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What Is Bulb Mode? Where Is It Used?

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What Is Bulb Mode? Where Is It Used?

Your camera is so full of settings that it often takes years for most amateur photographers to figure them all out. One of those is bulb mode. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of your camera’s shutter speed settings, and it can help you take some amazing pictures of the stars at night. In this short tutorial, we’ll have a look at bulb mode, what it is, and what it’s used for.

Your camera contains two components that do the bulk of the work when you take a picture. The lens focuses the light, and the shutter opens to let the light in. In this tutorial, we’ll be talking about the shutter. Bulb mode is a certain way of controlling your camera’s shutter. We’ll get to that in a moment. For the time being, we need to learn a little more about shutter speeds.

When your camera takes a picture, it usually opens the shutter for a fraction of a second to let the light in. In most situations, that’s all the light you’ll ever need. People generally take pictures during the day. The sun is so bright that if you were to keep the shutter open for as much as a second, the resulting image would be completely white. That’s why we typically use shutter speeds that measure in fractions of a second. During the day, we often shoot at 1/500s to 1/125s.

When taking pictures at night, the shutter needs to stay open longer

Night time is completely different. The amount of light available is dramatically reduced. Without the sun to aid you, you need to keep the shutter open a lot longer. Otherwise, the resulting image will be completely black. When taking pictures at night, most photographers use shutter speeds that measure in seconds, not fractions of a second. More time is equivalent to more light, so when you lack light, you can almost always compensate by keeping the shutter open longer.

Most night time images are taken at shutter speeds somewhere between one second and 30 seconds. That’s usually enough time to capture the light from cars moving by, the light reflected off of buildings from street lamps, or in some cases, the reflected light from the moon.

How bulb mode can help you achieve longer exposures.

Sometimes 30 seconds just isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to keep the shutter open for minutes or hours at a time. That’s where bulb mode comes in handy. Once you switch your camera over to bulb mode, you simply press the shutter button once to open the shutter, and then you press it again to close the shutter. The duration of the exposure is completely up to you.

You might want to use bulb mode when you only have starlight to work with. The stars, although bright, are also very far away. They may fill up the sky, but they don’t illuminate subjects very well. Oftentimes, you’ll have to wait at least half an hour to get an exposure that’s bright enough to see any colors. In that case, you have no other choice but to use bulb mode.

It all depends on the amount of ambient light available. Cities are generally brighter at night than the countryside, so you might not need to use bulb mode when you’re in an urban area. The only way to truly know is through experimentation. If you can’t get a detailed exposure with your shutter speed set to 30 seconds, then you’ll need to start playing around with bulb mode.

On a side note, you can achieve some pretty awesome effects with bulb mode. The picture to the right, and at the top was taken with bulb mode. The shutter was open so long that it captured the movement of the stars across the sky as arcing streaks of light. Just make sure you use a tripod, and the scene will be still enough for you and your viewers to see the details.

Where can you find bulb mode?

To access bulb mode, you need to decrease your shutter speed to its lowest possible setting. Once you’ve gone past 30 seconds, your camera’s LCD should say “bulb” as your shutter speed. None of this is possible, however, if you don’t set your shooting mode to “manual” or “shutter priority” You need to be able to control your shutter speed in order to shoot in bulb mode. No automatic settings are allowed.

Be aware that bulb mode, depending on your camera, can drain the batteries. Always bring a fresh battery with you on those long nighttime photography sessions, or you’ll be coming home sorry after you’ve just wasted 20 minutes attempting to take a picture. In some cases, the length of your exposure can be completely determined by the extent to which your camera drains the battery in bulb mode. To get a longer exposure, you might need a new camera or a bigger battery.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. If you have any more questions about bulb mode and super extended exposures, let me know by leaving a comment below or sending me an email. I’d also love to see the results of some of your experiments with bulb mode.

Happy shooting!

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (26)

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  1. Pragyan Sharma says:

    Hi, I have found the bulb mode in my canon EOS 1200D but I am unable to use it…. determine the exposure from above 30 sec. It clicks like usual fast shutter speed with dark pictures in result.

    • Hi Pragya,

      With Canon cameras, the shutter is held open for as long as you hold down the shutter down. Try holding the shutter down for a few seconds and see if that helps.

