Long Exposure Photography

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Before I understood how photography worked, I was always intrigued by light trails in images. I never understood how that happened. When I began to nurture photography, one of the first things I tried to try my hands was on night photography. I decided I would try and capture some light trails. I set up my camera…made sure the settings were correct and waited. A few cars went past, but my timing was off and the shots were not great. I continued to wait. After about an hour of trying and experimenting, I got the shot I was looking for. It was like magic to me, finally. The car was not in the shot but the lights seemed to float in mid-air. I was hooked.This was something that mystified me for a long time and, I had managed to get it right. What was so mesmerizing for me was that the image I saw on my LCD screen was not what I saw in real life. The camera had managed to capture a scene that my eyes could not capture in the same way. This seemed amazing to me. I soon realized that my camera was able to “see” things differently to the way my eyes saw them. I spent many nights trying to capture light trails in various locations. I was also doing lots of reading and research and came across a technique called long exposures. This too was amazing. It had the ability to alter a scene in such away that it looked totally different to the way our eyes normally see it.Again I was hooked and still, to this day, long exposures and light trails are some of my favourite techniques in photography. Long exposure photography and light trails have similar techniques, it is the subject matter that differs, so I will discuss each technique separately and tell you how to get the best results in both along with some special images to click. Also, since the camera (in particular) has nothing much to do with the photography genre, but the settings have, I am not going to mention the cameras exclusively for this type. Rest all…as follows.Shooting long exposures effectively requires that you should be shooting in Manual mode as much as possible. To be able to get sharp and effective long exposure images, here is a checklist of item you will need.


A tripod – this is a good piece of equipment to have in most instants, but is a critical piece of equipment for shooting long exposures. Make sure your camera is properly mounted onto the tripod before you start shooting. A camera – obviously you will need a camera, but many people assume you can only do this type of photography with an SLR. Some advanced point-and-shoot cameras can also do long exposures if they have a Shutter Priority function. Cable release – your camera will be on a tripod, so it should be very still, however, sometimes the action of pressing the shutter release button can cause the camera to move slightly and this movement can cause your image to blur very slightly. You may not notice this on the LCD screen, but when you open the image on your computer, it will be evident. I recommend getting a cable release (also called a remote trigger). It is simply a cable that attaches to your camera and acts as a shutter release button. Using a cable release means you can set up your camera, step away from the tripod and press the button without touching the camera. Cable releases can be wireless too. If you don’t have a cable release or don’t want to buy one, you could use your camera’s self-timer function to trigger the shutter.• Comfortable clothes and shoes – depending where you live, and the time of year you plan to be shooting, you may need to dress right way. Long exposures work well after dark and it may get cold at times, so be sure to wear warm clothes. Be sure that you have comfortable footwear too as you may be standing for a few hours.


Long exposures work well for certain types of subjects like seascapes, landscapes and cityscapes. (We will get into that later in this article). The key to getting a successful long exposure image is to have something in your image that is perfectly still and something that is moving. Water, clouds and trees blowing in the wind all work well if the rest of the scene is stationary. This difference between the elements in the scene will create drama and will add significant value to your image. The viewer will be seeing something that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The reason why long exposure images are so compelling is that they warp time. Water looks like a soft mist, trees look like a dull blur and clouds become long and streaky. This is what makes a familiar scene more compelling.


Long exposures are ideally shot on Manual mode. If you are not sure how to shoot in Manual mode, you can use one of the other semi-manual modes such as Aperture priority or Shutter priority. Here are some quick pointers on the settings:• Shutter speed – depending on the light in your scene, your shutter time will need to be at least a 10 to 15 seconds, or longer if necessary. If you are doing a seascape and the water is moving quickly, then a few seconds may be long enough to make the water look misty.• Aperture – you will want to have your aperture set at anywhere between f/8 and f/16. This again, will be determined by how much light is in the scene and how long you want to expose for.• ISO – keep your ISO settings as low as possible, ISO 100 is what I use for long exposures.


It’s normally a good idea to shoot long exposures as the sun is setting, or just after sunset. My suggestion is to be on the scene an hour before sunset. That way you can test some shots, make sure your composition is good and be sure all your settings are correct. Then wait. Normally you will want to start shooting about 15 minutes before the sun has completely set and up to an hour after it is below the horizon. The important part is to be willing to experiment. Each time you decide to shoot long exposures will be a little different. The light may be brighter than you think, the sunset may not be as dramatic as you hoped, or the shot may not be just as you imagined. Be patient and experiment. Once you have it though, the sense of reward is fantastic and the patience and effort is paid off!Much of the advice for shooting light trails is very similar to the tips above. The key difference is in the timing and location of your shoot.


