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Long Exposure Photography: Tips and Tricks to Get That Quintessential Shot

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If you are someone who loves shooting outdoors or during the night, you must properly know how to deal with long exposure. Once you uncover the magic of long exposure photography, you will be glad that you spent enough time in learning all the techniques. But what exactly is long exposure photography? Well, it is a technique which when done right is capable of producing stunning effects. It is the art of taking photographs by using longer exposure times than required so as to obtain a correctly exposed photograph, either during the night with or without the use of filters or during daytime with the use of filters.

How to do long exposure photography? It is done with the deliberate intent to create an effect on any moving object which is typical for long exposure photographs. Certain effects like smoothed out water which makes it appear like it was frozen, blurred skies with streaks of clouds, star trails, moon trails, light trails and blurred ghostlike people all use an exposure time which is prolonged deliberately so as to achieve this effect.

Read on to know everything - right from the appropriate gear to the ideal techniques that would help you in getting that perfect long exposure shot.

Basic Setting for Long Exposure Photography

long exposure shot
Long exposure shot playing with light

There might undoubtedly be a lot of disagreement regarding what long exposure photography settings are ideal. This is absolutely fine as every photographer loves to do things differently. But, there are a few basic settings that would help you to get that perfect shot.

Aperture

A lot of tutorials would ask you to set your aperture anywhere between F8 to F32 because smaller apertures let in less light and allow you to shoot longer exposures. However, when you do so, it would cause diffraction. This would result in reducing the sharpness of your image. You might have to spend a considerable amount of time in order to find the sweet spot of your lens but it is worth it. A lot of photographers like to shoot somewhere between F8 and F11 for sharp pictures that have a lot of depth of field.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction On

Unless and until you are shooting something which requires multiple images without any delay in between shots, try to keep your long exposure noise reduction set to “on”. This feature takes your long exposure shot and then also clicks another picture for the same exact amount of time while the shutter is closed. This would give you a completely black image which has similar noise pattern as the picture you took. This noisy black picture would help your camera to determine the noise pattern in your shot and remove it. The final image would have the noise already removed so that you wouldn’t need to use any noise reduction software.

ISO

With exposure photography, it is best to use the lowest native ISO which your camera would allow. The native ISO setting in the camera would be represented by a number and will help in determining how sensitive your camera sensor is to light.

Low ISO
Keep ISO at the lowest setting

Read the article Photography Basics: What is Aperture in Photography for more on aperture.

Essential Equipment for Long Exposure Photographers

  • Your Camera and Lenses
  • Tripod and tripod heads (Choose from a variety of heads available like pan-tilt heads, ball heads, geared heads and much more)
  • ND filters
  • Remote Shutter
  • Black tape or an opaque material to block the light

Tips and Techniques to Take Long Exposure Pictures

Given below are a few long exposure photography ideas and techniques that would aid you in getting that perfect shot each time.

Vibration Of Any Kind Needs To Be Avoided

When it comes to long exposure photography, even the slightest of vibrations can result in blur and thereby ruin a brilliant shot. You could use anything as an improvised stand, however, the best way to steady the camera for long exposure would be with the help of a tripod. It keeps the camera far steadier than you can hold it or support it on most surfaces. You need to make sure that your camera and tripod are on a steady, balanced surface. A lot of photographers even tend to put something heavy on the tripod in order to add some weight to it. The extra weight would help in making the tripod and camera sturdier.

Avoid movement
Avoid any kind of movement when taking shots

While you are setting everything up for ocean photography, there are chances that there would be some wind. Here you could consider burying the legs of the tripod in the sand a little bit which would stabilize it. According to the place you are shooting at, look for things that can help in making the tripod sturdier. In addition to the extra weight, it would help if you use a remote shutter. This would eliminate the need to press the shutter manually as pressing the shutter can cause some vibration. You could prevent vibration from manifesting in the photos by using the shutter delay but using a remote is still the most practical option.

Understand the Light and Block any Light Leaks

It is understandable that when you are shooting during the day, the different exposures can have different effects in the picture. However, most people tend to think that during the nighttime, the light pretty much remains the same. But, at night, there is going to be some kind of light beside the stars that can affect how your picture turns out to be. It could be the moon and the quality of moonlight keeps on changing as the month passes by. Other than that, it could also be some kind of man-made light sources like light from a nearby town or a campground.

Block light leaks
Try to block light leaks

What you can do in such situations is take a few test shots to have a better understanding of how the ambient light is going to have an effect on your picture. Also, bring along some opaque material or black tape that you might need to use if necessary to block any light leaks. They could come from the viewfinder or elsewhere on the camera. Long exposure photography is relatively new as a common photographic method. Leaks that are too small to affect a normal shot can have strange effects when the shutter stays open for minutes or hours.

