This is one of my favorite long exposure images. 30-seconds, f=22, ISO 100

When people think about photography, in their ‘mind’s eye’, they often picture a person holding a camera up to their face and snapping a photograph. That’s what I think of at least.

stock image

However, there is a magical thing that a camera can do. It can slow down time and make things look totally different than they do in ‘real life’.

If you’ve ever seen a photograph of a waterfall and the water looked like one solid stream of misty water, or you’ve seen an image that transformed automobiles into streaks of red and white light, then you’ve seen a long exposure photograph.

A simple 1-second exposure (f-22, ISO 100) was enough to cause a passing car to be reduced to streaks of light.
The waves were quite choppy in the East River, but this image was made with a 30- second exposure, f=22 and ISO 100. The long exposure smoothed the water.
Same location, different angle. Here a few exposures were combined in a long exposure HDR image. HDR images were discussed in a previous post here.

In the image above, the water looks smooth because of the slow shutter speed. The water was indeed choppy as seen in this image of me…. taking the above image.

Photo by Ashley Wolfe

The question you may have is;  “How did they do that?”

The good news is, It’s actually quite easy. It takes some forethought, of course, and a few extra tools that a quick snapshot don’t require.

First, you’ll NEED a steady tripod. Sometimes you can get by in other types of photography, but with a long exposure, you must use it. A remote shutter release would also be helpful. Wired is fine, but wireless would be even better.

Put your camera in ‘M’ (manual) mode.  Set the ISO to 100 (or the best quality setting you can). Stop down the aperture of your lens to its smallest (slowest) setting. Remember, the smaller the ‘f’ number the larger the lens opening, the larger the number, the smaller the lens opening. I know, it’s backwards, but you’ll get used to it.  Most lenses will stop down to f=22 (some will go even slower, but f=22 is slow enough).

This image was made with a 15 second exposure, again f=22 and ISO 100.

In manual mode (‘M’) most cameras will allow you to shoot an image length of 30 seconds.

It doesn’t always take a super long exposure to get motion in an image. For example, the image below was only a 1.0 second shutter speed, f=9.0 and ISO 1600. As the sun was setting, there was very little light, the resulted in the need to ‘open up’ the aperture and increase the ISO to get a usable image. At ISO 100 and f-22, the shutter speed would have been so slow that there wouldn’t have been a streetcar visible in the image at all!

St. Charles streetcar streaking by. f=9, 1 second shutter speed, ISO 1600
Long exposure photography is great for fireworks, this was a 16 second exposure, f=18 and ISO 400.

For a longer exposure than that (like in the case of star photography for example), you’d need a longer exposure and you’d also have to use the ‘bulb’ mode of your camera. Bulb will allow you to leave the shutter open for as long as necessary. Using bulb can introduce some problems, so try to keep your exposure times to 30 seconds, for the time being. We’ll get into bulb in a later article.

Here’s an example of an image made in ‘bulb’ mode; 162 seconds, f=22, ISO 100.

You can see how what the long exposure does to the water and the clouds.

Not to get too deep in the weeds, because I don’t want to scare anyone off from trying long exposure photography, but it would also be helpful to check your camera’s ability to use “mirror lock-up.” What normally happens is that, when you press the shutter button, the mirror will ‘slap’ up to allow light to get to the digital sensor. However, you can lock up the mirror so that the ‘slap’ won’t cause your camera to shake when you trip the shutter (with that remote shutter release – right?)  LOL

If you want to take your photographs to the ‘next level’, I’m not a big fan of that term, but it’s so commonplace, give long exposure photography a try. Experiment, play around with different settings. You’ll quickly find what works and what doesn’t. That’s the advantage of digital photography – you can see what you’re getting and make adjustments on the fly.

Long exposure images can work wonders on water AND clouds. In this 30-second, f=22, ISO 100 image, the clouds appear as streaks across the sky!

Give long exposure photography a try!

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