Long exposure how-to

How to take long exposure photographs

 
 

Introduction to long exposure photographs

Making some things appear on camera can be tricky. You want to capture the streaks left by fireworks, a bolt of lightning, or photograph something that glows only slightly. What’s the answer? Long exposures of course. Long exposure is a simple concept yet hardly understood by would-be photographers. So, to help you understand and get the best out of it, here is a short tutorial on just that. This article is a follow-up for Photographing reptiles and amphibians. In that article much of the terminology below is explained.

So, before moving on, let’s define exactly what long exposure photographs actually are. It is keeping the shutter of the camera open for a greater time than normal, thus exposing the film or sensor for a long time. Easy as that. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that is a time longer than a second.

Uses for long exposure photographs could be, but are not limited to:

    • Photographing stars
    • ‘Softening’ the moving waters of a stream
    • Lightning at night
    • Fireworks
    • Low light conditions
    • Glowing fungi

 

CAMERA SETTINGS FOR LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHS

To make long exposure photographs work as intended, first of all you must disable fully automatic modes. Using the camera on automatic will cause it to fire the flash and try to compensate for lower light. Use another mode. Semi automatic modes and fully manual are fine for this. See the table below for what might suit your needs:

MODE CHARACTERISTICS
Av (Aperture priority) User selects the aperture and the camera figures out the suitable shutter speed
Tv (Time priority) User selects the shutter speed and the camera figures out the suitable aperture
M (Fully manual) User decides all settings
B (Bulb) User decides all settings except shutter speed. Shutter remains open as long as user has button pressed or timed by external timer

Note: These modes are from Canon EOS, but may be applicable to most other SLRs and high-end ‘zoom’ cameras

For users of smaller compact cameras, most models these days have an option to select an ISO and disable flash. Check your user manual as compact cameras can be more difficult to manually override.

The other thing to remember for long exposure photographs is your ISO settings. In case you don’t understand ISO, I have made a table to help.

LOWER ISO - Needs more time to expose - Less electronic ‘noise’ or ‘sandy’ appearance in images- More tolerance of shades and detail (low contrast)
HIGHER ISO - Less exposure needed - More electronic noise- Less tolerance of shades and detail (high contrast)

So as you can see, your ISO setting affects the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. There are pros and cons to whatever setting you use, so you need to take the time to experiment with unfamiliar scenarios to get a feel for the results you want. In the short studies of individual long exposure photographs below, look at the settings closely so you can match them yourself if you aren’t yet confident.

Shutter speeds also have an effect. To put it simply, longer shutter exposures = more electronic noise. It’s as simple as that. But noise in this case will usually be single points of red or blue. You can fix these easily after the shot is taken.

Aperture settings can affect the clarity of the picture. Although closing the aperture will let in less light for bright conditions when you want a slow shutter speed for, say example blurring water in a stream it will cause an overall blur on your picture the smaller you make it. It’s called diffraction and it is noticeable at settings over around f/13 or so, depending on the lens.

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EQUIPMENT FOR LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHS

Other than a camera, you will need equipment to get your pictures the way you need them. Long exposure photographs require one thing above all others… a steady surface. Sure, once in a while you might try an abstract artistic style with camera movement, but when it is accidental it looks crap, so avoid this by putting your camera somewhere it will not move during the exposure.

  Tripods are by far the most versatile tools for a steady camera. I have been using a Manfrotto for a while now and have no complaints. It is sturdy (light tripods often are not) and the ball head I attached allows for many angles with no drift or movement. Cheap tripods have a habit of drifting, wobbling and not securing a heavy camera properly. Also, cheap tripods with those annoying braces connecting the legs to the main shaft do not allow for uneven terrain or difficult shots very well at all. So get a good tripod for good long exposure photographs.
Another tool for longer exposures is a timer. You should get one if you want to take shots with an exposure of over 30 seconds as most cameras do not have a setting beyond that. This is an AP-TR1C, and it is the cost-effective version of the official Canon timer. There are several variants to fit all popular camera makes and models that have a remote port. The uses when it comes to long exposures are listed below:- On Bulb mode you can set the exposure time on the timer and walk away or make a coffee or whatever.- There is no shake if it is used properly- It can make multiple exposures (useful for totally automated time lapse or lightning shots- Very inexpensive and great value- Up to 99 hour exposures if you want.
  Neutral density filters are a blessing for those that want to photograph daytime events with longer shutter speeds. As shrinking your aperture will affect your depth of field, destroying foreground and background blur as well as cause diffraction you want another method to extend your exposure.Basically a neutral density filter is a shaded piece of glass that either screws in or drops onto the front of your lens in a bracket. It lets less light in so you can get the blur of a stream on a bright day where a long exposure will burn out the image totally. You can even aim your camera at the road and passing cars will be invisible in the image once it is taken with a long exposure with the right filter. In a pinch you can use a polarising filter as a ND filter.

