Long exposure photography fixes time passing in front of your camera by deliberately reducing light coming on the film/sensor to get longer exposure time than normally needed.
Long exposure is often used for landscape and seascape, inspiring calm and serenity. But shooting them can be tricky and quite nervous. Indeed, you will often put yourself running in rocks, avoiding waves, with several Kg of gear on the shoulders! Praying several minutes so that no wave hit your expensive gear while setting and shooting force you to optimize your workflow in the field so you can work fast and reliable, and free your mind to find the best place and framing!
Long exposure photography is highly technical and requires understanding and accessories. During more than ten years shooting long exposure, gear and accessories has evolved a lot. I have used lot of different solutions along years, and will present you here some (I hope) handy stuff.
First thing you will need, obviously, is a camera. You may even add a lens on it! But not all cameras are equal for long exposure. You will need one that don’t generate excessive noise. Most of them have Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR), but personally I prefer using a camera that allow me avoiding using LENR. What does LENR do is taking a second shot for each exposure, with shutter closed, so it can subtract the noise of this black frame into your shot.
LENR can sound nice, but it doubles all your exposure time! Shooting a 3 minutes exposure will require 6 minutes. For each shot. Long exposure is often done at dawn or dusk, and lighting change so fast that it can make you missing several shots (not talking about aches…). Long exposure also requires some time to set tripod, frame the shot as you like, measure light, find correct combination of filters, then waiting for the right conditions (lighting, waves, clouds etc), and finally shooting. Waiting several more minutes for the camera doing its NR after each shot is really not something I want.
I actually use Sony A7R which sensor is amazing for that. 5Ds/r and A7RII for example, although more recent cameras, are worst at long exposure, generating too much noise.
Last thing to check on your camera is that it support BULB mode. This mode allow you to extend exposure time over 30s. You can let the shutter opened as much time as you want. Fire once to open it, and another time to close it. More on this later.
Opening the shutter for a long time means all movement or small vibration of your camera will blur your shot. You will need a sturdy tripod to avoid any movement, from the shutter itself but also from wind. When putting your tripod in sand, even walking around during exposure can blur your shot.
I’ve used for years a Gitzo 6x systematic carbon tripod, which has been great, but it was big even folded. Not so practical to handle in the field. It now stays in the studio, and I’ve switched to MeFOTO GlobeTrotter. This tripod is just amazing! Very small, measure only 41cm folded, very well built and sturdy, and you can inverse the center column to shoot from the ground. Easy to strap on your camera bag as well. And you can keep it with you when flying …
Anyway, there is many different tripods (aluminum, carbon, 3, 4 or 5 sections, different leg diameters, different features and locking system, etc). It really depends on preferences of each, but I would urge you to not go on the cheap ones. You will end up buying a better one soon, spending even more. Don’t expect doing long exposure without a good tripod …
You will also need a good ball-head or whatever to your preference, as framing must be very precise and you won’t waste minutes adjusting framing due to imprecise gear. I would also recommend ARCA style quick release system, as they are wide spread between manufacturers (it is the standard) and are rock solid.
Before starting the exposure, check that every single lock is firmly locked, on each leg and on your ball-head. A loose knob or leg twist can cause vibrations.
Finally, to avoid vibrations in the wind, I always have a Sand-Bag that I can fill with sand or small rocks and strap it on the tripod center column to stabilize it. You can find lot of different ones everywhere, even diy, the important thing is to add weight to the tripod for better stability.
Lot of tripods have a hook at the bottom of the center column. Anyway, if framing allow it, you will want to avoid expending all your tripods sections, specially the last/smaller ones. The lower your tripod, the less vibration and wind prone. You will also avoid expanding the center column. In such configuration, the center column hook will be too low on the ground to support your sand-bag, which will be useless. Personally, I use a string around the tripod plate to set the sand-bag higher!
Most tripods have screwed interchangeable feet that can be changed for different use. You will essentially find three types of feet:
– Rubber feet: best for strong flat surfaces. They are designed to absorb shock and have good grip, but can slide on uneven surfaces.
– Spikes: best for outdoors photography when putting tripod on soil, dirt, grass, rocks and such uneven surfaces. On other hand, they can easily slide on flat indoors surfaces.
– Big feet: these are large plates that are best for snow or sand to avoid tripod sinking into during exposure.
Whatever feet you have, be sure to plant them firmly in the ground!
- Neutral Density (ND) filters
• To get longer shutter times, especially during day time, you will often need ND filters. These are like sun glasses for your lens, reducing light falling on your camera sensor, thus allowing longer shutter time.
There is many ND filters on the market, of different manufacturers and density allowing different light reducing factor. They are referenced by their optical density, their f-stops factor, or their fractional opening.
