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So, probably you’ve seen famous youtubers or photographers take their cameras to prop ’em up on tripods and wait for a long time to take a picture. Being intrigued, you googled and learned that it was long exposure photography. It’s not too difficult to get into or even take amazing pictures without having mastered the art. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the world of long exposure photography.
This article on long exposure photography focuses mainly on using a DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera for this purpose. However, if you have an Apple, or Google, or any other high-end phone, stunning results can be obtained by using Night mode or the pro mode which unlocks functionalities similar to a high-end digital camera. So stick around cause even if you don’t have a high-end camera, the science behind taking these photos remains the same.
Before we begin with the core ideas for long exposure photography, here are some things you should keep in mind.
The first thing we need is a tripod. Without it, few chances unless all your stars align, no pun intended. For achieving the best results, grab a remote shutter release while you’re shopping for the tripod.
As a rule of thumb, you would like to use manual mode in your camera.
Set the shutter speed to the bulb.
Use a fast aperture; Use the widest aperture if possible, depending on the situation. If you’re shooting a large landscape, you already know you have to walk the other way. Generally, lenses are the sharpest if you stop down twice, so that could be considered, depending on the level of sharpness you’d want to sacrifice the amount of light hitting the sensor.
Use manual focus all the time; you don’t want to see blurry photos, your work.
Shoot in RAW, always. You left JPEG behind once you started reading this article.
With modern cameras, you can boost the ISO to reasonably high levels without worrying, so don’t always target the base ISO. That’d give you some room to work with in terms of shutter speed.
Now that we had the “talk,” let’s jump into the nitty-grittiest of different long exposure photography types and how you can achieve stunning results even with a budget DSLR or Mirrorless. You really can’t go wrong with any camera in this day and age.
Best Ideas For Long Exposure Photography
Seen those blazing trails of stars around a single point or amazing starry night skies over the arid Utah landscape or even a distant nebula? Well, that is astrophotography, my friend, one of the more well-known types of long exposure photography.
There are different types of astrophotography,
Night Sky Time Lapse
Meteor Shower Composite
Milky Way Photography
Moon Phase Landscape
To capture the wonderful night sky in all its shiny glory, take your tripod, get away from any polluted city areas and point your camera with the widest aperture; you’re looking at a lens with a minimum of f/4 aperture. The more, the better, basically.
Consider a wide-angle lens for astrophotography. Something like 35mm or wider, just so that you’d be able to capture more of the night sky and the accompanying landscape. Be wary of the fact that 35mm on a full-frame sensor. If you’re using other sensors, you’d have to multiply the crop factor to get the equivalent focal length with a crop factor.
For example, if you’re on a Canon APSC format, multiply 1.6 with the lens’s focal length to get the actual one. Talking about the actual settings you need to dial in, focus the camera at infinity, the best aperture. Try setting the ISO at around 800 or 1600, play around with the settings, see how far you can push your camera. The shutter speed you would use depends on your shot.
If you want to up your game, you can consider using a telescope in conjunction with your camera. These allow for deep space astrophotography, like clearly photographing nearby satellites or even nebulae far away, or the Milky Way Galaxy if you so desire.
Before you go blowing thousands of dollars towards astrophotography, remember your needs and wants, and how much money you want to invest, whether for your professional life or just for a hobby.
You should pay attention to things like the telescope’s aperture, its type, for example, refractor, reflector, or compound.
After you’ve captured the photos, you need to bring it into post-processing software like Lightroom or Photoshop, or Luminar, for example.
To learn more about this type of long exposure photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography
2. Silky Smooth Water
One of the most beautiful aspects of capturing scenes using long exposure photography is to produce natural beauties that the eye can’t capture. Ever seen those foamy, creamy waterfalls, or rivers within a forest, or with a sun behind to provide the ambiance?
Okay, here are the basic steps, but that doesn’t determine the quality of the photo you take; this is a creative field. You can play with the settings, but here I’m going to give you a good base to start with.
Use a tripod, of course.
Slow down the speed of the shutter to about 1/10th or slower. Now slowing down the shutter speed increases the amount of motion blur in your photo. It’s simple physics, really. The longer you keep your shutter open, the more light will enter, and for a longer duration, different photons spread across time carrying different information will hit the sensor. Hence we get a smudgy appearance of any moving object; it’s like waving your hand before you and seeing it blurry.
Since these fall under the domain of landscape photography, use a pretty small aperture so that the sharpness remains acceptable over long distances.
We use another thing during landscape photography, which will be very important here is the hyperfocal distance.
In terms of photography, the hyperfocal distance is a distance beyond which all objects are in acceptable focus or an acceptable level of sharpness. The hyperfocal distance gives us the maximum depth of field possible for a particular lens.
If you’re shooting some closeup and you need a wide aperture for aesthetic purposes, you might as well put some ND filters in your camera. If you’re not aware of their functionality, they allow less light to come in, allowing you to open up your aperture without blowing out the highlights, as we say in photography.
Here, you can read more to ameliorate your long exposure photography: Long Exposure Water Photography
3. Light Streaks
Light trails or light streaks are one of the most well known and most accessible in the world of long exposure photography. And they look the best, which is the best type of long exposure photography. Some of these are one of the best types of night photography also if you’re into that.
It doesn’t take much to get into this long exposure photography; even a budget digital camera with good manual controls will do.
Like always, you’d be needing a tripod, a cable release, and some warm clothes for the night.
For our camera settings check, you’d want to shoot at the lowest ISO if possible, or you can push it further depending on the capabilities of your camera.
