Long exposures (keeping the shutter open for long periods of time) can produce incredible effects and add something new to your photography. It is also a great way to get nice clean, crisp shots at night when it might otherwise be impossible or very difficult. They can also give you more time to appreciate what you’re doing and where you are, rather than just non-stop shooting.
There are a number of different pieces of equipment and things to consider before taking good long exposures. Not all of the gear is necessary, depending on what you’re trying to photograph and what time of day you’re shooting. I am certainly no expert, but here are some of the things I take into account before taking long exposures. For any of the settings discussed, if you’re not sure how to change them, refer to your manual.
1. Location – Obviously location is important, with any type of photography, but what I mean here is – choose your set-up and composition location before hand. Long exposures can take time to set up and then even more time to shoot. You could have the shutter open for only a few seconds or maybe for many minutes. Make sure it’s worth the time and effort!
2. Lighting – Now, most long exposures will be taken outdoors so you’ll have to choose what time of day you’d like to capture as well as the weather conditions on that day (i.e. is it overcast? sunny? etc.). This will affect the type of equipment you will need as well as the length of time you can have your sensor exposed. If it’s bright outside, you will need a Neutral Density filter. If it’s early evening or night time, you should be fine without a filter at all.
3. Lens – Lens selection is completely up to you, and any lens can be used for long exposures. All of the same rules apply for lens selection as you’d normally follow, but here I always try and use the best quality lens in my kit. The difference in picture quality (in my opinion) when shooting long exposures is more noticeable, so the best quality lens you have is the one I’d go with.
4. Tripod – This is probably the most essential piece of equipment to have for long exposures as it is imperative that the camera be completely free of movement while taking the shot. It doesn’t matter so much here in terms of quality, as long as it will support the weight of your camera and lens. You can still get around not having a tripod by just setting the camera on a stable, motionless surface. In fact, this can make for a really interesting and different perspective.
5. Filters – If you are planning on taking long exposures in the daytime, you will want to make sure you get out and get yourself a ND (Neutral Density) filter. This will darken the natural light, without changing the colours, allowing for long exposures without blowing out your picture. They are available in varying qualities and generally you want to go with the best you can afford. They are some of the more expensive filters. You can also stack your filters (if you vary the size) creating an even darker environment and allowing for even longer daytime exposures. I have one that is adjustable and was just over $100, but they can run you a lot more than that. Talk to your local camera expert and let them know what you’re trying to accomplish and what your budget is. *Make sure you remove any filters other than ND, unless you’re using a special effects type of filter (stars or colours – I don’t use any) and that’s what you’re going for. They can cause unwanted distortions in you photo.
6. Remote – This is key when taking slow shutter speeds and long exposures. In order to get a clean, high quality image there can’t be any movement of the camera. With a remote or cable switch you can depress the shutter without even touching the camera. I prefer the remote, but the cable will do exactly the same thing. After market remotes are available for about $10.
7. Mirror Lockup – This is a setting on an SLR to allow for manual cleaning of your sensor. I don’t recommend cleaning your sensor yourself, but this is also a great setting to help minimize camera shake even more. As the mirror flips up during shutter release it can cause small vibrations or movements of the camera giving you a less than perfect image. While it’s not necessary, it will definitely help.
8. Bulb Mode – On a Canon DSLR, I believe the longest regular setting for shutter speed is 30 seconds (I think it’s the same with Nikon). This simply won’t do for many of the long exposures you want to take. There is a B setting on your dial that stands for Bulb and this setting will allow you to manually set everything you need, but most importantly it will keep the shutter open for as long as you like while the shutter button is depressed. Another great reason for a remote switch is that you don’t have to keep your finger on the trigger!
9. ISO – This is what decides how sensitive your sensor is to light. In low light, you might have your ISO set higher, in bright light, lower. With long exposure photography, you are exposing the sensor to as much available light as there is for, quite literally, as long as you want. Because of this, you want to have your ISO set as low as possible to keep the quality of the photo as high as possible – With Nikon, I believe it’s ISO200 and with Canon ISO100.
10. Aperture – This is the setting that decides how much light the lens will allow to reach the sensor. Smaller numbers allow more light, but decrease depth of field. Higher numbers allow less light and increase depth of field. For long exposures you generally want a higher number, f/16 is what I usually have mine set to, allowing for more of the picture to be in focus and giving you more time for your exposure because it isn’t letting in much light.
If you found this helpful and end up trying to do some long exposure photography for yourself, send a link my way. I’d love to see what you come up with!