My love/hate relationship with long exposure photography.

What I love is that when the conditions are right the resulting images can be quite striking. Silky smooth water, windblown clouds creating dramatic streaks of color across the sky, all good stuff that requires long exposure times to capture.

But, and here’s the rub, I hate the time it takes to make them.

Rocky Gorge, Autumn. White Mountains, NH

First let me be clear, 1/2 to 30 second exposures like the one used to capture the above image of Rocky Gorge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains are not the long exposures I’m talking about. Anyone who follows me knows I love to photograph waterfalls! These aren’t the long-ish exposures I’m referring to.

The long exposures that I kind of sort of hate go much much longer.

Sunset, Memorial Bridge. Portsmouth, NH.

Is it done yet?

Captured at sunset overlooking the Memorial Bridge between Portsmouth, NH and Kittery, ME., this is an image I had to force myself to make. This single, 8 ~ mind numbingly long ~ minute exposure was, as all really long exposures are for me (and why I make so few), a true test of my patience.

8 Minutes may not seem like such a long time –

8 minutes to the mall, great!

Dinner will be ready in 8 minutes, awesome!

But when you’re standing there with nothing to do but watch the seconds count down on the back of you’re camera, 8 minutes is an eternity.

The long exposure conundrum.

Autumn Meander.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell – with a little bit of irony thrown in for good measure.

I am almost always happy with the results when I force myself to break out the ND filters to capture really long exposures, but, knowing how boring it will be passing the time while the camera is making the exposure, I often decide against making them.

Ironically it’s boredom that pushes me to shoot long exposures when I do choose to make them. That’s right, occasionally I get bored with photographing the same things in the same way all the time. So in order to alleviate that boredom I will sometimes resort to making really long exposure images. Think about that for a minute, in order to fight boredom I will do something that creates boredom??

Don’t worry, sometimes I wonder about myself too. 🙂

Long Exposure Nuts and Bolts.

How about I leave you with some tips for making your own long exposures?

~ You need a tripod. It’s simply not possible to hold the camera steady when shooting long exposures.

~ Set your composition, exposure, and focus before placing any ND filters in front of your lens. Most cameras can’t focus well, if at all, through dark 10-15 stop neutral density filters.

~ There are numerous apps available for calculating exposure time when using ND filters. I use the exposure calculator built into the PhotoPills, there are others as well. With these apps you first set the exposure without any ND filters on the lens. Then you tell the app which density filter, 3-, 5-, 10-stop you’re going to use and the app will tell you how long the shutter needs to be open in order to achieve a good exposure.

~ You need motion. For really long exposures there needs to be some motion in the photo, water, clouds, head/tail lights on cars. It’s the motion captured that’s going to make or break the photo. If everything in the photo is perfectly still, what’s the point of making a long exposure in the first place?

~ Clouds and wind. If you’re doing wider landscapes with a lot of sky in the photo you’re going to want clouds, lots of clouds. You’re also going to want at least a little bit of wind. Higher wind speeds mean you can get away with shorter exposures, slower wind speeds mean longer exposure times to get the same results. You’ll need to adjust exposure and what density ND filters you use to achieve the look you’re after.

~ Have a selection of good quality ND filters with you. I personally have 3-, 6-, and 10-stop ND filters in my bag. Depending on the filter holder you can also stack ND filters. With the filters I have I’m able to achieve as much as 19-stops of light reduction for those REALLY long exposures.

~ Bring a friend, a good book, or if you have one and extra camera and tripod so you can continue making pictures while you wait for the long exposures to finish. This will make taking really long exposures a lot less boring.

12 thoughts on “Love, Hate, and Long Exposure.

  1. Patience, patience is the key. [Being stated by a guy who used to play competitive chess as a youth – I think my longest think over a single move was over 30 minutes, so a 4-minute stand behind a camera looking out over a beautiful scene is /nothing/ ;-)] Another thing that can help is to have a second camera body w/ you. You can then scope out another shot (or take other shots) whilst you have one cooking over there.

  2. Love your images and informative post. I have been exploring long exposures myself in order to create those magical surreal images. I found your post to be thoughtful with good advice.

  3. I’ve never done a genuinely long exposure – nothing longer than a minute anyway. I’ve a ten stop ND filter and the PhotoPils app. think I need to go outside and experience these frustrations personally.

    I love that image of Memorial Bridge.

    1. No matter how good the cameras on our cell phones are nowadays, there are still limits as to what can be done with them. Long exposures are high on that list. Now if only I could acquire the patience to do it more often 🙂

        1. The Olympus system has a very neat feature for long exposure photographs: There is a way to be in bulb mode and as the image is being exposed it shows you /live/ on the LCD the current state + the histogram – no need to guess: when the image looks well-exposed and/or the histogram looks “right” you can stop the exposure. It does, of course, require you to (at least occasionally) check the LCD – and it probably burns battery like no tomorrow – but for sure it would be awfully nice to be able to get it correct on the first try… If you are interested in learning more on the Olympus, check out the YouTube videos by Craig Roberts (also on his e6 web site) – he is a professional that switched to it for the smaller size/weight – plus he loves the 4×3 sensor size (rather than the typical 3×2) – as 4×3 is rather good for landscape work.

          1. Ahhhh, thanks for the Info, really appreciate it. Will definitely watch the videos – great idea. Some ladies I traveled with last year had the Olympus and took some nice shots – inspired me to look at something different.

Comments and thoughtful critiques are always welcome.

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