For example, a ND 0.6 (optical density) is the same as an ND102 (2 stops reduction) or ND4 (1/4 of light passing) . This filter will give you 1″ exposure if you meter 1/4s without filter.
The well-known Lee Big Stopper is a ND 3.0, reducing light by 10 stops (multiply ten times your normal shutter time by 2). For 1/4s normal time, it gives you 256″ (4min 16″) !
Such ND filters are so dense that once mounted on the lens, you simply can’t frame your shot, let alone autofocus. You will have to frame and focus without filter. Better switch to manual focus, use live-view to fine tune focus, read camera metering, and put filter on the lens just before triggering shutter.
ND filters, even called Neutral, leave some color cast. One more reason to shoot in Raw.
• There is two types of ND filters: Circular screw filters, and rectangular filters, requiring filter holder and lens adapter.
You will find plenty of articles on the net, boasting merits of each other. Personally, after using 10stops circular screw filter for several years, I’ve switched to rectangular filters years ago and won’t come back. It means more stuff to pack, but is so much easier in the field. You can frame and adjust focus without filter and put them in a heartbreak without changing focus screwing something on the front of the lens. You can stack them, use graduated filters, etc … So much more versatile and easier. But, it is also more expensive.
A nice filter for beginners is the circular B+W ND110, available in different diameters to fit your lens.
Lee filters are rectangular high quality ND filters system, providing holders, adapters, accessories, lot of different ND filters densities, and soft and hard graduated ones. They also have different systems, to accommodate extreme wide angle lenses, or even compact cameras.
I would also recommend having a look at Formatt-Hitech Firecrest filters, available as rectangular or circular, like the 16 stops Firecrest 16! They are also compatible with Lee 100mm filter holder.
There is also some less expensive rectangular filter holders, like SRB ones (which I never tested!).
When using a filter holder, especially when stacking filters (putting several filters into the holder), light can cause reflections on filters, visible on the final shot. To avoid it, just get a black scarf with you, and put it on the holder (not in front ) when shooting.
With DSLRs, don’t forget to close the viewfinder shutter. If your bodies doesn’t have one, your scarf should be long enough to also cover it. This will avoid light from entering through the viewfinder. Mirrorless camera doesn’t have prisms and mirror, so just don’t care.
- Remote Trigger
To avoid movement of the camera blurring your shot, you can’t press the camera shutter trigger. And camera triggers don’t lock in down position, so you would stay pressing down the trigger for a few minutes …
The solution is a remote trigger, that support locking. Locking is the fact to press once to open the shutter, and press a second time to release the shutter, not having to stay pressed during entire exposure time (in BULB mode).
• Wireless remote trigger, such as infrared or radio, are a solution as long as they support shutter locking. Anyway, I would avoid IR remotes, as IR camera sensor is often on the front of the camera and both receiver and transmitter have to be in direct view to work. Radio triggers are a lot better, but more used for studio lighting (few support trigger locking). These remotes also have batteries inside, and thus can fail in the middle of the session. Radio transmission can also produce interference seen in final shot.
• Wired Remote Trigger is a small remote connected to the camera with a trigger allowing you to lock shutter opened like you need (with camera in BULB mode). You can get a cheap one, and it won’t drain your camera batteries. Also, you can strap it on your tripod, so you always know where it is, and never forget it at home. Something really nice with such remote is that once shutter is open, it is up to you to release the shutter. As lighting conditions can change a lot during minutes exposure due to clouds or sun, you can keep it a bit less or longer according to these conditions changes.
• Wifi remote trigger, if available on your camera, will allow you to use your smartphone as a trigger. Your smartphone app must support BULB mode. Anyway, this will consume lot of battery from your camera and your phone because of wifi, and I would not recommend this in the field! Long exposure is enough energy greedy yet for your camera!
• Triggertrap Mobile is an amazing and inexpensive combination of a wired remote trigger and a free smartphone app (iOS or Android). It includes a dongle that connects to your smartphone, and a cable for different cameras to connect it to the dongle. All controls for triggering are then on the smartphone! With buying just another cable for other cameras, you can use the same dongle on all your cameras. It has all advantages of a wired remote, but directly connected to your smartphone, allowing surprising capabilities. This smartphone app also provide an ND calculator, something really helpful for long exposure!
Update Jan 31, 2017: Triggertrap out of business ! I will make an update if I find something similarily usefull. Of course, this solution still works, but an iOS and Android update can stop it from working so I would not encourage to go this route.
Update June 8, 2017: Triggertrap is now open-source!
- In the field: tips and tricks
• ND filters reference: You may end using several ND filters depending on the lighting conditions, and you will have to calculate each time your shutter time with filters on.
