It seems to me that we live in a world orientated to a digital generation demanding instant gratification. This extends to photography, encouraged by the prevalence of camera phones and Instagram type apps. How many photographers, when they come across a beautiful scene, just stop and snap a photo with a camera phone and then move on?
Long exposure photography is different. It demands patience, an appreciation of beautiful light and a deep understanding of composition. It is as much about the mind-set of the photographer as it is about the subject. It’s not brash or flashy – you rarely see long exposure photographers use techniques such as high dynamic range (HDR) photography or adding texture layers.
What is long exposure photography? There is no precise definition. I think of it as involving shutter speeds of ten seconds or longer, but I’m sure some photographers will be thinking in terms of shutter speeds of a minute or more. But the aim is the same – to create beautiful and surreal images by leaving the shutter open long enough to record anything that moves within the landscape, such as water, as a blur.
That’s why most long exposure photography tends to take place along the coast. The sea creates an interesting subject, helped by natural features such as rocks and islands, and man-made ones like piers and jetties.
Painting with light is also a form of long exposure photography.
Contemplation and the landscape
You may be wondering what one does while waiting for the camera to take a photo when the shutter speed is longer than a minute.
The answer is that long exposure photography is a naturally contemplative pastime. While waiting, take some time to enjoy the beautiful location you are in. Breathe and enjoy the smell of the air. Listen to the sounds. Watch the light as it fades away. This meditative approach will help you notice things an instant gratification seeker will miss.
Interested? How then, do you get started? One of the nice things about long exposure photography is that the basic requirements are not extensive:
- A camera that lets you take control of the exposure settings and has a Bulb setting so that you can use shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds.
- A tripod and a good ball-and-socket head. Beware of inexpensive models – they may be too flimsy to support your camera properly during long exposures. A good aluminium or carbon-fibre tripod is required.
- A cable release or remote release so that you can activate the shutter without touching the camera.
A polarising filter is useful for eliminating reflections from shiny surfaces, such as a concrete jetty made wet by sea water. It also blocks between one and two stops of light, helping you obtain longer shutter speeds.
Some photographers use neutral density (ND) filters, but they are not essential. You can get started without them by turning up late in the day and taking photos as the sun sets. During twilight you can obtain shutter speeds of thirty seconds or later by setting a low ISO and a narrow aperture.
The benefit of neutral density filters is that they extend the period of time during which you can use long exposures. They come in various strengths; three, four, nine and ten stop ND filters are the most common. Nine and ten stop ND filters are designed to enable long exposure photography during the middle of the day – you won’t need them if you are shooting at dusk.
Learn more about neutral density filters.
Shoot in Raw and turn off the long exposure noise reduction setting. The software you use to process your Raw files will take care of noise reduction for you.
Here are some more resources that will help:
Interviews with long exposure photographers
Long Exposure Photography: 15 Stunning Examples
Eight Tips for Long Exposure Photography
Photo Tutorial – Long Exposure Photography
That’s a lot to take in, so don’t forget the most important thing of all – to go out and take some photos. It takes a while to get the hang of long exposure photography, so don’t be discouraged if your first attempts aren’t as polished as you would like. It takes time to master the techniques and develop the eye for graphical composition required for successful long exposure photography.
My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master long exposure photography and take photos like the ones in this article.