Boosting the ISO comes in handy because more often than not, you’d have to lower the f-stop in your camera to about f/11 or f/16 depending on how much of the field you want to keep in focus, especially in wide landscape shots.
Otherwise, it is often advisable to keep the ISO at a native level for light streaks because, more often than not, you’d be keeping the shutter open for a pretty long time, so thereby we can lower the chances of our photo having digital noise in it.
Apart from that, use a shutter speed of about 10-30 seconds.
Now while these are good settings to begin with, they are not the ultimate ones. In fact, ultimate ones don’t exist; play around with these settings and find out which setting works best with which scenario.
Trigger. Wait. Boom.
Now to talk about some of the most helpful locations to bring yourself in. Find a crossroads; as soon as the traffic signal turns green, hit it.
Or maybe if you’re near a famous monument, try to place your camera at an angle where you’d be capturing both it and a beautiful car trail nearby. It is evidently one of the most overdone photos, but you can get as creative as you want with it. It is long exposure photography, after all.
Tunnels are incredibly good places, too, with the dark and light contrasting each other on another level.
Maybe get on a bridge, if there’s a sidewalk or a pavement for my fans of the Queen’s English. Be safe, first. A bridge perpendicular to a two-way road would be particularly interesting because then you’d get both the white streaks from the headlights and the deep red from the taillights. This would be very attractive in terms of contrast and composition.
You could even stand before a long winding road or straight as a poker-face long avenue to get creative with your long exposure photography. The undulations in the road would gracefully add to the beauty.
Airports are another excellent location for long exposure photography, with the little lights of airplanes forming enchanting streaks of light in the night sky, with them talking off and landing.
After all, bring it into Lightroom, a little tweak here, a little tweak there, you know, the basics. Et Voilà, your masterpiece is ready for the exhibition, or at least ready to be sent to your friends for a bit of fun.
Here’s how to improve your long exposure photography in this domain: How to Shoot Fantastic Light Trails
4. Steel Wool Photography
Now to exit your comfort zone and to set your adventure mode on high. Steel wool photography is one of the most exciting types of long exposure photography.
Basically, steel wool photography uses long exposure photography to capture the motion of scorching embers flying through the open air through the very adventurous act of spinning, burning steel wool.
These scorching embers glow very brightly, and as they fly through, the camera would capture beautiful streaks of light using long exposure photography. It’s a pumped-up version of trying to film the crackling rising embers of a campfire.
Since this is a bit more dangerous than standing on the pavement and photographing cars, you’d need to take precautions.
Wear proper protective clothing:
Cover your skin and wear long sleeve shirts or even jackets made from natural fibers like cotton and not synthetic fibers; they tend to stick to your skin horribly when they’re burning.
Wear a hoodie or have a cap or a hat.
Wear special goggles like those worn during welding. The last thing you’d want on a fun night is to have burning embers nestling happily on your eyeballs.
Try this experiment in an open place, like an open field with no trees nearby or no flammable objects nearby. Choose a cloudy or a humid day if possible to lessen the chances of having dry wood nearby or even parched grass.
Oh, bring a fire extinguisher, protect yourself from the interesting elements of the night, and extinguish unwanted flames.
Here are the materials you’d need:
Steel wool. For the very best photograph, you’d want the very best kind of steel wool. Steel wool comes in varied grades from 0000 to 4. Work on your math, but don’t go beyond 1; not going to work, period.
A metal whisk, with a rope attached at the end, to spin it with. Please pick up a cheap one because the steel wool would destroy it.
Get a lighter, a tripod-like always, and a cable release for the shutter.
As far as your subject goes, if you don’t want to highlight the person spinning the thing, you’d want them to wear black, which will help conceal them better.
As to how to take the photos, here comes the interesting part.
Attach the whisk to the rope or chain, and stuff the steel wool in it. Don’t put a lot, as a lack of air won’t help you get the flame brighter anyway.
Light the wool using the aforementioned lighter, maybe not the entire thing, but just a part of making it glow. The entire thing will catch fire while spinning, making sparks all around.
Holding the other end of the rope, ask your subject to start spinning it slowly, and then increase the speed.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re capturing at 10-second exposures, then you’d have a buffer of 2 to 3 frames before the steel wool burns out completely.
Do practice spinning the steel wool a few times before lighting it up, just for being safe.
Now to talk about the camera settings:
You’d want to keep your shutter speed between 5 and 20 seconds.
Choose an aperture between f/5.6 and f/11, depending on the scene, of course.
Choose the native ISO of your camera, or an ISO very close to that, to prevent blowing out the highlights.
Generally, you’d want to have a wide focal length. Something like 15-35mm would capture not only the sparks but also the neighboring areas. Anyways cropping is always available in the post.
Speaking of post-processing, it’s always a creative process. If you’re getting your foot into long exposure photography, there’s a good chance that you already have your preferences of post-processing, play around, and you’ll get the hang of it, nothing for me to add here.
Anyway, you can always get creative with the steel wool’s spinning as you can probably understand, this technique has been done to death. So, I would kindly advise you to work your grey cells and not beat the dead horse. You’ll get wonderful results once you start thinking out of the box.
If you want an even more in-depth information on steel wool photography, you can see this article, it’d help to improve your long exposure photography in this field: Ultimate Guide To Steel Wool Photography
Coming to an abrupt end, that’s been it for me guys, as always with any photography advice, read less, do more.
If you want to read up on some beautiful flower photography, you’re welcome: Amazing Flower Photography: 20 Ultimate Tips.