Long Exposure Photography Made Easy
Long exposure photography is one of my favourite techniques. At some point we’ve all came across to an image of a landscape in which the water seems so magical and smooth and we were amazed by the feel that this image gave us, the illusion of being in a fairy tale.
Today thanks to the increased affordability of photographic filters, the rise of social media, like Instagram and the fact that more and more amateur photographers are getting close to landscape photography it’s not rare to see images like the one described.
In all honesty this is not the easiest technique and master it can take a bit of time and effort.
Hopefully this guide and my landscape photography articles will make it easy for you to find your way to express the best in your long exposure photos. You will see that once you master the basic concepts and have the right tools it’s not impossible to get good results even at your first attempt.
Only practice will get us closer to perfection. Let’s get started.
Know the location
First of all, you need to know the location where you are going to shoot. You might go there the day before or if you can’t, you could use Google maps to check the area.
Ideally you would want to experiment your long exposure shot in a place with water.
In landscape photography, it’s fundamental that you know in advance what you are going to see, where to park, what composition you want to take and being physically on location beforehand, gives you the advantage of knowing where to position yourself to take the shot, how the light changes, what composition you are going to choose and last but not least, you need to know if the place is popular and if it’s going to be full of photographers on the day you are going to shoot.
Arrive on time
As I’ve already mentioned in my article Five Tips for Photographing Stunning Sunrises, light and timing are key in photography. If you haven’t read the article yet, head there, it’s a short read. Take a look at it and come back.
So, as you now know, the light is going to be more interesting at either sunrise or sunset, when shadows are longer, contrasts are less harsh, the sky especially if it’s a bit cloudy will be more interesting and vibrant and your photo will look much better.
You want to get to location before sunrise or sunset and be sure that the spot you planned to position yourself on, is free. If it’s not, you can always move yes, but in my experience I always ended up taking a better photo when I was able to get the composition I chose during my planning.
Know the weather conditions
As I mentioned above, you want to make sure that your composition is interesting and just because you are in a beautiful place, in front of a beautiful waterfall or the ocean, it doesn’t mean that your photo is going to be exciting. You also need an interesting sky, hence you need clouds. If you Google “Clouds forecast” you will find satellite images, meteorological sites and many other resources that will help you plan in advance and have an idea of what the sky will look like on the day and at the time of your shooting. Obviously try also to figure out if it’s going to rain, you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a storm!
You will need a tripod
I use the Manfrotto Befree, it’s quite affordable, very compact and easy to bring along, if you have a more flexible budget you can also get the Manfrotto Befree Carbon Fiber Tripod, which I tried and it’s even lighter, yet very sturdy, both amazing to use.
A tripod is fundamental for long exposure photography, since you will need to slow down your shutter speed to get the movement in the water. Make sure your tripod is not one of those wobbly ones that will move as soon as you blow on it, or your final image will be blurred.
Filters are fundamental for long exposure photography
Using filters is another very important aspect of long exposure photography. An ND filter will give you more control over the exposure of an image. They stop the light from reaching the camera sensor, therefore allowing you to leave the camera with a higher aperture for a longer amount of time so that the elements of your composition that are moving (like water for example) will be burred, giving you that beautiful smooth effect. Tada!
With a 10 stop filter for example, if you are shooting at f/11, if you let the camera decide the shutter speed, you will see that you’ll get an exposure of 2 seconds. Without the filter you would have a speed of 1/500 of a second. This is a great difference and as you understand it’s one of the reason you need a tripod. Pay attention, it depends on what camera you use, I have been able to shoot a 2 seconds aperture hand holding my camera, but not all the cameras have the same image stabilization as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
You will find that often, you will need and exposure of more than 2 seconds, so for that, you need to increase the F number.
Set your camera to aperture priority mode
Sure a lot of people love to shoot in full manual mode, but I find it very useful most of the time, to let the camera decide the shutter speed.
This way when you set the F stop value, the camera will know what speed to use. For landscape photography, make sure you choose a F number above f/8.
Check you histogram
On the left side, your histogram will tell you the amount of shadows (blacks) and on the right side you’ll see the highlights (bright areas) and as you smart student have already guessed mid tones are in the middle.
You don’t want your graph to be unbalanced, so you don’t want to see extreme peaks to the left or right, or the final image will either be under or overexposed. Sure you can look at your display, but chances are that it won’t tell you the truth since it’s too bright.
Ok at this point we have all the ingredients to take your long exposure photography to the next level. Let’s summarize the steps needed to get an amazing long expo photos:
- Research your location and do some scouting. Planning is very important for deciding your composition.
- Arrive on time. Be on location at least 30 minutes before you the good light comes out. A lot of variables could force you to change your position and you don’t want to miss the best light.
- Know the weather condition. Make sure that you won’t finish in the middle of a storm, but also that the sky is totally cloudless or it will result in a boring photo.
- Use a tripod, or the entire image will be blurred.
- Once you’ve composed your image, you can lock the focus.
- At this point you can set your exposure. Set your camera to priority aperture so that it will choose the correct shutter speed fo you.
- Take a test shot. You have your composition, your camera is on a tripod, the light is getting more interesting as sunrise or sunset get closer and you can start snapping a couple of shots as a test.
- Put a filter on. After your test shots put a filter on, this will stop the light from hitting the sensor and the camera will further decrease the shutter speed. Resulting in an even more blurred and smooth water.
- Take your final long exposure shot.
Take it a step further
You can now harness the power of bulb mode in your camera. This way you’ll take over the time limit of thirty seconds of your camera. In this mode you need to set the shutter speed and to do so you will need to compensate by the number of stops introduced by the filter. A 10 stops filter would get a shutter speed of around 60 seconds, if your test shot was at 1/15th of a second. Check this chart or use this app to see the values and avoid going crazy with the maths all the time. If you now check the histogram you should see approximately the same graph as before. Well done young Padawan!
If you want to know more about what camera I use go to my article Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II the Most Comprehensive Review
Share your Photo!
Go!, Grab your camera, lenses and filters and go to have fun, practicing in the field. Don’t forget to share your final images and if you need help feel free to ask me any questions. Write it down in the comments below!