Long exposure photography can offer views of landscape or urban environments in ways that are impossible to see with just the naked eye. However, there are still some myths surrounding long exposure photography that get brought up during conversations that I hope I can address with this list.
The first thing you think of when you hear the term long exposure photography are landscape shots of star trails and frozen mountains or waterfalls. Depending on the time of day you can turn dark into light. You can also turn sprawling urban environments into lifeless scenes reminiscent of disaster movies.
This image was shot in the afternoon under bright skies and intermittent cloud cover.
By using ND filters you can reduce the amount of light that hits your sensor in order to increase the exposure time. This means you could take a long exposure of a city center on a busy Saturday afternoon and have an end result that gives the feeling of isolation. Because the people are moving most wont stay in the same place long enough to be exposed in your image.
This is the same myth that surrounds many aspects of photography. You do not need expensive equipment. In fact my first forray into long exposure photography involved making my own filter using welders glass.
The image above was taken using a DIY welders glass filter.
You can buy squares of welders glass which you can attach to your camera using elastic bands or in my case using the ring from an old UV filter and attaching it with bluetac. Welders glass is normally around 10-14 stops and can be bought for £5 or less on ebay. And this can still give results on par with branded 10 stop filters and is the perfect way to experiment before forking out on expensive filters if that is what you want to do.
If you want a 10 stop ND filter then you can get the cheaper threaded ones that mount onto the front of your lens. Haida do a great one for £35 which works a treat and you can find them on Ebay. The image of the Forth Road Bridge above was shot with one. I’ve seen photographs of the same bridge shot with the expensive Lee 10 Stop filter which retails around £120 and usually has a waiting time of a month or two. That’s a big financial commitment to make to something that you might just be getting started with.
In fact sometimes you don’t even need filters to do a long exposure. If it’s dark or the light has started to fade you can get a shutter speed of a couple of seconds simply by setting the ISO to 100 and the aperture to anywhere between f11 and f22, and then changing these settings to get the length of shutter speed you desire. It should be noted that changing these settings should largely be creative decisions. Normally for landscapes I’d recommend f8-f16 and nothing smaller* as you introduce diffraction and chromatic aberration.
Excess doesn’t always mean better. For example, you could expose a scene too long that the end result is actually detrimental to what you were trying to convey. For example a long exposure of the sea could result in a scene that resembles an ice rink or a sea of milk with very little movement and a smooth level surface. This takes the life out of the scene and reduces interest. This is particularly problematic if the sea is taking up the majority of real estate in your photographs composition.
Long exposure photography and regular photography both require the same understand of the basics of photography; composition, shutter speed, aperture, ISO and the ability and willingness to get into position to get the photograph. The only difference is long exposure photography takes longer. If you understand how to compose a photograph and can visualise an image then you can do long exposure photography.
The only extra equipment you might need that you don’t carry with you normally would be a tripod and a filter. Oh, and maybe a flask of hot tea or coffee depending on the time of day and season you venture outdoors. I’ve been out a few time shooting castles at night and wished I had some hand warmers and a cup of tea.
This might surprise a few people but in terms of necessity you don’t really have to have a tripod with you to try long exposure photography. There are a few ways in which you can stabilise your camera when you’re attempting long exposure photography. In the past I’ve used car bonnets, car roofs, rocks, camera bags, planks of wood, tree branches. Once I even used a carrier bag laid on top of a sandy beach and moulded the wet sand into position, using the carrier bag to keep the sand off the camera. Now obviously the length of exposure will determine which DIY method you want to use or what you have available to you but for the most part these work out well if you’ve forgotten your tripod at home. So if you do find yourself without a tripod then all it takes is a little ingenuity and imagination. No reason to miss out on the shot. Gorillapods are great kit to carry around with you because they can be relatively small compared to full size tripods and can be used to mount cameras to tree branches, fences, car windows, poles and a few other things. Always good to have as a backup.
Long exposure photography is a technique and one which can be applied to different styles of photography. You can use flashes to light up people / models, the same as you can use them to light up buildings, cars and forests. It’s just how you apply them that matters. The same applies to long exposure photography. A great example is to record the movement of people. I was once asked to photograph some new maps and signs in Glasgow and rather than having the exposures too long that you couldn’t see the people I decided to have exposures of a second or two that would allow me to capture people interacting with the signs, moving around, looking and pointing. Long exposures allow you to capture energy and in this case kinetic energy.
Another example is capturing light trails of cars on roads; catching streaks of red light as cars go past you and light streaks as they come towards you. I’ve seen great examples where people have taken long exposure from the tops of multi-storey buildings and captured the movement of cars around large swathes of the city.
* the smaller the aperture the higher the f number. Yeah, it a funny one to remember,