Long exposure photography requires equal parts planning, patience and luck. It can be frustrating, what with waiting to see how photos turn out, fumbling with unwieldy tripods and trying to make blurred images look intentional rather than accidental. But it can also be extremely rewarding. The waiting usually pays off; the tripods end up being extremely useful; even the accidentally blurred images can end up looking artistic. Long exposure photography comes in many forms, from shorter exposures of 1/30 or 1/60 of a second to exposures as long as 30 minutes to an hour. It all depends on what you’re shooting, the action being captured and how much of a blur you want to create.
A great way to ease into the art of long exposures is through street photography. This doesn’t require a tripod, and can be done anywhere there are people walking or biking past. Find a busy street, ideally somewhere with a compelling backdrop (colorful graffiti on a wall, interesting architecture or a beautiful nature scene are all good options). Set your shutter speed to 1/30 – 1/100 of a second. This is where trial and error will come into play. If the subjects are moving more slowly (an elderly couple on an afternoon walk, for example), the shutter speed will also need to be slower to blur their movement.
Hand holding the camera at a low shutter speed (anything below 1/60 of a second) can cause unintentional blur or a softness to the image due to the movement of your body and hands. To rectify this, create a tripod with your body by leaning against a wall and tucking in your arms and elbows to reduce shutter shake. Hold your breathe when you snap the photo. Increase the shutter speed between 1/60 and 1/100 for faster moving subjects, like people on bikes. The slower the shutter, the more ghost-like the figures will appear. The faster the shutter, the more solid.
Sports and action photography are other wonderful opportunities to experiment with longer exposures. Incorporating long exposures into sports photography can create a more interesting and artistic feel to what are usually straightforward, and dare I say, boring images. This also doesn’t require a tripod because the action is happening fast enough that hand holding the camera should be just fine. Blur the legs of a group of sprinters by setting the shutter speed to around 1/125 of a second (again, this is where trial and error will come in). Follow the sprinters with your camera and keep the camera moving as you take the shot to blur out the background and keep the subjects in focus.
Long exposure sports photography works best when there’s either one subject completing a specific action, or a group of subjects repeating the same action (a basketball player shooting a freethrow, for example, or a group of bikers racing past). Long exposure shots of multiple players doing different actions, like a group of soccer players on a field, can turn out messy and confusing. You can also try these same techniques with shots of wildlife.
Create compelling and personal portraits with the help of a slow shutter speed. This is when a tripod will come in handy, and, again, more trial and error. Place the camera on a tripod in front of the subject and experiment with setting the shutter speed to anywhere between 1/30 of a second to 1 or 2 full seconds. Instruct the subject to move their head and body in different ways: shaking their head back and forth or up and down, sitting down then slowly standing up, or spinning with a dress or cloak. There’s no limit to the possibilities of incorporating long exposure into portrait photography. Practice on yourself to create interesting self portraits, or ask a friend to be your guinea pig.
Take your long exposure skills to the sky and experiment with star point photos. This will also require a tripod, as well as a strong flashlight. Point the flashlight at something at least 30 feet away and focus on that point. Then, switch the focus to manual so that when the camera is pointing into the dark sky, the lens won’t struggle to find something to focus on because it will already be focused at infinity. Find a compelling composition, ideally something with more sky than land, and start the trial and error process.
Make sure the aperture is as wide open as possible to let in as much light as possible. The ISO will also need to be fairly high (usually at least around 1000) to accommodate for the lack of natural light. Take a few different shots at 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 seconds, changing the ISO to accommodate for the length of the exposure. The shorter the exposure, the higher the ISO will need to be to make up for the lower amount of light coming into the camera. Be careful shooting for longer than 30 seconds because as the Earth rotates, the stars will start to blur into lines and will no longer be clear, sharp points.
To accentuate the path of the stars across the sky as the Earth rotates below, set the shutter to bulb, and using either a shutter release cable or a wireless remote, leave the shutter open for 5, 10, 15 and 30 minutes. Every time the shutter speed doubles, the ISO can be reduced in half to decrease the noise or graininess of the photo. Star trails require a lot of patience – after the exposure is finished, the camera has to process the images for as long as the shutter was open. This means a 15-minute exposure can’t be viewed until 30 minutes after the shutter is clicked, a 30-minute exposure can’t be viewed until after an hour, and so on. But the waiting will pay off. Star trail images are some of the most incredible examples of nature photography and are also a great way to get into space photography.
At times, long exposure photography can be maddening. After an hour and a half of standing in the cold, waiting for your second attempt of a star trail image to come out, and realizing that you forgot to change the ISO to adjust for the longer shutter speed, you might want to rip your hair out. But that’s also the beauty of it. Not knowing how the images will turn out and having to experiment with the settings and the subjects will give you a greater appreciation for what your camera can do, and what you can do with your camera.