I have been taking long exposure photos for years now and I love the effects a long exposure can have on a landscape by blending the water and sky, and also how in a city the cars can disappear with only light trails being left. So, this is the first post in a series of a few I am making focusing on long exposures, time lapses and star photos. Today I’ll be writing about how to get started with long exposures, all the gear you will need to get started, setting up your camera, and actually capturing your image!
What you will need:
I’ll start off with what gear you are going to need: The most important thing you will need is a tripod, or a gorilla pod, or really anything to keep your camera steady as you get your long exposure. You also will obviously need a camera, today I am going to be focusing on full frame sony cameras like the a7iii, but all the same principles apply to any camera from any brand, the settings can all be mostly the same and the only difference will just be your controls. As far as what lens you’ll need, you can use literally any lens, and most of the time a kit lens is usually more than capable and when I got started in photography, I basically exclusively used my kit lens.
The last thing is an ND filter, it isn’t a necessity, and if you are shooting at night it isn’t required at all, however, I really recommend picking one up. It doesn’t need to be expensive, but it will dramatically improve the flexibility of your long exposures during the day. All an ND filter is basically a set of sunglasses for your lens, it reduces how much light enters your camera by a certain number of stops. I recommend a 10 stop ND, just because it is darkest ND that is widely available and most camera stores will have them in stock always. By using an ND you can keep your aperture lower, allowing you to include a bit more depth to you image, and also keep it sharper, and also add more blur to the moving parts your image. So moral of the story is, ND filters are great and relatively inexpensive.
Choosing your subject:
The hardest part of capturing a long exposure is usually choosing a subject, and really, that’s a stupid thing to say because all photography is about taking a picture of something visually interesting or important, but what I mean is that certain subjects lend themselves better for a long exposure photos. Waterfalls are the most cliché example, normally a photo freezes life in a moment, but via a long exposure you and introduce an increased sense of motion and certain surreal aspect to the photo by showing the world in a way our eyes can’t see.
Ultimately any scene can be captured as a long exposure, but when you are getting started I recommend trying to start off with the classics, like a waterfall, a river, the sky on a day with partial clouds, streets with some busy people, or from a highway overpass. Picking a scene where part of the scene is moving will help show the classic blur you expect from a long exposure and help you hone your skills in dialing in the right settings so you can take your long exposures photography to some more interesting environments as you improve.
Setting up the camera
With all that said, I’ll finally move on to setting the camera up and it’s actually pretty easy. The first step is the most important, and that is mounting your camera on a tripod and pointing the camera at the subject, for example today I am going to be capturing a rather bland waterfall here, mainly because I am silly and chose to make a tutorial in the winter in Canada, and everything is lifeless now, but it will work for an example.
Next up is switching the camera into manual mode because we need to be able to adjust everything. What settings you’ll need will depend on the scene you’re capturing, but the same principles apply to all long exposures. The first step is choosing how long you want/can have your exposure, aka, how slow you shutter speed is. I am using a 10 stop ND filter, so really, I can go as long as I want, but generally for a waterfall, you don’t need a very long exposure to capture the motion blur, where as is you where taking pictures of the sky, a longer exposure time is needed to capture the motion of the clouds. Finding the right time will usually be a matter of trial and error and experience, but to start usually anywhere between 1-5 seconds will get a decent amount of motion for most scenes.
The next thing I’ll do is make sure my ISO is set to 100, this will give the cleanest image and with the least noise, this isn’t a hill to die on, and if you need to raise the ISO you can, however its best to be left as low as possible.
The next thing to adjust is the aperture, most of the time this is the setting I will care the least about, having a shallow depth of field is neat, but long exposures inherently don’t really require subject isolation. Most lens are sharpest between f4.0-f11.0, so if you can keep it in that range that will get you the sharpest image. Stopping down your lens to f11.0 or so and you have the sun or a bright light source in your image, the light will turn into an interesting star pattern depending on how many aperture blades your lens has, I personally don’t care much for this look, but it is a factor to keep in mind.
The last important setting to change is adding a delay to taking the picture after you click the shutter, I like to simply add a 2 second shutter delay. This way when you capture your image the shake caused by your finger touching the camera won’t translate into adding blur to the picture. Before you capture your image a good thing to remember to do is to make sure your image is in focus, you may be best off to pop your camera into manual focus mode because the camera may struggle autofocusing with these settings.
Now with that all done, we can finally get some pictures! As I said, its often trial and error, and will take a me few tries to get the image I am happy with, but patience will pay off with long exposures. When I started, my pictures weren’t anything special, but with some practice you can use some of the concepts you learn from long exposures into making timelapses and even capturing some unique portraits.