A complete tutorial.
A guide to take your first Long Exposures.
More and more people become interested in the long exposure technique and with reason! By using long exposures we can turn a rough sea or river into an soft and eternal looking body of water, we can give the sky a silky smooth look and traffic will be removed from our photos. Or we can add movement in a flow of water or a group of people, giving more life to the photo.
At first it may seem a very difficult technique to master, but when you understand the basics there is no limit for your creativity. With this guide I will give you a great start for using long exposure techniques.
Types of long exposures
- Architecture and Cityscapes
Taking your first long exposures
A step by step guide on how to take your first long exposures. Follow these steps for successful long exposure photos.
If you want to create art
or break the rules
you must first learn the basics.
Before we start talking about long exposures, you must have a basic understanding of shutter speed vs aperture vs ISO. This is the basis of photography. I won’t explain it in this guide but if you are uncertain about this subject there is a lot to be found on the Internet. One of those articles is this one over on f-stoppers.
You will have to understand how to meter a scene and how to overcome the challenges we face in a high dynamic scene. But don’t worry, I’ll explain this later.
The minimum equipment we need is:
- Remote shutter release
- ND (neutral density) filters
- ND Gradient filters
- ND calculator
Why gear matters
Gear matters. Period. Where lenses and camera bodies matter less a good tripod and remote release are most important.
The quality of the filters and which ones to buy is just like with lenses. How much can and are you willing to spend and what is the quality you are happy with? The fastest lens isn’t really necessary when you go for long exposures, we will be shooting near the sweet spot of the lens (around f/8 or f/11) to attain maximum image quality.
The same is with filters. Sure there are differences between very cheap ones and the more expensive ones and it will have an effect on your photo’s. But when you are just experimenting with the technique, I’d go for some cheaper filters and if you want to invest in good filters get them when the time is right. The differences between cheap and more expensive filters are; light leakage, color cast, durability, coatings, clearness and ease of use.
If you are serious about this style of photography and if you are ready to add some spice to your images, I’d invest in a good filter set.
Think about what you want to capture and how the end result should be looking. The minimum basic filter kit should at least be a Grad ND (to balance the exposure between foreground and sky) and a ND filter in the darkness you prefer.
As an ambassador for NiSi filters I only use the filters of NiSi. But it’s not because I’m an ambassador for them, but really because the filters are one of the best you can get.
They have nearly zero color cast, have the best coating on the market and are optically excellent. The filter holder works like a charm and the integration of the Landscape Polarizer (CPL) is great.
Most other brands have a strong color cast to either blue or magenta and this can really hurt your images. So invest in good quality filters.
If you want to know more about NiSi filters you can check out my reviews or head over to the Nisi website or join us on the NiSi Filters BeNeLux facebook group.
Gear used for long exposures
To start off we need a stable tripod, this is key to have sharp photo’s. It is really important to invest in a good and rigid tripod and ball head that can carry the weight of you camera and lens.
We don’t want any unwanted motion or vibrations, because that will render our images unsharp. Like knowledge is the basis for good photography, a stable tripod is the basis for sharp photo’s.
I highly recommend getting a tripod with twist locks instead of flip locks on the legs. When you are photographing in cold weather and you have cold hands the flip locks can be a pain. Twist locks are the better choice in my personal opinion.
A good tripod will set you back a few hundred bucks, but it is a really important piece of gear. Why would you place your expensive camera and lens on a cheap and unstable tripod? Your images will suffer from it.
Remote shutter release
The next thing that you want to get is a remote shutter release. If we extend our exposure time above 30 seconds, we can’t rely on the camera software any more. Although some camera bodies can lock the shutter and show the exposure time on the display, you don’t want to touch your camera. Pressing the shutter button will introduce vibrations to the camera, so a remote shutter release is necessary. There are many options available. From simple wired releases to wireless and even options which will send the image to your phone or tablet.
Get the one you prefer and fits your budget. It’s also an option to use the wifi option of your camera (if you have it) but it will drain your battery even quicker.
Neutral Density filters
The most important thing are the ND’s – Neutral Density filters. These are required to extend our exposure time.
What are neutral density filters?
ND filters are made of glass or specialised plastics that are dyed to achieve a specific darkness. The darker the filter is, the less light will go trough the filter. To get the same exposure with and without the ND filter we have to extend our exposure time, letting the same amount of light through. ND filters come at different strengths, which give us the ability to calculate the correct exposure and achieve the desired effect.