Use Filters When Shooting During the Day

Many photographers try long exposure photography to tackle darker settings, which tends to work very well for them. However, if you try this technique in the dark you are actually missing out on special features and great shots. Long exposure photography in daylight can be a frustrating thing to master and most of the times, without a filter, the picture would tend to turn out extremely overexposed. If you have the right gear, the daylight scenes can be just as rewarding for long exposures.

Use filters
Use filters for day shoots

The neutral density (ND) filters could be used which would block the light so that you can use slow shutter speeds. The lighter filters, like ND2, do not really make much of a difference. But, if you use an ND 10 filter or higher or even stack multiple square filters, you would be able to create long exposures in broad daylight. Also, as ND filters can make things pretty dark through the viewfinder, it is better to set up your shot before you add the filter. Keep on experimenting and you would sure be surprised with stunning results. With a good set of ND filters, you would no longer be limited to when you can shoot long exposure images.

Keep a Check on the Weather

When you are planning for exposure photography, it is best to get all the information about the weather that you can. Start doing at least a week in advance and find the most efficient way to monitor the weather especially if it is the rainy season. It is essential to pay close attention to the weather forecast as the conditions can literally change within a matter of minutes or hours. Being spontaneous is all well and good but when you have been planning a shoot for a long time, it's best to remain prepared. Do not schedule a shoot when the sky is completely cloudless or when it is raining heavily.

There are various apps which help in tracking the weather forecast for up to 90 days. These apps also help in predicting the chances of cloud cover, rain or snow. You could also do a location inspection a few days prior to the shoot which would help you in studying your subject and familiarizing with it. You would be able to determine whether the location is perfect for what you want to achieve. By studying the location, you can create a picture in your mind regarding how you would like to set up your gear and which shot would look best in pictures.

Compose Your Frame

With long exposure photography, you need to pay close attention to the surroundings of your location. You need to attempt to visualize the ways in which they can be incorporated into the shot or photo. This is pivotal as you need to find a way so as to improve the location for your long exposure shot. The first that expert photographers do is composing their shot without setting up the camera on the tripod.

Composition
Compostition is key

A lot of people tend to immediately put their camera on a tripod and then begin to find the perfect angle by moving their camera to get the best shot. But, that isn’t what should generally be done. Look for the perfect angle first and then set up your tripod to capture the shot that you want. Composing is essential and you need to pay attention to the total picture and not just the ones that are your focal interest. Compose the picture and then figure out different ways to improve it for getting that perfect shot.

Try Stacking the Exposure

Long exposures often bring about a lot of noise into the picture even when you are using a low ISO.  A lot of modern cameras that have more megapixels can actually make the noise in a long exposure shot even worse. You could try stacking the exposure, which is a wonderful shooting and editing technique. Exposure stacking also allows for longer exposure times and using fewer ND filters. To shoot a stacked exposure, you’ll shoot just like you normally would for a long exposure but instead of taking one long exposure; you’ll divide the shot into multiple shorter exposures.

Layer exposure
Stack exposure

This means that it would be like five one minute pictures instead of just one five minute picture. As you stack the images together, you would get an interesting effect which looks quite similar to the total exposure time of all the combined pictures. When doing it for the first time when you are unsure about it, take more pictures than you need. Once you have your shots, stack them in Photoshop. Once that is done, perform the normal post-processing routine.

Use a Wide Angle Lens

This isn’t something that needs to be done necessarily but when it comes to landscape/ocean photography, wide-angle lens simply helps in capturing more. When you use wide angle lenses, it tends to add a sense of depth to the pictures as they happen to make the horizon seem further away than it actually is. This makes up for stunning ocean photos.

Test Shots are a Must

When you are setting up your camera for long exposure photography with the right settings and in the right angle, do not just shoot right away. Give yourself some time to practice or test shots and prepare your camera by setting it to M (Manual) or A/Av (Aperture Priority) mode. The aperture value also requires being set appropriately. When you are trying to decide what shutter speed would be the best, you would need to experiment with a variety of speeds.

Generally, a five-minute exposure is good for a dream-like effect on clouds and waves, while longer exposures (15-30 minutes) are necessary for creating star trails and slower moving objects. Take notes of the result you get and if you feel that you the shot can be enhanced further, make the necessary changes to the settings. When you spend considerable time in perfecting your shot by continuously assessing your image on the basis of test shots, you are ought to get stunning results.

Summing Up

Long exposure photography stars a lot of effort and isn’t just limited to using a tripod and having a basic understanding of shutter speed. Once you are able to master the basics, you would be able to apply the techniques like a pro and thereby capture unbelievable dramatic shots.

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