When stacking filters, you will have to know the full f-stops provided by all the filters.
Something I find useful is to keep a reference of my filters f-stops directly on my tripod, near my remote trigger. Triggertrap ND calculator working with the sum of filters f-stops, it is a lot easier to set the correct value into the app without having to remember all these numbers.
Remember, we are there to take shots, not to use pure technical stuff with numbers everywhere Keep things simple and focus on the shot!
• NDCalc2 iOS app: This is a nearly free app (€1) that will save you lot of time, calculating your shutter time with ND filters!
Once you have registered all your ND filters into, you will just have to set your normal shutter time from your camera without filter (measured in Av mode for example), hit your filters (even stacked), and start timer while firing/locking your remote trigger. At the end of timing, the app make a vibration (very handy when you keep it in hand) and you have to release shutter on the remote.
Using NDCalc2 with a strapped wired remote is a very effective workflow.
• MotionX GPS iOS app: This is a cheap (€2) application that will allow you to record your track on your smartphone. Once recorded, you can send the track via email (on my photo dedicated iPhone without email configured, it works!) or get it via iTunes.
Once done, you can use the track file to synchronize your shots and GPS locations in Lightroom. Just keep your camera to current date time to easily synchronize both.
• Quad Lock fixation: For years, I had my remote trigger strapped on my tripod with a Velcro strip, and my smartphone with NDCalc2 app in the hand. It worked great, but was not satisfied handling the smartphone, letting it sometimes in camera bag, in a pocket, on the shore…
With Triggertrap connected to the smartphone, I looked for a small and robust way to fix the smartphone on the tripod.
For once, no photography accessories convinced me (too large, heavy, can’t fold tripod with it, etc…), and it’s finally on the bike side that I found a really nice solution: the Quad Lock system!
Before mounting it, try different places and orientations so you can still fold your tripod!
They have some smartphone slim cases or an adhesive universal adaptor, and different mounts (bike, adhesive, clip, tripod etc), all supporting the same quad lock system.
I personally choose the adhesive universal adaptor to stick it with an angle so the smartphone is vertical (or horizontal, you can mount it at any 90° angle) on the angular tripod leg.
The mount is plastic made, of good quality, and extremely lightweight. It locks very firmly, you can move from place to place with your smartphone still attached, and just have to push the blue part to unlock it. If you have a dongle/cable between the camera and the smartphone, just strap it on the tripod (not seen here for better visibility).
So I have now my hands free during exposure. Which can be handy to tidy stuffs in camera bag, or moving around preparing next shot
If you are interested in buying such system, here is a 10% discount for you
• JerkStopper: TetherTools are doing different small stuff named JerkStopper to avoid stressing your camera ports with cables. Apart avoiding damage to your cable and/or camera port, it also ensures the cable stays in and connected by providing slack in the cord! Not a necessity but good to have. You can basically do the same with some Velcro strips on your tripod legs.
Long exposure photography is all about great composition and good weather conditions. It requires lot of effort and time, and can be very frustrating if not correctly planned.
• You will avoid having the sun in the frame, so much light during minutes exposure would ruin your shot. So, you will have to plan sun orientation on place and know time scale for shooting.
• Clouds can add dramatic effect, shooting clear sky long exposure produce different mood. You will have to know what you prefer, and wait for good weather conditions.
• Wind make clouds moving faster, producing more blurry clouds on the final shot. With some practice, you will learn what you prefer and have to wait for good wind conditions.
• Tides have big impact on your composition. Always have tides planner, being on the net, on your smartphone or even paper one
As you can see, a good long exposure shot is not only some good gear and a nice place. You will have to wait for the good combination of your desired conditions. This can take weeks, if not months. I remember one shot that took me one year to get! I’ve gone five times on place with what I though were good conditions, but sometimes were not, sometimes inspiration were not there… Long exposure is also about patience.
- Preparing gear
Before going out shooting with all your gear, you should prepare all you will need in the field. You can even have a checklist at home to be sure not to forget anything.
• Charge all your batteries! Spare batteries, smartphone if needed, etc.
• If you use a filter holder, mount lens adapters on your lenses selection, and let sun hood at home.
• Clean your stuff! Filters, sensor, lenses. Check your tripod (always rinse it after using it in salt water!)
• Of course, take a few memory cards …
• A bottle of water and some food bar can’t hurt. You can spend hours running in rocks with tons of gear, sitting for a few minutes, running etc… Don’t be shy And if you are a smoker, please don’t forget your portable ashtray …
Finally, never forget that the most important thing isn’t your gear, but yourself ! You can buy all the best gear on the planet, if you don’t have a nice place to shoot, good weather conditions, and some inspiration at this moment, it won’t be of any help. Gear is a tool, the important is what you want to say!