Most people will buy a 10 stops filter to start with. This is a good one to get when you start experimenting with long exposures. What this 10 stops filter will do, is reduce the light intensity by 10 stops. Or to give you an idea. If the exposure time without the filter is 1/30 sec, the resulting exposure time with the filter will be 30 sec. A base exposure of 1/125 sec will give you 8 sec, and so on.
There are many apps available which will help you to calculate the correct exposure time or you can use my chart at the end of this tutorial. If you are looking for an all in one app, I can highly recommend Photopills (ios and android).
When you are photographing during daytime or sunset and the sky is a lot brighter than the foreground (usually 2-3 Stops) it’s advisable to also use a Graduated Neutral Density filter. This filter is dark in the top, fading to clear somewhere on 2/3 of the filter. With this filter you will balance the exposure of the sky and foreground. This will eliminate the need for bracketing.
Which filter strengths you need to buy all depends on 2 things.
First the time of day you want to photograph and second what the subject is and what kind of look you are looking for in your final image.
– Smooth water, 10 stops.
– A beach break where you want to show the water around the rocks, 3 stops
– Sunset, Grad ND or reverse Grad.
And so on.
We need to calculate our correct exposure from our base exposure. You will first need to meter the scene and check if there is no clipping on the highlights. It might be needed to use a Grad ND to balance the exposure of the scene.
With this base exposure we can find out what our exposure time will be when we attach a filter to the lens. You can use my chart below or you can download Photopills, a great app for iOS and Android which every photographer needs.
When the conditions are changing it can be tricky to calculate the correct exposure time. Clouds breaking open or during sunrise and sunset, the light intensity is changing fast. You will have to adjust the calculated exposure time accordingly. How much? It all depends on the conditions. In the end it all comes down to experience. You will learn how to adjust the calculated exposure time by trial and error.
Remember one thing. It’s always better to just underexpose than to overexpose. If something is pure white in your exposure, there is no data to recover and that part of the image will have no detail. It’s always better to accept some grain in the shadows if you have to make them brighter in post production.
For the calculation of the correct exposure times, finding the sunset and sunrise times, planning your shoots and much more, I can highly recommend the Photopills app.
Light leak protection
One of the things that is easily forgotten is to protect the camera against light leakage. When you don’t do this, you will end up having bright spots, lines or flares on your image. Be precise with the placement of the filters and check if there is a possibility for light to come between the filter if you are stacking. The best friend of a long exposure photographer is black tape.
You can cover all the holes around the filter, the eye piece (light will enter here and leak on the sensor via the mirror) and the the lens barrel. It’s really important to not forget this step. I have had numerous times that I finished a 4 minutes exposure to find out that there were halo’s or bright spots on the image because I forgot to cover the eyepiece. So take your time and be sure to cover it all.
Long Exposure Reference Chart
Types of Long Exposure photography
There are many types of long exposure photography.
But maybe we shouldn’t call it all long exposure photography, because probably you will be thinking about minute long exposures. This isn’t always necessary. When we want to show a more dynamic scene or better said if we want to show some movement in the image, we use exposures from 1/2 to 2 seconds. Where if we want to make a very minimalistic and eternal photo, we use exposures ranging from 2 minutes till several minutes.
When we need to decide what kind of filter we are going to use, we have to think about the end product first. What is it that we envision for the final image? Don’t just put a filter in front of your lens and wait and see how it will look.
Think about what you need to do to get to your final image that you want to make. What kind of ND filter do you need? Do you need a CPL? Should you add a graduated ND?
With seascapes you can go 2 ways. Completely smoothing out the water or to give a sense of motion by only blurring the waves slightly.
When you want to smooth out the ocean you need an exposure time of 2-4 minutes. So stack up those ND filters! The results can be amazing when you do this in combination with a pier, lighthouse or a rough coastline and are looking for a minimal look.
When you are looking for some movement in the image you have to slow down to approximately 0,5 to 2 seconds. But it all depends on the speed of the water, so experiment a bit. You will need a less dark ND filter for this. I normally use a 3 stops filter when I want this kind of image or if possible I play with the ISO. At sunrise of sunset it’s often also possible to go down with your ISO to 64 or 50 and use a Grad ND to counter the brighter sky.
It works best with rocks, ice or poles in the water where the water will run around, back to the ocean. Timing is crucial, and the easiest when the waves are flowing back towards the ocean.
It’s really fun to play with different compositions and the possibilities are endless.