      Note: holding the shutter down for that long will introduce shaking into the camera. Stop that by purchasing a remote release for the camera. Some remote releases can also act as a push-on-push-off do you don’t need to hold it down to keep the shutter open.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

  2. jen says:

    Wow thanks! I’m not a photographer but get a canon eos t3 on discount on Monday, I want learn but is not that easy or find the right answers on web or the right tutorials, most of them are confusing to me, but yours was right on point.

  3. @Rachel,

    I’ve done a search and can’t find Bulb Mode listed on the specs for your camera. But to be sure I would check the manual. Search the index for Bulb Mode.

    David.

  4. Rachel says:

    Does the Samsung Wb2100 have the bulb feature and if so can you tell me how I would get to it,also do I need to have my camera set to bulb to take these kind of photos, thanks

  5. Nikhil Golani says:

    Thank You David!! :-)

  6. Yes, absolutely you can.

    David.

  7. Nikhil Golani says:

    One more question. I have a Canon 600D with kit lens 18-55 mm. Can I use it for long exposure shot?

  8. @Nikhil,

    No, that’s a myth. Long exposures will not damage your camera. If it were so easy to damage your sensor, there would be big warnings all over your camera.

    Night and star photographers leave their shutter open (and sensor running) for hours at a time with no damage.

    David.

  9. Nikhil says:

    Hey David! I read somewhere that long exposure shots can damage the camera sensor as it gets heated. Is it true?

    Thanks

  10. @Piet,

    No, the moon or a candle isn’t bright enough to damage your camera even on bulb mode.

    David.

  11. Piet Coetzee says:

    Sorry, I meant: Will pointing the camera at light sources such as the moon or a candle while using bulb mode damage the camera?

  12. Piet Coetzee says:

    Will pointing the camera at a strong light source such as a candle or the moon damage the camera?

  13. Naomi says:

    Hi,
    I was just wondering if it is possible to get onto bulb mode using the Canon SX160 IS and if so how would I get onto this mode?

    Thanks
    Naomi

  14. Subbu says:

    Do bulb mode affects camera sensor?

  15. George says:

    Yo!
    Bulb mode is easy!
    You either put the camera into full Manual Mode or Shutter Priority Shutter priority is often abbreviated as S (with Nikon, Minolta, Konica Minolta, Sony, Olympus, Sigma) or Tv (for “time value” with Canon, Pentax, Leica) on a camera mode dial
    Once the proper mode is set you use whatever button/dial is on the camera and you start adjusting towards longer shutter speeds.. till you get to the end which will be BULB

  16. @Frank,

    Don’t use bulb mode during the day. It’s only meant for nighttime, or dusk/dawn.

    David.

  17. Frank says:

    I’ve seen some day light bulb pictures, but when I try to do it during the day I just get a white picture no matter how high my aperture number is, what can I do?

  18. Sarah says:

    Hey David,
    First of all I just want to thank you for the amazing tips you have been posting here, they are way more than useful !!
    My concern is that I don’t understand the technical situation the bulb mode puts the in, like, how long does it take me to take the picture, and when its set to bulb mode should I quickly press the shutter or how does it work ? Oh and were you implying that my battery could ultimately be damaged cause that is way too risky for me.
    Thank you

  19. Xander says:

    Also, it seems that on my camera, in bulb mode, the shutter stays open only until the shutter button is released. Is this common among cameras? It seems to make bulb mode rather less useful…

  20. Xander says:

    I’ve just obtained a Nikon D100 from a relative and I would like to work with bulb mode. In order to avoid camera shake, can you recommend a bulb or remote control (at a reasonably low price) which this camera would work with.

    Thanks
    -Xander

  21. @Melissa

    It’s hard to explain exactly how to get into Bulb mode because it’s different for each camera model. If you let me know your camera’s make and model, I’ll see what I can do.

    @Elenora

    Choose the aperture according to the depth of field you want in your shot. The example images were shot with a high aperture number to ensure all the image was in focus. It also helps exposure as less light gets into the sensor with a higher number.

  22. Eleonora says:

    What is the most recommended aperture for when using Bulb? For example, in the pictures above, what aperture was used?

    Thank you!

  23. Melissa Evanicki says:

    Hi I was hoping you could give me a little more detail about how to get to bulb mode.
    Thank you,
    Melissa

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