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In this article I will outline eight steps, that will help visualize what you’ll need to capture beautiful, well-planned, and unique images that you’ll be happy with.
Long exposures are the true artworks of photography; a normally static and bland scene can become a dynamic masterpiece when the shutter is left open, and the capturing of movement occurs. Surf on a beach becomes a swirling, cloud-like mass, and grasses flowing in the wind become a single, beautiful entity. This is a situation where what you see, and what you end up with, are usually two very different things, and the results are often breathtaking.
But capturing that beauty can be challenging. So what do you need to focus on to make a long-exposure landscape shot work? Let’s explore that a bit more.
Before you even shoot your landscape, you’ll need to decide what type of shot you’ll tackle, and what environment you’d like to shoot in – whether it be a grassy plain, a seascape, or a busy highway.
Long exposure photography is about capturing, and translating movement within a frame. Spend some time deciding what you’re trying to capture, and what movement you want to accentuate. Rolling waves? Swaying grass? Flowing clouds?
Take a moment to envision what your scene will look like, and what parts of it will be stationary, and which parts will be fluid.
Long exposures, at their very basic premise, require one of two things to work properly. Either very dim light situations such as the golden hour time periods, very early, or very late in the day – OR modifiers added to the camera to diminish the light that is coming in through the lens.
The reason you need one of these is because leaving the shutter open for longer periods of time, monopolizes one corner of the exposure triangle. When a normal amount of light strikes the camera’s sensor for an extended period of time, you’re guaranteed an overexposure. Therefore, you’ll need to change one of the variables to reduce that amount of light.
The solution? Plan your shoot for very early in the morning, and very late in the evening. The darker it is outside, the longer you’ll be able to leave your shutter open, and therefore the more motion you’ll be able to capture in your image.
If you’re unable to shoot at those times, you’ll need to invest in a neutral density filter, preferably one with the ability to reduce the amount of light coming in to your lens by 10 stops, or more. These filters also add an extra layer of uniqueness to your images, because they allow you to shoot these long exposures at times of the day you normally don’t expect to see them.
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about which lens you’ll need to use, but traditionally, landscapes are captured with wide-angle lenses, to broaden the view and translate a sense of expansiveness.
Can you capture a landscape with a standard 50mm lens? Of course you can! But to maximize the open feel of a scene, consider using something wider. Keep in mind that the more you capture within the frame, the more movement it will contain.
I personally use a 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens for most of my landscape shots. While it’s not as wide as what some people use, I find it gives me a good middle ground, with a wide focal length, and very little of the distortion traditionally associated with super-wide glass.
While we’re speaking about the planning phase of your shoot, it’s a perfect time to consider what gear you’ll need to pull off a long exposure landscape. As it happens, it’s the same equipment you’d need for any other long exposure shot.
A tripod is a invaluable piece of gear for any landscape photographer, and for a long exposure, it’s an absolute requirement. Exposures of several seconds, which are required to produce movement within the image, need a stable base for the camera. The slightest amount of movement can cause blurriness, and that is amplified with longer and longer shutter times. Invest in a good, sturdy tripod, and ensure nothing will blow or bump into the unit while in operation.
Another essential accessory for this situation is a remote shutter release. There’s really no excuse for any landscape photographer to not have one, as they can be found for your camera model for $10, or so. These releases connect to your camera, and allow you to activate the shutter without ever touching the camera body itself. This keeps the vibration during the shutter click to an absolute minimum.
Since you’re using longer exposure times to pull off this type of shot, you’ll need to make adjustments to other parts of the exposure triangle. Generally, this means you need to stop your aperture down as far as you can, while maintaining sharpness, and reducing your ISO to the lowest setting. These two settings will allow you to bump your exposure time up, to long enough to capture movement in your image.
Fortunately this also gives you some bonus advantages; a lower ISO (such as 100), will keep the noise and artifacts in your shot to a minimum, giving you the best possible image quality. In addition, lenses tend to be sharper in the middle aperture ranges. Using apertures such as f/8, f/11 or f/16 will give you a nice, deep depth of field throughout the picture, while also taking a sharper, clearer photo than what you’d generally get with an extreme aperture of f/22 (due to diffraction).
As always, shoot in RAW. This will capture as much data as possible, and allow you to make non-destructive edits to the file later. Shooting in RAW format also negates the need to fiddle with white balance while shooting, since that can be adjusted in post-production.
If you do set white balance at the time of the shot, it’s usually a good idea to select the Daylight preset, or a custom white balance setting of your own, that counterbalances the extreme warmth encountered at sunset, and vice-versa for a shot at sunrise, which is a cooler time of the day, color temperature-wise.
When you have your equipment and settings where they need to be, it’s time to take a moment to compose your shot. What are you capturing? The movement of a body of water like the surf from the ocean? Adjust your composition to allow for more of the water to be in the composition, instead of the sky. Are you trying to focus on the movement of clouds across the sky? Then give that part of the scene more attention within your frame to accentuate it.
Shooting a moving scene, and attempting to capture that movement involve a bit of foresight, not unlike a marksman leading his target, by visualizing where the target will be when the shot gets there.
For example, capturing the ebb and flow of surf pounding a beach, requires knowing where the surf-line will end, and begin to recede back into the ocean, to properly compose it. Watching the movement of the subject you’re shooting, will help anticipate where it will appear in the final image. It’s always pays to plan ahead!
Finally, (and yes, this can be a touchy subject), learn to excel with the post-production process. A long-exposure image will already by eye-catching just by its inherent properties, but it’s important to take time during editing to enhance the beauty you’ve already captured in camera.
Since you’ll be shooting early or late in the day, tones will most likely already be dramatic, but may require some light boosting of the colors, or dodging and burning in Photoshop to add a bit more.
Since you shot at a low ISO to begin with, you likely won’t have to deal with noise reduction. After your exposure and tones have been taken care of, a little sharpening is all that stands between you and the final image.
So that’s it folks; the eight steps to get you started on the path to taking great long exposure landscape shots. What other tricks of the trade do you use to get the perfect capture? Sound off in the comments below, and as usual, let your voice be heard.