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Even if you are an experienced landscape photographer you will know there is lots to consider when approaching the area of long exposure, landscape photography.
The following five tips are just some of the things I have learned, (often the hard way) on my own journey with landscape photography and I hope you are able to take advantage of them and apply them in your own work.
When arriving at a location you may find yourself rushing to your camera bag in haste to set up your gear. With long exposure photography your mind can often be busy doing the math, calculating exposure times, juggling tripods and fiddling with filters.
Take your time and behold the scene, forget you are capturing a long exposure image and get the framing right. I use the Lee filter system on my Fuji X cameras, which is easy to attach and remove the Neutral Density (ND) filter to the camera between shots. I often remove the filter and capture shorter exposure images to review on the LCD screen. If these images don’t look good there is little chance of the long exposure version looking look.
Don’t be fixated on getting the water looking smooth; instead fixate on framing the water in the photograph to create contrast and make the scene visually interesting.
If you are using an ND10 filter you will know how brilliant they are at stopping light from reaching the camera sensor. Although, theoretically it is possible to capture long exposure images even during the sunniest part of the day, it generally isn’t the best time to shoot.
Prioritize the late evening or early morning for capturing long exposure images so you don’t rely on the ND filter doing all the work. You will find you have much more creative control and will capture more atmospheric images by shooting at the extremes of the day.
If you are shooting the ocean, then the second part of this tip is to research tide times. I’ve ventured out on more than one occasion to shoot a jetty to find it would be hours before the tide was in. There are various services online that will tell you high and low tide times for your specific area.
As with the first tip I really recommend that you spend time studying your location. Imagine your image as three separate layers. The top and bottom layers need to contain something of visual interest with the middle layer tending to be the smoothed out water. Sandwiching of the smooth water between foreground and background detail can add a real sense of drama to a long exposure scene.
Having the camera shutter open for long durations means any dust or dirt on your lens or filter has a greater opportunity to impact on your image. Your post-production software (such as Adobe Lightroom) will go some way to automatically clean up dust but quite often larger spots are visible in long exposure images that wouldn’t be obvious in normal conditions. Having a lens cloth handy and cleaning the filter (both sides) in-between shots can result in less post-production work later on.
When it comes to postproduction processing for long exposure photography I recommend focusing on three areas. Initially you should correct any colour cast created by the ND filter. This is a relatively simple process; in Lightroom use the ‘temperature’ slider to warm the image to a more natural hue.
You should then zoom in and check for any dust spots, these are generally more obvious in the highlights, such as the skyline. Use the Spot Removal tool (Shortcut Q) to remove these blemishes easily.
Finally my top tip is to use the graduated filter tool in Lightroom 5 (shortcut M) to soften the water. You can do this by clicking on the horizon and dragging to the base of the water. Once you have created the filter you can then soften the smooth water by reducing the level of ‘Clarity’. You can also do the opposite of this technique to increase the ‘clarity’ of your skyline.
These five tips, I hope will go some way to improve how you approach long exposure photography, but the most important thing to remember is to relax. There is something ultimately therapeutic about the experience of capturing long exposure images of landscapes, moving water or the night sky, isn’t that what the creative process is all about?
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