The thing about photographs is that they're realistic. Except when they aren't. Have you ever looked at a photograph and wondered why it doesn't quite look real? And more importantly, have you wondered how the photographer even created something that looks that way?
It might surprise you to hear that you can capture photos with a dreamy, almost surreal quality with just an ordinary camera - no post-processing required. Keep reading to find out how.
What you need
One way to capture dreamy looking photographs is with long exposures. You can capture long exposure photographs in the daytime or at night, the difference is only in your equipment. To capture long exposure photographs at night, all you really need is a tripod and a camera that is has a manual mode. During the day, you also need a tripod and a camera that has manual mode, but the difference is that you'll also need a filter called a "neutral density" or “ND" filter.
A neutral density filter is kind of like a pair of sunglasses for your lens—it blocks out some of the light before it reaches your camera's sensor, which means that your camera needs a longer shutter speed in order to capture an accurate exposure. What does this do for you during the day? Well for a start, it can give your photograph that dreamy, surreal quality.
Now, the conditions also have to be right in order to achieve a dreamy look in a photo—a long exposure during the day is just going to look like a typical exposure during the day if there is nothing in the scene that's in motion. Ultimately, it's that motion that creates the dreamy quality, whether it's the motion of water, the motion of the clouds in the sky, or even the motion of windblown elements such as tall grass or the branches of trees. If there isn't anything moving in the scene, then that longer exposure is just going to capture the scene like a shorter exposure would, and you may walk away from the experience feeling a little disappointed.
How it’s done
So first, choose a scene that has some life in it—a windy day when there are a few clouds in the sky is a perfect choice, or you can go to a place where there is a lot of rushing water, such as a waterfall, a creek or a river. The seaside works well for this too—ocean waves shot at slower shutter speeds will render as a kind of mist, looking almost otherworldly.
To capture that dreamy quality in your photographs, first mount your camera on a tripod. You need to choose a reasonably dark neutral density filter—neutral density filters are measured according to the number of stops of light that they prevent from reaching your camera sensor. A 10-stop ND filter is going to give you the ability to shoot very long exposure photos even in relatively bright conditions, but depending on what you're shooting you may not need to go that dark. For example, you can capture a misty, dreamy quality in a waterfall at speeds as fast as 1/15th, but for an ocean to go completely misty you may need speeds in excess of several minutes.
If you have a set of neutral density filters remember that you can also stack them, or place one on top of another to create especially dark conditions, which will allow you to achieve even slower shutter speeds. Generally speaking the longer the shutter speed the blurrier those moving elements will become.
Untitled by Flickr user SyamAstro (500,000 views - thank you!)
Because clouds move much more slowly than water does, you'll need a longer shutter speed in order to capture blur in the sky. And that means more stacked neutral density filters or darker filters overall. This is going to require some trial and error, especially when you're in the learning stages. As you get more and more experienced at creating these types of images you'll start to get a feel for what filters you will need in certain situations and certain lighting conditions. The good news is that while you're learning you really cannot shoot too many frames, because unlike in the days of the film you don't have to pay money for every wasted shot. So if you're not sure, you can take a test shot and then make adjustments based on your results. Of course the one constraint you do have is time—especially with minutes-long exposures, you don't really want to guess wrong too many times or you're wasting battery life and your own time.
Now you're primarily concerned about capturing that dreamy quality and movement in the landscape, but you also have to think about how to achieve a correct exposure. And because you're working with long exposures, there may be some guesswork involved. Most cameras don't meter scenes with exposures longer than 30 seconds—after that you need to switch to bulb mode, which is the mode that allows you to manually keep your shutter open until you are ready to manually close it again. In bulb mode you need to time the exposure yourself, which means knowing precisely how long the shutter needs to be open. Fortunately there's a pretty easy way to figure this out, and it involves taking test shots with that neutral density filter attached. Set your ISO all the way to 6400—remember that this is a test shot, so quality doesn't matter. Meter the scene and then take a photo to see whether or not the exposure is correct. Check your histogram if you're not sure—it should be roughly skewed to the middle rather than leaning too far to one side or the other. If the histogram is skewed to the left it's underexposed, if it's skewed to the right it’s overexposed, although there may be an exception if it's a particularly dark or particularly bright scene such as the mouth of a cave or a snowy landscape, respectively.
Once you get the exposure right at ISO 6400, make note of how many seconds you used for the exposure. Seconds at ISO 6400 correspond roughly to minutes at ISO 100. Turn the ISO back down to 100 and change the shutter speed to match. For example, if your ISO 6400 shot was taken with an f-stop of f/16 and a shutter speed of three seconds, you'll want your ISO 100 shot to use the same f-stop but an exposure time of three minutes. After you take the ISO 100 image, pay attention to how much motion you were able to capture in the sky and/or the water. If the clouds just don't look dreamy enough, you'll need to use a longer exposure. If they're too dreamy for your tastes, you'll need to use a shorter exposure. Again, experimentation is the key.
What if you don't have a neutral density filter or if you just don't want to buy one at this point in time? You can still capture dreamy images at darker times of the day, for example, at sunset or during the blue hour, which happens just after sunset. The look you get is going to be different depending on the time of day, and keep in mind that you have limited time during the blue hour before that classic blue color disappears and is replaced by total darkness. While there is still some ambient light in the sky, you can get some really cool long exposure photographs long after the sun goes down, but keep in mind if there are stars in the sky you're going to get star trails in any exposure longer than 30 seconds. So if that's not what you're going for, make sure you angle your camera away from the sky and focus on moving elements in the landscape instead.
Go dreamy without long exposures
You can also use tricks to capture a dreamy quality in your photos: one really cool and inexpensive trick is to take a simple sandwich bag, tear a hole in it, and wrap it loosely around your lens. The idea is to have the plastic bag serve as a sort of frame that you're shooting through, which will create an almost reverse vignette look with softness on the corners and a sharp subject in the middle. Of course you can vary the amount of plastic that covers the lens and can even cover the lens entirely if you want the image to look completely blurry and under-focused, similarly, you could use the Vaseline trick, which is exactly what it sounds like — smear a little bit of Vaseline on a UV filter and get some dreamy effects that way. I don't personally recommend the Vaseline trick because it can be extraordinarily difficult to remove, and you don't want any of it getting inside the lens itself. If you're going to do this, use a UV filter that you don't really care about and exercise great caution when you're removing it so that you don't get it anywhere where it could cause some damage.
You don't have to go for full Vaseline, of course, you can also shoot through other translucent surfaces to get different dreamy effects in your images. For example, tempered glass in a bathroom, a sheer curtain—any surface that has imperfections or irregularities and is transparent is going to alter your image in dreamy and interesting ways.
Whether you choose to shoot long exposures or to shoot through surfaces to create that dreamy look, you're going to end up with some photos unlike anything you've ever photographed before. Remember that some of your images are going to be hugely successful and other ones not so much, so don't expect perfection in every frame and you will not be disappointed. In fact the few images that you do get that really look amazing are going to make all of those other discarded shots seem totally worthwhile.
- What you need
- A camera with manual mode
- A tripod
- A neutral density filter
- How it's done
- Choose a scene with some motion in it
- Attach your ND filter (stack filters for longer exposures)
- Take a test shot at ISO 6400 and convert seconds to minutes at ISO 100
- You can also shoot long exposures at dusk, without an ND filter
- Go dreamy without long exposures
- Use a plastic bag as a frame
- Try the Vaseline trick
- Shoot through any irregular, transparent surface
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