 seconds, or whatever your camera will allow you can use the time delay feature on your camera like I did you can use the timer to delay the shot for 2 or 10 seconds.

You need to have a sturdy tripod for your camera. It must keep your camera steady at all times. I recommend getting two tripods. One larger one for the studio, and another lighter one for travel.

You don’t want to be hauling around a heavy tripod if you go on long hikes or if you are scrabbling around cliffs and rocks.

You cannot hold your camera for long exposures. Don’t even try. As a matter of fact you shouldn’t hold your camera for shutterspeeds slower than 1/60th of a second from what I understand.

The Carmel beach picture above was taken with a 9 stop filter at about 2pm. The exposure time I went with was 5 seconds. I experimented with 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 second exposures and this is my favorite.

Getting It Right The First Time.

Here are the steps I take when I shoot long exposures. I don’t claim to be a top professional so if you have suggestions or comments please post them politely below.

  • Assuming you have your shot framed properly, make sure that your camera is positioned on your tripod so that it does not move even the slightest bit. Make sure the legs are out and secured and that it’s not too windy.
  • Calculate the exposure time. The easiest way to do that is to use an application called LE Calculator or something like it. Simply choose the nd filter you are using, in this case I am using a 9 stop filter, and the shutter speed is 1/40 of a second.

Remember, do not try to set the exposure with your ND filter on. So get the proper exposure using your camera without the ND filter first, and then find out what your long exposure will be with the calculator.

  • After you find out how long your exposure should be with your ND filter on, take your lens auto focus and set it to manual. This is crucial. So make sure you set the exposure and everything is in focus while the lens is on auto focus and then after you set this swich your lens so manual focus and put your ND filter on.
  • After you do all this set your exposure to 13 seconds (for this example) in either Shutter Priority or Bulb mode.
  • Before you take the shot be sure you either use your timer delay on your camera or use a remote shutter release because even the slightest movement from your finger touching the button will ruin the shot.

When I was on the coast one time I had everything right except the aggressive wind ruined the long exposure I was taking. So find a sheltered area or scrap the long exposure that day.

Framing Your Shot.

As an amateur I am working on improving my framing. But what I discovered is that the long exposure shots I took of the ocean or in a stream look better the closer you are to the water. The Carmel shots (see above) where taken when I was literally in the water or it was splashing up on me and my tripod during most exposures. So wear the appropriate shoes and gear.

The waterfall shot above was a 10 second exposure. It’s pretty good, but it was hard to find good framing in this location due to the topography. But I want to point out that there was some wind so although I got the look I wanted with the water, some of the leaves surrounding it were not sharp due to movement from the light wind, but I am happy with this shot overall.

However next time I might get closer to the water and use a fish eye or wider angle lens.

Last Second Long Exposure Tip.

If you want even longer exposures to get a really super smooth silky look to water during the daylight hours or whatever it is you are shooting then you need to use a 16 stop filter or stack a couple of your other filters.

My next project will be night time long exposure of cars. Long exposure is the technique used for light painting, so read up on that as well.

There are not written rules for long exposure. So experiment. But if you are shooting water get close to the water, as close as possible.

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