Anyone who has studied my work will tell you that I absolutely love using Long Exposure techniques. To me, the look of an image can be vastly improved by simply opening up the shutter for a few seconds and letting all of that lovely light spill onto my sensor. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s a glorious thing to behold.
In a nutshell, the art of Long Exposure is to show movement by blurring the non-static elements of an image while keeping the static portions sharply focused. This is achieved by opening up the camera shutter for long periods by shooting in low light conditions with a low ISO or by using Neutral Density filters.
Because of my love for this technique, I am going to share a few tips on how to create a dreamy, long exposure image of your own.
1) Include a stationary object
Like I said earlier, Long Exposure Photography isn’t suited to all situations. The idea behind the technique is to show movement in a subject to create a blurred and dreamy quality. I find this works best when at least one part of an image is stationary to help enhance the object that is moving; for example, in this image I use the rock formation in the sea as my stationary object, while the clouds and sea are blurring due to the long shutter speed.
Charlie’s Garden in Mono
2) Using a Tripod
It goes without saying that to take a Long Exposure you’re going to need a tripod. Shutter speeds generally range from 1 second to several minutes; taking a shot hand-held using a shutter speed below 1/60 is going to introduce camera shake. Also, make sure that the tripod is fully tightened and sturdy; shelter the tripod and camera from wind as much as possible without encroaching on your shot. Walls, trees and even your own body are good things to use.
Blue sky at Blyth
When shooting an image at the beach, make sure your tripod is buried a few inches into the sand to prevent it sinking mid-shot when the tide decides to catch up with you.
3) Focusing and Filters
Setting your camera to the lowest ISO setting (generally 100) and using a small aperture (f16, f22) isn’t always enough to bring the shutter speed down to a low enough level to create a long exposure, particularly during the daytime or in a well lit environment. In order to get down to the 1 second and beyond levels, you’ll need to use a Neutral Density filter, or ND filter for short. Essentially these are designed to restrict the amount of light reaching the sensor allowing the shutter to be open for longer. My Father-in-law told me to think of them as “sunglasses for your camera”.
The higher the number on the filter, the more light they’ll block out; for instance an ND10 will block out more light than an ND4, allowing shutter speeds measured in minutes rather than seconds. Just remember to focus before putting a filter on, particularly an ND10 and to lock it into position, as you won’t be able to see through the lens once it’s attached.
4) Other essential equipment
Familiarise yourself with the “Mirror Lock Up” setting on your camera’s dial and use it.
Every. Single. Time.
You’ll be surprised how much vibration is caused by the mirror locking up when taking a shot.
If your camera doesn’t have one, use the timer to enable the camera to count down a few seconds from when you push the shutter button, to when the camera actually fires the shot, thus, reducing the chance of camera shake.
Also, you’ll need to use a shutter release cable or preferably, a wireless one. I prefer the wireless as you can still cause camera shake with the cable flapping around in the wind.
5) Judge your environment
Storm on the Horizon
This image was taken with an ND10 filter using the following settings: ISO 100, f16, shutter speed of 91 seconds. I chose this set up as the sea was pretty calm, and the clouds were moving relatively slow across the sky. By using a high ND filter, it allowed me to open the shutter for much longer to be able to show blur in the slow-moving clouds.
The faster your environment is travelling, the less amount of time you’ll need to keep the shutter open.
6) Scotch tape is your friend
A roll of scotch tape in your camera bag is one of the most useful items a Photographer can carry.
Forgot to pack your filter holder? Scotch tape it to the lens!
Don’t have a viewfinder cap on your camera? Scotch tape it!
This last one is VERY important as taking a Long Exposure opens up the possibility of getting light-leaks through your viewfinder, which make their way onto your image. The longer you have the shutter open, say anymore than 2 or 3 seconds the greater the chance of a light-leak. A piece of tape over the viewfinder, and Bob’s your Uncle!
Those are just a few of the main techniques I use, but they certainly are the most important. Just remember to experiment with your shutter speed and with the environment; you’ll soon get a sense of when to use the correct filter and how long to expose for, depending on what result you are looking to achieve.
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