Tips For Long Exposures

By January 22, 2016Photography Tips

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Must have Long Exposure camera equipment

Tripod

Tripods are 100% necessary for taking long exposure photos. The reason being, if your camera has any shake at all, you’ll be left with blurry photos. If you envision yourself taking a lot of landscapes and or long exposure photos please consider buying a high quality tripod and tripod head. The main features I look for in a tripod are portability (smaller and lighter the better), strength (both the head and the legs are able to hold up a heavy DSLR with large lens without having to worry about the weight of the camera making the tripod move in any way) and ease of adjustment (how quickly you’re able to adjust the tripod head or extend and retract the legs for balance). I recently upgraded my tripod head, and spent what seemed like a crazy amount but the photos I’ve been able to capture with it wouldn’t have been attainable on the previous tripod head I was using.

Nice to have Long Exposure camera equipment

Strong Flashlight

A good flashlight serves two purposes when you’re doing long exposures. The first and most important is that you typically do long exposures at nighttime. You’re flashlight will help you see in the dark, everything from walking along a safe path to looking at your camera settings. Additionally, most auto-focus cameras cannot focus themselves when it’s pitch black out because they cannot see what it is that they need to focus on. One trick is to shine your flashlight on the spot you want your camera to focus on, the camera will then be able to see that spot and refocus automatically (if that doesn’t work you’ll have to manually focus the lens). The second reason why you’ll want a good flashlight is so that you can play around with light writing. It’s fun to run around making swirls of light or very carefully trying to write things in the air backwards. The flashlight can also be used to add extra exposure to areas of the photo that need it, such as focal points in the foreground.

 Camera Shutter Remote

Up until recently, I had never used a remote but had always wanted to test one out. The theory behind using a camera remote is that your camera will not move, at all, when pressing the shutter button. While the amount that a camera on a tripod could move when pressing the shutter isn’t much, your shutter speed is so slow that it could make a big difference in the sharpness of your photo. I just got one and I’ve really enjoyed the results I’ve got out of it. It’s also been great for taking Exposure Bracketing photos used for HDRs. Making sure that the only difference between the shots is the exposure setting. Most cameras also have a limit on how long you can make the longest shutter speed when shooting on manual. The Canon 5D Mark III has a 30 second limit I believe, while my Leica’s have a 60 second limit. So if you want to do say, a 45 minute long exposure of the stars swirling across the sky, you’ll need a remote which you can use in Bulb mode.

Camera Flash

While I don’t have much experience with this, you can set a flash to capture your foreground and freeze items in motion. You can do cool things like setup the flash to go off on the 2nd curtain, which means the flash fires right before the shutter closes. This is useful for doing things like taking pictures of moving cars at night, the tail lights will leave a trail behind the car while the flash will expose the car, adding the effect of movement.

Technique

Now that I’ve talked about the equipment, let’s discuss the technique.

Set your camera, set to Manual, up on the tripod. First set your aperture to some low number like f/2.8. Set your ISO to a higher number but you still feel comfortable with the level of grain you’ll get. I generally like 800 but will go up to 1600 or down to 400 depending on how accepting I am of the grain. Next make an educated guess about what your shutter speed needs to be, you’re just going to have to take a stab in the dark (pun intended) on your first exposure. I generally underestimate the length so that I have to spend less time waiting. Continue taking test shots until you have the exposure.

Once you feel like you have the exposure correct, now’s the time to worry about composition. It’s often darker than your eyes can see when taking long exposures so you have to rely on looking at your test shots to see how the picture is looking. If you need to reposition your camera either by angling the camera or adjusting the height of the tripod do that. Also, if you think the composition will be better from a different location, pick up your tripod and move there. Once you’ve taken a few more test shots and dialed in your composition. Make sure you get 1 really good image that you are happy with. Afterwards, I like to experiment, either by adding a person into the picture or with light writing or using my flashlight to gently paint things in the foreground.

For basic long exposure photos, there’s not much too them. I’ve found it’s mostly about experimentation and having a still camera.

Note: If you want to setup the composition first and then dial in exposure, you can set your camera to the Max ISO and Widest Aperture. This will make the shutter speed nice and quick. Take a bunch of test shots adjusting until you like the composition. Once that’s setup, bring your ISO back down and your Aperture narrower, adjusting shutter speed accordingly.

Other Tips

Holding Still

If you’re adding people to your long exposure shot make sure they can hold still without moving. To make it easier, you can have them sitting or face the opposite direction so they don’t have to worry about holding the same facial expression, which is what I had to do in the below picture.

Joshua Tree Long Exposure

Shorter than 30 seconds or Longer than 30 minutes

When we were in Joshua Tree I looked up some tips on long exposures for star photos. One piece of advice was try to stay under 30 second shutter speeds to get sharp stars. In even 60 seconds you can start to see just a little bit of shift in the stars as they move across the sky. In order to show moving stars, you should try exposures of 30 minutes or more. These are hard to get right because you don’t get to take too many shots. When I tried my first few of these I spent 3 hours and only took 3 photos and I completely failed.

Aperture

I’ll admit it, I understand aperture as well as any photographer I know but when it comes to long exposures I’m not exactly sure what I should be doing. I’ve settled on shooting at wide enough apertures (around 2.8) to bring in more light but still have the depth of field long enough so that the subjects in my photo are in a reasonable focus. I’ve found it hard to get narrow apertures of 10 or more to work well for me.

Editing

I’m still a bit of an experimenter when it comes to editing long exposures. I’ve found that the clarity, sharpness, contrast and dehazing adjustments are great for making changes to stars. I’ve also found that White Balance can be way off with long exposure photos so you’ll generally want to dial that in while editing.

 

4 Comments

  • Tori Hall says:

    This is so helpful! My husband and I were doing some long exposures a couple months ago and when we opened the shutter for longer, the stars did shift and it wasn’t quite as good. Thanks for the tips! You should do a post on how you make the color in yours and Julia’s photos to look so good. Both of your Instagram photos today are so good!

  • Sonja says:

    Nice post! Long expos and the night sky are some of my favorite images to capture. Instead of editing the WB in post, you can just change it to tungsten or fluorescent in camera. Also, if you really want to capture star trails you should get an intravalometer (some cameras have them built in) and set up the camera to take a picture every 20-30 seconds for at least a couple hours. Then you can simply stack the images using a software like starstax. And a bonus for capturing star trails this way and not with one exposure: you can use the images to create a timelapse!!

  • David says:

    Thanks for the tip on the flashlight focusing! I usually have to just guess and check.

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