ISO 50 – Nisi 1.2 med Grad
ISO 50 – Nisi 10 Stops ND + Nisi 1.2 med Grad + Nisi CPL
Who doesn’t love those photos where the waterfall consists of silky smooth water and you see the movement of the water below the base of the waterfall. Smoothing out moving water is quite simple. 30 seconds to 2 minutes will give you a good looking waterfall. Using ND filters to extend the exposure time will give you the results you always wanted.
An extra tip is to use a CPL (polariser filter) to remove the glare from the wet rocks. It will also give more saturation to your image. This in combination with the long exposure will give a more pleasing image.
My most preferred shooting objects. When shooting modern architecture, which is very clean, it really adds something extra to the frame when you have those eternal looking clouds. Giving the image an even more serene look.
A 10 stops filter is the minimum to go for with architecture. Today a lot of photographers are using 15 stops or even 20. But the last one will give you exposures of 30 minutes till even 2 hours! So it’s important to know what you want to show in your final image, so you can decide which filter strength to use.
An other thing that is important in the choice of the filter to use is the cloud vs blue sky ratio and the wind speed. More clouds and a strong wind in combination with an exposure over around a minute will give an almost complete grey sky. So that is something to think about when you select the filter you are going to use.
It’s all about the look and feel you are after in the final image.
ISO 100 – Nisi 10 + 6 stops ND stacked
ISO 100 – Nisi 6 stops ND filter + 0.9 Soft Grad filter
The cool thing with cityscapes is that when you are using long exposures durning sunset or the blue hour (only a Grad ND needed) the traffic will turn into spectacular light streaks.
For me there is no bad weather except blue skies when I go out to photograph architecture. Different exposure times give a different look to the clouds. They can look super smooth or still have some detail in them. There is no good or wrong here, it all depends on your taste.
Don’t turn up the aperture value to achieve the wanted exposure time. Going beyond f/16 will only introduce diffraction and hence the image quality will suffer from it. Try to stay as near as possible to the sweet spot of your lens, mostly f/8 to f/11.
Set your ISO and aperture, and if the resulting exposure time isn’t long enough add (more) ND filters.
Be aware of the placement of the sun and the moon. When the sun or the moon is in your frame and you take exposures of more than 30 seconds, you will see some movement of the sun or moon, which isn’t something pretty most of the time.
Cancel those vibrations
Use live view or the mirror lock up function of your camera. When you use life view the mirror is locked up already and when you start the exposure only the curtain has to open. When you don’t do this and the mirror flips up (when you press the shutter release) it gives vibrations in the camera body. We don’t want that.
If you are using a camera with EVF this doesn’t apply (mirrorless camera’s).
An other tip is to hang a weight, like your camera bag, under the tripod to stabilise it, especially during windy days.
Please also use a wireless remote shutter or use the timer function if you stay below 30 seconds. If you press the Sutter button on the camera, your camera will move.
Everything should be as still as possible.
It’s always better to under expose a bit than to over expose.
Don’t rely on the image you see on the back of your camera when the photo is taken. Alway check the histogram for a correct exposure. Make sure the histogram isn’t clipping in the highlights or shadows.
Shoot in RAW, always.
RAW gives you the most information in the file, which comes very useful in post processing. If you really want to have jpegs of your images, set the camera to RAW+jpg.
Turn off long exposure noise reduction on your camera.
Switch to M (Manual) and set the aperture to f/8 or f/11 for maximum sharpness.
How I take my Long Exposures
Here is a brief overview of what I do in the field.
- Choose your composition
- Set your lens to f/8 or f/11 for maximum sharpness
- Set your ISO to the lowest native ISO (mostly ISO 100)
- Focus by manual focus or auto focus, but turn AF off after focussing
- Take a test shot on aperture priority and examine the histogram (without the ND filter) and check the focus.
- If needed add a Grad ND to balance the exposure between sky and foreground
- Calculate the correct exposure time with the test shot and the ND filter strength you are going to add
- Switch to manual mode and set bulb or if your exposure is below 30 seconds, set the required exposure time
- Mirror lock up if you are on a DSLR
- Cover the eyepiece and other light leak sensitive area’s
- Take the exposure and enjoy your surroundings during the exposure 🙂
It’s also very important to have a good look at the sky. Is the cloud cover going change during the exposure time? Does this affect my exposure?
During sunrise and sunset the brightness of the environment is changing fast. Be sure to take this into account when you are calculating the exposure time. This means to add some exposure time during sunset and shorten the exposure a bit during sunrise.