Steps to Achieve Dynamic Long Exposures

Achieving dynamic landscape images is something that many photographers strive to do.  One tool in helping in this is the art of long exposure photography.  Long exposure images helps to represent the passing of time and movement in an otherwise still image.  If you are one of the many who want to step into this area of photography, understanding some of the basic settings and tools needed for creating long exposure shots is essential before you begin.  Learning to use your camera in full manual mode is key to obtaining these types of shots.

Before you ever set up your camera there are several things to take into consideration for capturing a long exposure image.  Make sure you scout your location well ahead of time.  Also, keep an eye on the weather.  Mother Nature plays a very important role in the success or failure of a long exposure image.  Remember, what you see physically with your naked eye is very different from what a final result of a long exposure will be.  Anything that can move in the scene will most likely be more of a blur in the final image.

When it comes to focusing on your subject for a long exposure shot you may want to put your camera into manual focus mode and make sure you have it secured on a sturdy tripod. This will ensure that your camera does not change the focal point while you have the shutter open for an extended period of time. If you are unsure about fully relying on manual focus there are a couple of options, both of which are available on all modern DSLR cameras. While you have your camera set to auto focus you can press the shutter button half way to lock focus. Once you are happy with the focus change the camera to manual focus (while still holding the shutter button half way). Some people may also choose to use back-button focus at this point).

Something to consider is using the timer mode when you are ready to take you final shot.  Setting a timer will fire the shutter without you having to press the shutter button.  This helps to avoid in blur in the image that may be caused from pressing the shutter button too hard, too long, or simply bumping the camera.  You do not have to set the timer for a long amount of time, just a few seconds will suffice.

One of the first settings you should become familiar with before delving into long exposure is shutter speed.  Manually adjusting your shutter speed will allow you camera to capture the ‘motion’ of the scene you are shooting.  Shutter speed, in more simple terms, is the amount of time which you shutter is open.  It is generally measured in fractions of seconds, or in the case of long exposure photography, in full second increments.  Using these longer shutter speeds will require the use of a tripod.

Another thing you want to set manually is the aperture value you use when taking a long exposure.  You can think of aperture as the iris of your camera’s eye.  This opening controls the amount of light that is allowed inside to the sensor.  In terms of long exposure you will want to have a smaller aperture to avoid you images being over exposed.  Since you are using a longer shutter speed there will already be more light filtering into the camera as the shutter stays open.  Checking your camera’s histogram is very helpful in determining the correct aperture as your cameras’ display can be too bright or dark to show the true exposure.  Take a few test shots at different apertures (recording the histogram info each time).  Once you have a good histogram you will know the aperture you need for the shot.

Ideally, when doing a long exposure you will want a lower ISO setting on your camera.  This is to help avoid ‘grain’ from posing an issue in the final image.  The ISO setting of your camera controls just how sensitive the sensor is to the light that reaches it.  So, the lower the ISO number the lower the sensitivity to light.  This in turns helps reduce an images graininess.  Additionally, having your camera set to a lower ISO will aid in a more crisp final image.

If you are taking a long exposure image during the daytime you may also want to consider adding a filter to your camera.  Something such as a ND (Neutral Density) filter can be invaluable in extremely bright daylight situations.  As we have discussed, long exposure shots allow for a large amount of light to enter your camera.  And while some of the other settings mentioned aid in compensating for this, a high quality ND filter should not be ruled out.  Don’t alarmed if you are unable to see through your viewfinder (or live view) once the Neutral Density filer is in place.  Depending on the strength of your filter this may very well be the case.  One important thing to remember when using a ND filter is that you must compensate for the stops of light introduced by the filter.

Bulb Mode is also something to take into consideration for long exposure images.  Especially in lower light situations, setting you camera to Bulb Mode will make it possible to leave the shutter open for more than your camera’s limit (usually around 30 seconds).  Taking long exposures at night of the Milky Way or star trails will require the use of Bulb Mode being selected.  If you do choose to use Bulb Mode make sure you have something with you to use as a timer.  Taking a few different shots at different time intervals is ideal when Bulb Mode is used.  Also, a remote is quite useful when it comes to Bulb Mode, and helps reduce camera shake from pressing the shutter button.

Now that you have taken the effort to find your perfect location, and the most perfect conditions possible, it is finally time to take your long exposure image.  Once you have taken your shot, if time and circumstances allow, you may want to retake the image at least a couple of more times.  Since now two shots are ever exactly alike, there could be the tiniest of details change from one to the next that you like or dislike.  And like most new things you try, getting grasping everything you need to produce stunning long exposure will require a bit of experimentation … and a lot of patience.



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