Long exposure images might look like they’re complex, but when it comes down to it, the process of getting a great long exposure image really isn’t that different from the process of getting a great traditional image. All you need is an eye for composition, a few interesting elements in the scene, and, of course, the right gear!
In this quick guide, we offer up three tips that will help you improve the quality of your long exposures.
Visualization is Key
Some photographers that are new to long exposures get to their preferring shoot location and immediately set up their camera on a tripod. Though you definitely need a tripod, it isn’t necessary to set it up the instant you get there.
Instead, walk around the scene and check for possible compositions with your camera. Remember, the first vantage point you see may or may not be the best one for the image you want to take, so giving yourself a few moments to examine the area can result in a better image. Remember as well that the way you see the scene with the naked eye will not be how it’s rendered in a long exposure, meaning, elements will move as your shutter is open, so it’s imperative to look around for things that can indicate motion in the shot.
The Weather Matters (and So Does Action)
The most pleasing long exposure images typically occur when there is movement of some sort, including weather events that add interest to the shot over the course of an extended exposure. For example, if there are no clouds, the sky might look lifeless and boring. If the scene doesn’t have a creek, stream, coastline, or waterfall, there won’t be anything to indicate movement (and therefore, there won’t be much of a need for a long exposure).
In fact, one of the best times to create a long exposure is during a storm. Looking at the image above, you can see how the texture of the clouds creates a dynamic sky while the blurred movement of the water gives the scene the action it needs to have more depth and dimension. Though the image would have been successful without the dramatic sky, the added element of the weather gives the photo a greater visual appeal.
Get Outfitted for Long Exposures
The greatest asset you can have in your camera bag when you’re setting out to take long exposures is a set of neutral density (ND) filters that allows you to capture movement and create the ethereal images like you see throughout this article.
The reason why you can slow down your shutter and capture that movement without getting a vastly overexposed image is because a ND filter decreases the light that enters your lens. As a consequence, with a ND filter, you can extend your shutter speeds to seconds or even minutes, even during the daytime.
The stopping power of a ND filter varies. For example, a 3-stop filter might allow you to open up the aperture during the daytime to get a shallow depth of field for a portrait, whereas a 6-stop filter might allow you to blur the movement of a fast-moving river. Step up to a 10-stop ND filter and you can dial in shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds to get a lot of implied motion in your images.
Better still, ND filters can be stacked to get greater light-stopping power. For example, if you have a 6-stop and a 10-stop ND filter, you can stack them on top of one another to get enough light stoppage to create exposures that last 5-6 minutes or longer, even on a bright, sunny day.
To get outfitted with each of the ND filters listed above, consider the Long Exposure Filter Kit #1, Joel Tjintjelaar Signature Edition from Formatt-Hitech. The combination of a 3, 6, 9, and 10 stop ND filters gives you all sorts of flexibility regarding the shutter speeds and apertures you can use in varying lighting conditions. The Joel Tjintjelaar Signature Edition comes in two versions - one with the SuperSlim circular Firecrest filters, a 100mm Firecrest ND, a holder, and adapter rings, and the second with a 165mm Firecrest ND with Lucroit holder and adapter ring. That means regardless of your current setup, Formatt-Hitech has got you covered.
But, Formatt-Hitech offers a few additions with the Long Exposure Filter Kit #1 as well. You get an exclusive booklet authored by the filter set’s namesake, Joel Tjintjelaar, who is world-renowned for his long exposure photography. There is also a handy long exposure conversion chart so you can dial in the right exposure settings for the filter you’re using. The kit comes with pouches or clamshells for safely storing your filters as well.
This combination of a good set of filters, the inclusion of weather and action, and taking the time to visualize the shot will get you well on your way to creating stunning long exposure images. But, as with all things photography, you’ll need to put in the time to practice, have patience with the process, and learn from your mistakes (and your successes!) to become a better photographer.