One of my favorite quotes ever is from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Long exposures have exactly that; an incredible power to let you see a place that you think you know well with new eyes. A long exposure photo is a parallel universe where I can escape from the frenzy of modern life.
Technically, it is just a matter of shutter speed, but I believe it is also a matter of mood and feeling. Taking a long exposure shot is easier than you could expect. Just put your camera in Bulb mode, and open the shutter for the required time. In this tutorial, I want to share some tips with you that can help you have fun with this fantastic technique.
1 – Open your mind
Take your time to visualize the shot in your mind. When shooting long exposures, what you see with your eyes will turn out different than what you’ll capture on camera.
2 – Look Up
To create a well-balanced composition, figure out the direction where the clouds are moving towards. Also, try to evaluate how fast they are moving. If you’re taking a seascape shot, check how wild is the sea. This will help you in choosing a correct shutter speed to get a really dramatic sky and a silky sea without making everything flat and dull.
3 – Wind
Wind is your enemy. Use a sturdy tripod, and once set firmly on the ground, hang on it your backpack to increase the stability with weight. Keep in mind that few seconds of wind gust can compromise a two minute exposure, and above a cliff strong winds are quite common. If possible, use your body as a wind shield for your camera.
4 – Focusing
Focus on the subject before adding the filters. As ND filters can be really dense, it would be difficult to get your subject in focus using autofocus, or even manually focusing through the viewfinder. The best solution is to always compose and manually focus the scene before adding filters. Remember that there is nothing worse than having a magnificently-composed 4-minute exposure that is out of focus.
5 – Remote Shutter
Use a remote shutter. Your camera is extremely sensitive to vibrations. Using a remote shutter will prevent you from touching the camera. If possible, use a programmable remote shutter—you’ll be able to get several minutes of exposure without constantly checking your watch!
6 – The Sun
Predict the sun’s position. Unlike “still photography”, in a long exposure shot, you should avoid having the sun in the frame. This is because after two minutes of exposure, the sun will not be around anymore. The sun itself, plus every surface on which it will reflect, will be so overexposed that it would be almost impossible to recover it in post-production. To predict the position of the sun, there are apps you can download on your mobile device.
7 – Weather
Clouds and storms are your friends. If you think that the current weather condition prohibits you from taking a photo now, it won’t be the same in an hour. Use images from satellite to predict where the storm is moving to, and remember that the best clouds are at the end of a perturbation.
8 – Calculate, don’t improvise
The perfect light can last only few minutes or even seconds. If you are taking a 3-minute long exposure, you have only one chance to get your shoot. The best strategy here is not to improvise how long should the exposure be after mounting a 10-stop filter. Take a test shot without filters with the desired ISO and aperture first. Once you’re happy with the exposure, stack on the desired ND filters and compensate for the stop introduced by the filters in the shutter speed. Using an app for your mobile or a printed chart may be a good idea, but if the light conditions are changing (like sunsets, sun being covered by clouds), just add (or subtract, if you expect the light to increase like in a sunrise shoot) an extra 15-20% to the resulting time. Remember, taking a test shot is also recommended for checking the composition and focus.
9 – Histogram
Use your histogram instead of your LCD. Don’t trust the LCD. The LCD display of your camera is extremely luminous and is no good for reviewing the image you just took. Use the histogram instead. By checking the histogram, you can quickly visualize if the calculations you made for the shutter speed is correct or not. In case they are wrong, looking at the histogram will allow you to calculate the correction needed. To improve the experience with LCD in strong daylight condition, you can use a Loupe.
10 – Light Leakages
Be aware of light leakages. In a long exposure shot, every infiltration of light in your camera will compromise your work with banding and color casts. The solution is incredibly easy and cheap: use black tape. Before taking an exposure, remember to cover your viewfinder and the edges installed in the filter holder with black tape.