Intermediate Extended exposure photography is special, it is unlike many forms of photography that have little required planning or special gear. There are no snapshots in extended exposure photography. It takes careful planning in order to take a photograph of this type that is more than just a blurry mess. The fun is found in the meticulous study of light and the experimental tinkering required to do it well. Here is the gear you need and some tips to make your forays into extended exposure photography successful.
Get the Gear
Extended exposure photography is one niche which requires you to have a special set of equipment to successfully do it well. While the makers of the iPhone boast its capability to capture extended exposure photographs, if you have serious interest you should beef up up your gear.
The very first piece of gear you will need is a camera that allows you to set a relatively long exposure time. If you are planning to do night time extended exposures in low light situations, your camera needs to have the bulb mode feature. Bulb mode holds the shutter open until you press the shutter again to close it. Most DSLR cameras have this feature. but not a lot of point and shoot cameras do.
Next, you will definitely need a tripod. Without a tripod, micro-movements such as your hand shake and even the movement caused by breathing in and out will create the wrong kind of blur. Of course, extended exposure photography is most often used to exaggerate movement and show motion, but motion blur should only occur in the way you want it to. The best way to achieve that is to control the environment to the best of your abilities starting with a tripod. Light weight tripods are readily available and start anywhere from $15, although I recommend you purchase one at around $50. Cheap tripods don't provide the stability you will need for extended exposures.
Another piece of gear that will help to reduce unwanted blur is a remote for your shutter. When purchasing, make sure to buy one that supports bulb mode. We will go over why it’s important later. The trigger will remotely switch the shutter on and off, thus removing the movement caused by your finger pushing in the shutter button.
Different photographers swear by different lenses for extended exposures but I typically choose a wide angle lens to capture as much of the scene as I possibly can. The wider the better. Regardless of the focal length you select, you will need a clean lens that is free of dirt, dust, and scratches which will decrease the sharpness of that photograph that is difficult to achieve sharpness in without any added variables.
I also recommend getting a neutral density filter. The purpose of a neutral density filter is to limit the amount of light that goes into your lens. A neutral density filter is a circular piece of glass that screws onto the front of your lens. All neutral density filters should be gray. The darker the gray, the more light is filtered out. Be wary of any neutral density filters that have a green, blue, or purple tint to them.
Neutral density filters allow you to shoot with a wider aperture and a more selective depth of focus in bright situations where it wouldn’t otherwise be possible due to overexposure. Photos that would be completely blown out and white across the board can actually be beautiful extended exposure pieces with the use of a neutral density filter.
There are varying levels of neutral density filters. The intensity of filtration is denoted by the number following the ND. As the numbers get larger, the strength of the filtration increases and less light enters your camera. For example ND.3 filters out less light than a filter marked ND1.2. Neutral density filters are especially important when attempting extended exposure in the daytime during periods of bright light. They can also be used creatively for other types of photography.
The different types of extended exposure photography
Now that you have ordered all your gear and are waiting impatiently for the mail man, it’s time to study up on the different types of extended exposure photography. When I talk about types, I am talking about the length of time the shutter is open.
The first type is short which seems counter-intuitive but in comparison to the other types, it makes sense. Short extended exposure photography is when the shutter is open for a fraction of a second up to 3-4 seconds. This type of extended exposure photography is most often used during the daytime to avoid letting in too much light and overexposing your photograph. This is also a good time to bust out one of those nifty neutral density filters we talked about earlier.
The second type is medium exposure photography. Photography with shutter speeds beyond a few seconds but no more than a minute are consider to fall within the realm of medium extended exposure photography. This is the category that those highway light streak photos which are so prominent usually fit into. Medium length shutter speeds are good for objects that create their own light such as the aforementioned headlights and tail lights. Please note, subjects that reflect light instead of generating it, like the moon and stars, need more time than brighter more direct lights.
The third type is a long exposure. Anything that falls between one minute and the rest of time fits into this category. This is used for situations where there is little light such as capturing stars in a rural field without street lights or other forms of light pollution.
Autofocus probably won't work especially when you are doing long extended exposure photography in really dark areas. That's because the camera needs some light to know where to focus. Extended exposure photography is notorious for producing soft images to begin with. Manually focusing will give you the best possible results in a difficult focusing situation.
Shoot in RAW
Unlike working in a studio with controllable variables like lighting and climate, extended exposure photography is typically done on location. While this can be a challenge when you are creating any photo in these conditions; the extended length of time the shutter is open makes it even more likely for something to go wrong. This is why shooting in RAW is especially important.
RAW is a file format that allows you to save all the data your camera receives and processes when you take a picture. File formats like JPG files are compressed and during that compression process they lose some of the details. While the RAW format isn't as easy to use as JPG, RAW formats are magic. You can easily fix under and over-exposed photographs and fix issues caused in camera as part of your post-processing workflow. Shooting in raw is an insurance policy for the time and effort it takes to plan and execute an extended exposure photograph. If things don’t end up working out quite as you had hoped, you can still improve the photograph in Photoshop.
Get acquainted with bulb mode
Bulb mode is a setting on your camera that allows you to leave the shutter open for an undetermined amount of time. Most DSLR cameras have a limited number of available shutter speeds. Very few of those are long enough to achieve the desired effects in this extended exposure photography.
Essentially you click the shutter open and it stays open until you depress the shutter button to close it. That's how you can photograph streaking stars at night light the image below. The shutter has been left open for over half an hour and the results were astonishing. That would not have been possible without bulb mode. Using this mode also takes some experimentation so turn all the lights out and use a single dull light source to get used to using it and measuring light in that mode, then slowly make changes to the lighting.
Practice with all these rules in mind
Now you have a basic theoretical knowledge of extended exposure photography. Assemble your gear and practice your skills. Keep your eyes open for new opportunities in which this special photographic magic can improve and inspire your artistic efforts. Once you have figured out exactly how it works and can achieve the shot you want to take, try something new that you don’t actually know how to do, even if it takes a hundred tries to get it right.
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