We have talked about that under long exposure photography. The equipment remains the same.


For light trails to work, you need to have something with lights moving through your scene. A car, a bus, a train and even an aircraft can work. Be sure to be out of the direction of the vehicle you are photographing. Please do not stand in the middle of the road, or on train tracks. Position yourself in a safe place to make this work. Always be aware of your surroundings. It is easy to become immersed in what you are shooting and lose sight of where you are standing. Be safe, first and foremost!


Light trials, like long exposures are ideally shot in Manual mode.• Shutter speed – Depending on the light in your scene, your shutter time will need to be at least 10 to 15 seconds, or longer if necessary. Make sure that your shutter speed is long enough to capture longish light trails. You don’t want to cut them off too soon as you will have some short trails in your image that may look strange.• Aperture – You will want to have your aperture set at anywhere between f/5 and f/11. This again, will be determined by how much light is in the scene and how long you want the exposure.• ISO – Keep your ISO settings as low as possible, ISO 100 is what I use for light trails. If your ISO is set to 500 or higher, your exposure will be shorter and you run the risk of overexposing the highlights ESPECIALLY when shooting car headlights.


Light trails can be shot in the early evening, or after the sun has set. Each scene will be different, but sometimes it is too light to get effective light trails just after sunset. You may need to wait until 30 minutes after the sun has set to get longer light trials. The important part, once again, is to be willing to experiment. Try different times after sunset and see what works for you. Spend time behind your camera perfecting your timing. Scout locations during the day that you will think will work for light trails and then go and try it out.



To photograph a Ferris wheel at night, move close and use a wide-angle lens to get as much detail as possible. Place your camera on a tripod and frame the image. Because we want all the elements to be sharp, choose a small aperture between f/11-f/32. Set your camera to either Manual or TV (Shutter Priority) mode and choose a shutter speed according to the speed of the lighted Ferris wheel, and the style you are after (anywhere between 1-30 seconds). You should take the image using the camera’s self timer or a cable release so that you avoid touching and jiggling the camera. The image captured will be full of light trails against a black sky, yet the center beams that hold the wheel will be sharp.


A long exposure on a starry night can produce beautiful light trails created by the stars and the rotation of the earth. The best way to frame the image is to include an element of interest such as an old tree in the foreground. Place your camera on a tripod and focus the lens to infinity.You’ll want to use a cable release to eliminate camera shake of any kind, as it will RUIN your photo. Set the camera to B “Bulb” shooting mode and set your aperture between f/2.8 – f/4 for optimal results. Depress the remote to open the shutter. You should keep your ISO at 100 to keep the digital noise at a minimum. To complete the photo after your desired elapsed time, depress the remote again, and release the shutter. These exposures can be 15 minutes to several hours long.


october_2016_low_res-3422To capture that dramatic look of the ocean and the sky, you should utilize the amazing light of “the golden hour”, the last hour before the sun sets. Follow the basics of night photography – place the camera on a tripod, use a wide-angle lens with the smallest ap – erture possible, and focus to infinity. Turn the camera’s mode dial to Manual or Bulb shooting mode and use a slow shutter speed (5-30 seconds) for a longer exposure. The longer the exposure the more misty the water appears. Use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to take the photo with absolutely no blurring. Don’t use flash because it could ruin the effect in the image.To conclude with…Taking long exposure images at night can be perfected with prac – tice and by learning to recognize the lighting conditions and how to adjust the camera to meet those conditions. Depending of what you have to work with, your shutter speed can be anything from 1/60th of a second to several minutes. What makes long exposure images special is that each image is unique, since light trails move in unusual ways, and with practice you should have a collection of photos that are one of a kind. The unique images available using long exposures night is a whole realm of photography that many people do not attempt. Stunning images can be your reward for trying this technique.Photographing after dark can actually be very rewarding. It is worth the effort to learn how to use these techniques to bring new images into your portfolio, and to have new skills which will enable you to shoot under any lighting conditions. Experiment and enjoy! Happy shooting.

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