EXAMPLES OF LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHS

Here we explore some images and exactly how they were taken so you can do the same.

long exposure photographsThis picture of the Daly River in Australia’s Northern Territory at night is one of my favorites, and was inspiration for a later time-lapse video showcasing the stars moving before the rising sun lightens the sky (see the RunwildTV trailer on top right). The main source of light was the full moon, and the stars were secondary. I used a tripod and set the camera with the following settings:

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM @ 10mm

30

3.5

400

Canon EOS 60D

The next picture is of Ormiston Gorge in central Australia. I chose to take this picture because the stars were so bright that night as there is no city glow and the moon was below the horizon. The black at the bottom is the rocky cliffs that make the gorge. Long exposure photographs are great for stars.

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM @ 10mm

30

3.5

800

Canon EOS 60D

Next up are these long exposure photographs of lightning in Central Australia. Lightning at close quarters is very bright, and I was a little close for comfort in these shots. Luckily I had my timer and simply set the timer to trigger once every second so that as soon as one exposure was taken there would be less than one second before the camera automatically triggered again

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM @ 10mm

10

4.5

100

Canon EOS 60D

Fire is always great for long exposure photographs. You can catch the glow it casts as well as make it look all the more intense by capturing its movement with slower shutter speeds. This picture shows a cane farmer burning his crop before harvest. I wanted to show the magnitude of the flames so I put him in the picture. Shrinking the aperture to 10.0 meant I could use a longer shutter speed.

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Av

EF 70-300

1.3

10

100

Canon EOS 350D

As fire is good, so are long exposure photographs of fireworks. This display over Darwin in Australia shows the spectacular nature of fireworks. I wanted several explosions in the same picture so I left the shutter open for a long exposure. This creates what you see here. As for lightning, the longer you leave the shutter open the more action will be in the same picture.

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

30

8

100

Canon EOS 550D

I love action shots, and night time and flammable materials, especially when someone is playing with them makes for interesting images. Here is someone playing with a firework. As you’d expect, I say don’t do this at home!

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

5

8

100

Canon EOS 550D

Luminous things can be problematic, but glowing mushrooms are worth the effort as far as long exposure photographs go. Since the light was dim, I chose to increase the ISO substantially. A tripod was used, and to maintain the steadiness required for such a sensitive shot, I had a 2 second countdown so that pressing the button didn’t cause any shake.

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S 60mm f2.8 Macro

30

8

1600

Canon EOS 60D

Finally we have picture of a waterfall. Most people like the blurred, soft water cascading off a waterfall or stream as it shows movement that is not possible with faster speeds. The perfect way is to use a ND filter or a polarizer, or wait for dusk or cloudy conditions as too much light will not allow a long exposure. I still struggled to get the lower light required for the longer exposure, but the results were worth the hassle.

MODE

LENS

SHUTTER

APERTURE

ISO

CAMERA

Manual

EF-S 60mm f2.8 Macro

0.8

13

100

Canon EOS 500D

So all in all taking long exposure photographs is not too difficult if you can find a steady surface and low light conditions, plus something fascinating worthy of your time and effort. Try it out and post a comment below.

3 comments on “Long exposure how-to

  1. Wow, awesome blog structure! How lengthy have you ever been blogging for? you make running a blog look easy. The overall glance of your web site is great, as smartly as the content material!

  2. Martha on said:

    I’m really impressed along with your writing skills as neatly as with the structure on your blog. Is this a paid subject or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it’s uncommon to see a great weblog like this one today..

  3. Hi Martha,

    Thanks for your comments. In answering, no it is not paid. I am not paid by any of the manufacturers or marketers to put these articles up. These are all products I spent my own hard earned money on to test out, none were given to me nor was I sponsored (I’d like to be though!) There are ads on this site so people can click on them to be directed to the relevant place, and to date it has always been about my love of the subject and not the money (I haven’t made any money off this site so far). I encourage people to support this site by visiting the links.

    The structure is by WordPress and the template is from a company known as Mantra (see the links at the very bottom). I have heavily modified the layout to what it is now.

    Cheers

    -Nathan

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